Epistle 23. Posted on 2019-07-01.
A midlife crisis is the experience of a conflict with respect to meaning, purpose, and age-related disempowerment. It is an identity crisis that occurs in middle-age and results from the combination of introspection, reflection, and unreasonable judgments that seem reasonable. Many people do not experience a midlife crisis, and of those who do, many suffer for years before accepting the change in identity. This article describes midlife crisis and how to resolve it.
A midlife crisis is described sometimes as being an introspective and reflective period that focuses primarily on age, mortality, accomplishments, and previous goals. Some characterize it primarly with regret. All of these concepts may participate in a midlife crisis, but these concepts are unified here under the rubric of age-related disempowerment in the context of meaning and purpose.
Before midlife, most age-related changes are empowering. It is empowering when a baby takes their first steps, when a pre-teen becomes capable sexually, when an adolescent receives their driver’s license, when a young adult becomes independent financially, and so on. In the opening half of life, a youthful person is rewarded repeatedly in relation to age. When a young adult becomes financially self-sufficient, that person has acquired the potential to do new things, to explore new opportunities, and has become more capable among their peers. Each empowerment increases the potentiality of the individual.
Aristotle formally introduced “potentiality” (Greek: dunamis), and I will use it here as a shorthand for “potential causal powers.” If jumping Julia is capable of leaping two meters, that feat is among her potentialities. Potentiality refers both to possibility and capability, and applies to every object in the cosmos. As another example, sodium has the potentiality to combine with chlorine and mutate into salt, fundamentally changing its identity. If this happens, sodium has actualized one of its potentialities. On the other hand, if a particular sodium molecule never combines with chlorine, that sodium molecule still had that potentiality, but it was never actualized.
Back to humanity, it may be argued that everyone is trying to maximize their potentiality. Jumping Julia exercises to increase her future potentiality with respect to jumping. Increasing potentiality is referred to here as empowerment, and decreasing potentiality is referred to as disempowerment. One may opt to decrease one potentiality in order to increase another, but always with the expectation that one’s overall potentiality increases. People seek their own benefit, which is to say they seek to increase their potentiality. To paraphrase Baruch Spinoza (1632 – 1677), if the cosmos is God and contains all of causality, anything that increases its potentiality is approaching God in greatness and therefore goodness. But I digress, let us ponder potentiality in the context of a midlife crisis.
Midlife is often described as the point after which everything is downhill. Being “over the hill” is more than a metaphor. As a person ages, fewer empowerments are experienced, and are replaced by more disempowerments. However, it is often said that life begins at fifty, that reported happiness increases again after becoming lowest in one’s forties, and that many people experience less stress — which is the diminshment of an important disempowerment. Nonetheless, the tidal turn from age-related empowerments to disempowerments is noteworthy in midlife.
Physical changes are numerous and sobering. Hair grays, thins, and is lost. Skin sags and wrinkles, and faces drop. Metabolism slows as muscles vanish. And despite a better diet and increasing exercise, it becomes easier to accumulate fat mass. Teeth yellow and more advanced dental work is required. Bodily aches and pains develop. Men may experience impotence while women begin to focus on breast cancer amidst changes in hormones and the inevitability of menopause. Arteries harden and clog, cholesterol takes a turn for the worse, and blood pressure increases. Medical visits increase in cost and frequency, resulting in surgeries and medications. Reading glasses may become required to study everything happening to one’s body. The physical changes experienced in midlife may remind one of mortality, that one’s body is falling apart, entropy is the state of nature, and nothing lasts forever. These are not mere physical changes, this is mass-degeneracy — this is bodily mutiny. One often feels slapped in the face with the fact that one’s time is finite.
Death follows the same tidal pattern. As one ages, more and more people die who were known, not to mention loved. Some people experience a steady turn in the tide, while others experience a significant amount of death in their early years. But no matter the person, the longer one lives, the fewer the number of surviving friends and loved ones. Grandparents and pets may die before one is in middle age, and this is where most people first come to experience death. Every death is tragic, and everyone experiences and handles it differently. But when parents die, death has suddenly struck more closely. Who is next in the sequence? And around the time that parents die, most people have friends and siblings who die from a heart attack, cancer, or stroke. The more that one experiences death, the more one’s mortality looms on a horizon of murk.
