I was determined not to have a midlife crisis. I had one. The scary part of it all was that the results lasted over a period of about 20 years. By ‘results’, I mean there were unresolved issues that hung on for that length of time. That’s one of the most uncomfortable aspects of a midlife crisis: you’re never really in charge of how – or, in my case, when – they’re going to turn out.

Not all crises turn out to have this degree of uncertainty about them: I remember the last relationship break-up I went through, for example. Once I heard the bad news, I gave myself permission to grieve uncontrollably for one week. After that, I knew I had to get back to the business of keeping my life on track. Tragedies are only train wrecks when we permit them to be.

The difference between the suffering experienced in a personal tragedy (like the end of a relationship or the death of a loved one) and the long-term effects of a midlife crisis consists in the difference in the depth of the inner disorientation that you experience in one as compared with the other.

The death of a relationship may certainly shake your trust in the predictability of outcomes in life, or in how you interpret the will of God for you, or even in your ability to weather such storms. Yet, the quiet desperation that accompanies a midlife crisis actually strikes much deeper: it goes to the core of of your self-esteem and your ability to have confidence in the soundness of your own decision-making.

There may be less outward ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’ involved in the experience of a midlife crisis, but, particularly in this case, ‘still waters run deep.’

Even in the case of guys who spend no time or energy at all in reflection or self-examination, everyone develops a set of suppositions and assumptions that ‘work’ for them. You have a general idea of who you are, what you like (and what you dislike), what gets your blood racing and what bores you to tears.

Explicitly or not, you have a vision of the way life, for you, ‘should’ be. Even if it’s a 9-to-5 job ending on a stool with a beer and a ball game in a club or on the couch at home with the wife and kids, you’ve got an idea of what ‘living’ means to you. For most folks, it doesn’t have to be a great life: even just a good one will do.

As time goes on, things happen to spoil the perfect picture: friends or relatives get sick or die, jobs are lost, kids get into trouble, financial crises come along. The ideal TV sitcom home life never hangs around a real home for too long.

Regardless of how painful events may spoil the perfect Norman Rockwell image of job, home and family, the ideal tends to hang tough in there through it all. “I’m OK,” the solid ‘guy’ tells his friends, “I’m just going through a little rough spot.”

Outside forces are seldom enough to shatter the ‘American Dream’. No, it’s what’s more likely to be going on inside that erodes the foundations and, more frequently than we’d like to acknowledge, leaves those dreams behind in a heap of ashes. Enter the dreaded midlife crisis.

In one of my favorite passages in a novel, Richard Bach, in his book, Illusions, presents a barn-storming, very reluctant Messiah who only agreed to take the job because he was given a Messiah’s Handbook that miraculously told him exactly the right thing to do whenever he opened it. In this last chapter, he’s in deep trouble, and he opens the handbook only to read, “Everything in this book may be wrong.”

Isn’t that a wonderful description of the midlife crisis? Suddenly the bottom drops out of your universe when you discover that, whatever life you’ve been living up to that point has been somebody else’s life. Everything you’ve taken for granted as the Gospel truth now appears to be up-for-grabs, and, as George Gershwin once wrote, “It Ain’t Necessarily So!” You’re left crying, “Whatever happened to my life?”

It’s no wonder that a good, healthy midlife crisis can take years (or decades) to resolve itself. The pain of separation heals soon enough, but when the core of meaning has been unceremoniously ripped out of your life, the vacuum left behind proves much harder to fill. In those moments, it’s a lot easier to define yourself by what you don’t want in your life than what you do.

You want to shake it all off, get free of it, leave it all behind and start all over again: this time making it your own. Only this time you’re going to have to answer the tough questions yourself. No more relying on other people’s opinions; no more taking the easy path; no more drifting along with the tide. The only thing that you need to know about midlife’s answers is that they’re going to be your own, and nobody else’s.

Feel a midlife crisis coming on? Feel like you might need a hand? Call me: it only took me 20 years to figure it out.

Copyright © 2008 H. Les Brown

H. Les Brown, MA, CFCC, ProActivation® Coaching, http://www.ProActivation.com , E-Mail: info@ProActivation.com

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