I’m well into the year in which I will turn 40 years old. Things didn’t quite kick off as expected on my birthday back in September, to be sure. The planned entry into nursing school vaporized when funds didn’t become available in time, and I must sheepishly admit to spending my birthday party lakeside and brooding into a setting sun. It wasn’t an auspicious way to mark what I have hoped would been a renaissance rather than a time of rueful regret.
There are rumors in the press that mid-life crises for my generation (GenX) have been canceled, and that’s just fine with me. I could spend this year looking back and enumerating the errors I’ve made, but that would be upholding a very unhealthy tradition of obsessing over the past. I’m working with just one central premise as I plan for the second half of my stay in the universe:
I’m tired of being weak and defeated.
Last summer, a friend wrote me a very pointed e-mail in which she said that many of my efforts – in business, in art, in romance – have failed because I don’t “project an attitude of success.” At the time, I was incensed. She’s a very successful one-percenter and I saw her remarks as a gross oversimplification of the laws of the universe (and an insensitive classist remark, to boot). It rankled my progressive ideology and activated a series of rationalizations that I now believe are very unhealthy. You know the type: the system is gamed against us, wealthy people fail to grasp the realities of the lower classes, and the universe doesn’t give a damn about our attitude (more on that later). You could say that the excuses arise from a victim mentality. For most of my life, I’ve seen myself as just a passive, immobile fixture of the world. I’ve typically responded to what Richard Dawkins calls the “pitiless indifference” of the cosmos with resignation and apathy. Without a god or any justice in the universe, it seemed like existence was something to endure.
In the preface to my book Eggshells & Entrophy, I shared my envy of a certain type of fortunate soul who isn’t troubled by the hardship or cruelty of the world. They simply “get on with it.” These folks aren’t poets or painters, I said, but people who get things done. “If you want to know the good life,” I said, “don’t ask a priest – observe a plumber.” I felt like I was cursed to ever hold the opposite mindset, rendered impotent and helpless by too much despair over how things ‘ought to be.’ I spent far too much time producing abstract sadness for myself instead of working on concrete satisfaction. I wonder, now, how much of the depression I’ve experienced in my life stemmed from this wrong-headed way of responding to the world. How much heartbreak would I have been spared had I stopped fretting about the capriciousness of life and just got on with living it?
Now, you may be worried that I’m about to launch into some tenuous proposition about the “real” meaning of life and the grand overarching dynamic that drives creation. Not at all. Nothing in my epistemology has changed, and to be quite frank I don’t really see any good coming from dwelling on the grand questions anymore. So many have dedicated their lives to following the seemingly innate drive to discover something “more,” and without success. For me, at least, the solution is to stop pursuing pipe dreams. I’ve spent the better part of the last twenty years looking for answers, a fruitless endeavor that earned me three worthless graduate degrees and an arrested career. While I idled away my time in philosophy, theology, and psychology courses, my more grounded and sensible peers made lucrative careers in business and science. The search for meaning as a vocation really is an exquisite joke. In both assets and answers, it leaves you bankrupt.
I’m starting to think my friend was right (when someone with a seven-figure annual income gives me advice, maybe we ought to listen). It’s embarrassing that, of all the things I’ve learned in some eleven years of post-high school education, I lost a fairly simple lesson from social psychology: that our behavior will change how people view us, behave toward us, feel toward us. Positive thinking doesn’t change the laws of the universe, but it does affect the people in our lives. Projecting strength and assurance makes people feel more confident in us, and their support can increase the probability of achieving certain goals. It creates respect. I’ve always curried favor through self-deprecation and even self-loathing. I’ve found that it generally earns other people’s pity, their concern and compassion, but…respect? No. Why would they believe in someone who doesn’t believe in himself?
I’m also starting to see the benefit of “radical acceptance,” a term that comes from Marsha Linehan and the method dialectical behavioral therapy she developed. In a nutshell, radical acceptance is the frame of mind that stops fighting reality. It acknowledges that good things will happen and bad things will happen, and most of both will be well beyond our control. Our choice comes in how we respond. But I also feel there’s a crucial next step that comes in asking how we can use the present reality to our advantage. So I’ve been asking myself how I can work within the system to achieve my goals instead of worrying endlessly about how unjust the system is.
My mid-life renewal begins on the premise that I will not enjoy the kind of life I want if I continue to de-value or immiserate myself with pervasive despair over the status quo. It means scrapping those interests and aspects of my personality that won’t move me closer to my goals. Of course, philosophy has a place in human experience and, yes, there’s a modicum of satisfaction in occasionally looking up at the stars and wondering why there’s something rather than nothing at all. For those whose joy is found in the search, and for whom other considerations are less concerning, philosophy and theology are enough. My goals, however, are becoming more concrete. I want to make a respectable income. I want to give my daughter more than a basic childhood. I want more pleasurable experiences and fun.
It’s a mid-life renewal. Of course, the sense of mortality at this age is a little bit more keen that it was at twenty, but that awareness is galvanizing. I feel compelled to make the most of my time, not to squander it with worry about the world’s many problems or the apparent meaninglessness of the cosmos. It’s a wonderful feeling to start believing in who I am. It’s pushing me to create a better me, with a new career (now underway), an improved and healthier body, and a personality that attracts people rather than repels them.
I know some of my readers are also approaching my age, and I welcome your thoughts on starting over at mid-life. Please share them in the comments below.