When Fantasy Follows Regret
A midlife crisis is commonly described as being primarily about reflecting on goals, accomplishments and shortcomings, and culminating in regret. Each person’s twenties and thirties — one’s young adulthood — may be described as a time that is often spent pursuing goals, such as a career, house, income, promotion, and a spouse. In contrast, each person’s forties and fifties are commonly a time of introspecting about those goals in young adulthood. Of those goals, some may be achieved while it has become evident that others are unobtainable. In either case, new goals should be set. Some people experience anxiety because goals that were important to them were unobtained, while others who met their goals experience conflict because an undesirable difference was realized between the actual and expected outcomes.
The failure to achieve a goal seems disempowering compared to one’s hopes or expectations. The irony is that achieving a goal can be both empowering and disempowering in different ways; nobody said life is easy. Someone may achieve a goal, yet nature fails to meet their expectations; in sum, a loss in potential power may be tallied up, despite success.
Some people regret earlier decisions in life, and desire in retrospect to have made a different decision. One may ponder what would have happened if a different decision had been made; counterfactual outcomes are contemplated. Counterfactual thinking is especially dangerous because one can easily reach unreasonable conclusions about imagined alternatives to reality. Every such alternative is at best a fantasy, at worst a nightmare, and is always beyond knowledge. Diogenes Laërtius (Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, 7.81) reported that, in Stoic logic, a truth follows from a truth and a falsehood follows from a falsehood. Any counterfactual conditional begins with a falsehood, by definition. But more importantly, the cause of counterfactual thinking is the preference for a fantasy, which is to say an imagined reality over reality. Any counterfactual preference is contradictory, in the same way that it is contradictory to prefer the fantasy that 2 + 2 = 5, when in nature 2 + 2 = 4. The reasonable approach is to wish for a future state of nature that is possible, rather than to desire an impossibly alternate past or present. Counterfactual thinking amounts to living in a fantasy world; everything including any conclusions is strictly illusory, even though the counterfactual conditional may be true. Where does one find the advantage, the usefulness, in reasoning about an alternative to reality? Perhaps you may reason
“If I were instead immortal, I would live forever,”
that eternal life follows from (the fantasy of) immortality. But you are mortal, and so this thesis is impossible to demonstrate. What is the value of reasoning about an impossibility? You will always benefit more from reasoning correctly about a factual than a counterfactual case. And yet, most people are fluent in the foolishness of reasoning about impossibilities, and about their version of which impossibilities would surely follow. Reasoning from counterfactuality is insanity incarnate.
Introspection, performed reasonably, is valuable. But unreasonable introspection often results in unreasonable reactions to a midlife crisis. Such stereotypical reactions include a man buying a sports car and a woman getting a facelift. Of course there is an infinity of potential responses that are unreasonable, such as getting a motorcycle or a tattoo, getting divorced, having an affair, doing an extreme sport without safety equipment, and making drastic changes in lifestyle.
A common consequence of unreasonableness is to attempt to change the external world rather than one’s internal perspective. Montaigne quipped “Not being able to govern events, I govern myself.” This is the area of philosophical counseling. Each person has complete causal control over their own judgment, while nobody has complete causal control over external events. The word complete is used in a mildly technical sense to mean that the causes of judgment are always within oneself. Since freedom may be defined so that any person who is free always gets what they want, a slave is anyone who does not always get what they want. Therefore, to focus on the external event — which is out of one’s control — is slavish. If you value freedom, if you really want to increase your potentiality, focus on what you command: your judgment. Decide what kind of judgment you want, and then make it so.
Seneca would remind you that whatever you consider to be an adversity is not an adversity at all (see On Providence). Progressing through an identity change is not an identity crisis unless you make it a crisis, unless you desire crisis. Instead, this age-related identity change is an opportunity. Practice logical introspection, developing definitions of concepts, and use katalepsis to separate knowledge from opinion. All the while, find the good in age-related disempowerment.
Vale (pronounced WAH-lay is Latin for “Farewell”),
- ◊ Anxiety
- ◊ Definitions
- ◊ Diogenes Laërtius, Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, 7.81
- ◊ Introspection
- ◊ Katalepsis
- ◊ Potentiality
- ◊ Seneca, On Providence
- ◊ Stoic Therapy Blog