on 29 July 2013
I read quite a lot of books on this theme when I was in my mid-thirties. The midlife crisis can come anywhere between ages thirty and fifty. I had reached the top of my career tree at age twenty-eight and I was not looking for new areas of responsibility: something I should have left until early retirement. (And early retirement can be merely rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic if you immediately rush into voluntary work in a workaholic fashion. You're continuing your drug of choice - just a different brand.) The Church is particularly culpable in encouraging leaders to take on church roles in addition to their already busy professional lives. Would that the Church would encourage them, instead, to cultivate their spirituality, their relationships and their hobbies.
I identified with the author's `lead up': a loner at school, with many older friends, a workaholic seeking the approval of both God and man. Also, comparing fathers - if I carry on like this I will end up like him. Act now, before it's too late. With the knowledge explosion, everybody specialises and the more of a specialist you are, the harder it is to adapt.
There are similarities with adolescence but whereas the teenager can retreat into his headphones, the older man has to keep toiling to pay the bills.
The author takes up the Chinese character for `crisis' which suggests danger and/or opportunity.
He takes a psalm as typically expressing the midlife crisis: The man in the mid-life crisis who sinks into depression identifies very closely with the writer of Psalm 102. Whoever wrote it was certainly familiar with anxiety and was able to spell out in brief form some of the causes of his own personal depression.
Shortness of life is one cause of his depression. "My life is disappearing like smoke... My life is like the evening shadows... The Lord has made me weak while I am still young; he has shortened my life" (vv. 3, 11,23). It seems that all of us try to resist the process of ageing and death. For these are the years when physical health becomes an increasing problem, when the body begins to show signs of wear. Heart attacks become more likely, diabetes is likely to increase, and a tumour of the prostate may be discovered.
The writer of Psalm 102 is also emotionally stressed. "I am beaten down like dry grass... I groan aloud... I lie awake" (vv. 4, 5, 7). Unable to handle the problems of life, he feels like grass that has been trampled down and lies awake worrying. He is half way towards a stomach ulcer. The unresolved problems increase his inability to handle problems. In fact, emotional stress is cyclical and increases in intensity.
The Psalmist says also the loss of appetite depresses him. "I have lost my desire for food" (v.4). Preoccupied with his problems, he loses his appetite and food becomes unimportant. The King James Version says, "I forget to eat my bread." Weight loss is common during times of great anxiety, indeed a man's depression may deepen as he realises that he is losing weight. As a result, "I am nothing but skin and bones" (v.5). The loss of nourishment compounds the problem and further increases anxiety and depression.
Loneliness adds a further contribution to his depression. "I am like a wild bird in the desert, like an owl in abandoned ruins. I lie awake; I am like a lonely bird on a house" (vv. 6,7).
"My tears are mixed with my drink," writes the Psalmist (vv. 9, 10). Loss of poise, control and stability also contribute to depression. The picture is a vivid one. As the man lifts the cup of water to his lips, his tears drop into the cup. Broken and with his life out of control he sits in mourning and humiliation. Here is cause for further depression.
The Psalmist also says that he is depressed because he is mocked by his enemies: "All day long my enemies insult me; those who mock me use my name in cursing" (v.8). Success brings with it not only a feeling of having arrived but also an unmentioned fear that other people are waiting for you to fall. The higher you move up the ladder of success and achievement, the smaller the number of people ahead of you, and the greater the number of people beneath you who are looking for opportunities to peck you to death.
The Psalmist writes that humiliation, or loss of poise, control, and stability, is another reason for his depression. Here is a man who is sitting, weeping, in utter mourning and humiliation (v.9, 10). He is a broken man with a life out of control.
Next, the Psalmist lists the problem of not being recognized by the world. His life is coming to an end. He has lived this long and done nothing of significance. "My life is like the evening shadows; I am like dry grass but you 0 Lord are King forever; all generations will remember you" (vv. 11-12). The Psalmist paints a contrasting picture: I am a passing, finite, frail, dying human who has accomplished nothing, but you, God, are secure, famous, and everyone from generation to generation will continue to remember you. He has a short, limited life that will die off, while God is known throughout the world and continues to outlive one generation after another.
"The Lord... has shortened my life" (v. 23). A young man sees life as endless. Even though he knows that death will come some day, it will always come to someone else. But the man in mid-life sees death as an imminent reality. He realizes his days are numbered, and each time the sun rises or sets, another segment of his life has been cut off.
The human personality tends naturally to reach out for solutions to depression and anxiety. The difficulty is that the solutions he is trying are not effective, and many of the problems he is facing do not have human solutions. There is no way that the Psalmist can lengthen his life, avoid death, become famous in his own strength, change the mind of an enemy, or eliminate a physical health problem.
Some can change direction, e.g. Gaugin gave up being a stockbroker and converted from being an amateur painter to fame. It can be a risk to follow your dream - you resign from a well-paid job, reduce your future pension pot and then find that you flop in your career and it is too late and too undesirable to step back into your old career.
The author takes King David as an example of the man who wants to trade in his wife for a younger model: In The Middle-Age Crisis, Barbara Fried talks about twelve marriages of mid-life people she knew at a seaside colony one summer. One or both of the partners in the marriages were having extramarital affairs. One woman summarized what was happening. "Well, I look at it this way. There was a year when it seemed that everybody I knew, including me, was getting married, and now there's another year when it seems everybody I know, including me, is getting divorced."
Morton Hunt, who has done a great deal of research in recent years concerning the sexual habits of Americans, says bluntly in The Affair: "Many people cheat--some a little, some a lot; most who don't would like to but are afraid; neither the actual nor the would-be cheaters admit the truth or defend their views except to a few confidants; and practically all of them teach their children the accepted traditional code though they know they neither believe in it themselves nor expect that their children will do so when they grow up."
David's mid-life affair with Bathsheba is probably the best-known story of unfaithfulness in the Bible. His affair followed a pattern similar to the affairs of many men in mid-life today. "The following spring," says 2 Samuel 11:1-2, "at the time of the year when kings usually go to war, David sent out Joab with his officers and the Israelite army... But David himself stayed in Jerusalem."
David was a man at mid-life who was now too valuable to be leading the army as he did when he was younger. Joab, who commanded the army, encouraged him to stay at home. When victory was assured, David could turn up and get the credit for defeating the enemy (2 Samuel 12:28).
David had lived all of his life by his physical power. As a young man tending sheep, he had fought off wild lions and bears. When he was only a teenager, he had his famous confrontation with the giant Goliath. Goliath's sword, taken as a trophy after that victory, became the symbol to David and to the nation of David's physical prowess.
After he was anointed to be king, while yet in his teens, he was kept from the throne by the insanely jealous King Saul. For the next ten years, through his late teens and early twenties, David was forced to live in the mountains and caves, depending upon his personal qualities and physical strength for survival.
David's success after he gained the throne led him increasingly to administrative duties. Inevitably, this took him away from the physical kind of life and existence that had given him meaning for so many years. Here was a man emotionally "set up" for an affair.
Why do men get into affairs? Invariably, a set of circumstances sets them up, like David, and they think of the affair as a way to satisfy the discontent they feel. In the midst of a great deal of internal turmoil and dissatisfaction with life, it's easy for a person to think back over his life and remember the kinds of things that gave him pleasure and satisfaction in the past. A new girlfriend did it when he was a teenager. Why shouldn't it happen again? After all, romance dispelled monotony, emptiness, boredom, and depression. He remembers what it was like to look into the eyes of someone who was looking intently at him. He recalls the thrill of the first touch of her hand. He remembers how satisfying it was to talk to another person for endless hours. Certainly that same sparkle would happen again. He really believes what the story¬tellers and poets have been saying for so many centuries -- "Love conquers all."
Sometimes the man in mid-life begins to sense an awakening sexual drive. Some people suggest that this may be caused by some hormonal changes. Others feel that since a man is losing his potency and virility, he becomes a victim of fantasizing and daydreaming: "What would it be like?"
The strength of emotion a man feels when caught at mid-life with this passionate sexual drive is expressed by the character in The Seeker: "I had been beset with an intense and indiscriminate lust, a hunger for variety and possession and penetration that would gather up and devour all the women of the world. I had not acted on these impulses, but they had transformed my inner life into a venereal phantasmagoria."
The problem with fantasizing and daydreaming is that the more they are indulged in, the more they prepare the man for the affair.
The Bible tells us, "As a man thinks in himself, so is he" (Prov.23:7, NASB). The man at mid-life, however, rationalizes that he deserves a little happiness, a little fling, so he justifies his fantasizing as totally acceptable. He may even believe that by having an affair he will become a more effective husband and a better lover.
Perhaps the most common cause for the mid-life affair is a desperate urgency to solve the trauma of lost youth and masculinity. As one man said, "When I used to pass a pretty young woman on the street there was a sort of electricity between us--a message that I found her very attractive, and that the feeling might be reciprocated. Lately I have noticed that this happens less and less often. I'm still responding to them, but now, the younger women especially, don't even acknowledge my existence.'
The man in mid-life crisis is an unhappy man. There is a spiritual and emotional vacuum in his personality. Something has to meet the needs of this man and, most surely, someone will. Unfortunately there are women who also have problems and who are looking for solutions to their troubles.
The unhappy man in mid-life doesn't set out in a careful search for the best possible person to meet the needs of his life. Statistics show that he relates to someone who is readily available--hence the office romance. There is opportunity, a shared work experience, and a degree of trust and mutual respect. It is convenient to share common anxieties and stresses. The affair generally starts out with a simple sharing of problems. Then the relationship deepens and acquires a physical content.
Over the years I have counselled many men and women involved in affairs. Always there has been a vacuum, an unhappiness, that prepared them for the affair. Then someone has been readily available. The relationship started with light social discussions that became more meaningful as the couple spent more time together.
A dentist begins to spend time with his assistant talking about the work at the surgery and his own personal life. A businessman finds it convenient to talk to one of the women who works in his business. A neighbour begins to talk to his neighbour, and they share together some basics about gardening. A deacon in the church decides to carry out the spiritual ministry of helping widows and so begins doing some of the maintenance around a widow's house.
The list of people is almost endless, and the patterns are similar. Somebody with an emotional-spiritual vacuum begins to share anxieties and concerns with another person who also has a vacuum. They are drawn together in a deep, caring relationship that leads to an emotional and physical affair. Almost all of these affairs come about between people who already know each other and who have convenient opportunity to share their experiences.
David's affair with Bathsheba followed a similar pattern. "One day, late in the afternoon, David got up from his nap and went to the palace roof. As he walked about up there, he saw a woman having a bath. She was very beautiful. So he sent a messenger to find out who she was, and learnt that she was Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the Hittite" (2 Sam. 11:2-3).
David was used to many beautiful women; in fact, he had a harem of beautiful women living in the palace. Why was this woman different? Because David was different. David was emotionally prepared for an affair, and Bathsheba was available.
A distorted view of God leads to resentment. If you practice (though you might say you don't believe in) justification by works, then you'll see God as a hard taskmaster and complain about all the sacrifices you've made to please him and that now is the time `for me. I want something back.': The man in mid-life is caught in the Anglo-Saxon dream, even in his religious life; that is, God is a person to be manipulated to our own ultimate satisfaction. The man believes the goal is the important thing; the method of getting there is relatively unimportant. However, God seems to believe that the process of journeying through life is as important as the goal. So Jesus encouraged us to trust our day-by-day affairs to God, to live life one day at a time, to trust both the past and the future to God. Romans 8:28 tells us that "in all things God works for good, with those who love him." That means God doesn't avoid pain to accomplish our goal. He uses all of life, including pain, to help us develop our character.
At this stage in the mid-life crisis when a man wants to indulge himself and establish his own autonomy, he may simply give up on God or else follow a new god of his own making.
The author preached a course of sermons on Elijah which became a sort of therapy (often our best sermons are the ones when we are really preaching to ourselves - people identify with us when we are vulnerable): I found in the experience of Elijah some striking similarities to that of a man going through the mid-life crisis. Here was a man who had made a great spiritual impact and won a great victory over evil. As a result, his life was threatened. Earlier he might have stood his ground and fought. Now he was simply too tired, so "Elijah fled for his life" (v.3).
Then we see that "he walked a whole day into the wilderness. He stopped and sat down in the shade of a tree and wished he would die" (v.4). During the mid-life crisis a man often feels desperately alone, wondering what life is all about and even if it's worth continuing. I understood Elijah's death wish.
Elijah expressed self-pity. "It's too much," he told the Lord. "Take away my life I might as well be dead" (v.4).
God wasn't at all frustrated by Elijah's self-pity, but began to meet Elijah's needs. Ministering to his physical body was the first step. The angel came again with more food in order to build up his body.
God's ministry continued by helping Elijah emotionally. He sent him on a long journey, which provided an opportunity for him to walk in the fresh air without responsibilities, to unwind for forty days and forty nights. God sent him to a new location, new scenery, a new place for refreshment.
Elijah was still feeling a great deal of self-pity when he said, "Lord God Almighty I have always served you -- you alone" (v.10). Now God began to build Elijah spiritually. God revealed his power and
grandeur--a demonstration to show his capability and his specific concern for the man in the cave. God asked, "Elijah, what are you doing here?" (v.13). He now began probing the deep spiritual questions--the reasons for man's existence, to whom does he owe allegiance, whom will he serve? In these moments as Elijah stood at the mouth of his cave, God in his gentle whisper was ministering quietly in the depths where no one else could touch.
God continued to build this man and bring him back into usefulness by telling him that he had a continued ministry for him.
He was to anoint two kings as well as a prepare this young man for spiritual leadership in coming years.
God carefully ministered to all the life--physically with food and rest; emotionally from responsibility and a change of see quiet voice deep within. Finally, God self-esteem and worth, showing him a continued useful ministry in the years to come.
The message from Elijah's emotional a is that God really cares for us and that crises through which we go are just that--temporary crises in which we count on the ministry of God from many different so become people who enjoy living and enjoy ministering.
The author and his wife have gone on to write books about women in midlife and `Your Marriage Can Survive Midlife Crisis.' They have helped many - good on them! (He's a Baptist but not of the narrow sort. Other Christians and non-Christians can get a lot out of this book.)