A close college friend texted me the other night, telling me she’s hitting a midlife crisis and taking a sabbatical from work. In our social 20s we would have had the luxury of a heartfelt conversation about Life. But in our hectic 40s, we cut to the point. I texted back: “Dude, I feel you. Me too.”
Adult life seemed mysterious to me as a kid. At some point I would hit adolescence, which would magically transform me from scrawny girl into freshly-minted young adult. I’d have a real career, see the world, get married at some point, and eventually be a parent too, like all the nice, vaguely distracted moms and dads I knew. In the end, I’d age into a stooped, wrinkly, mellow old person like my grandparents.
I’m 45 now, and much of that has come to pass, through busy, blurry years. Ahead of me is a long (I hope), undefined road between midlife and old age. After years of rushing ahead, I feel for the first time like I want to stop.
The parents of kindergarteners at our elementary school look young to me now, hurrying anxiously, carrying toddlers. The parents I see at our high school, quiet in the background, seem almost a generation older. Something happens in those years, and it’s not just age.
The 40s is a transitional decade. You can still hang on to the idea of youth through your 30s. But by 50 there’s no denying you’re in mature adulthood.
We don’t coast from childhood into young adulthood without angst. Adolescence is a tumble from the comfort of childhood to the exciting unknown of independent adult life. Midlife is a tumble too, except the far side of it is a whole lot scarier.
Hormones have driven some of my life transformations – adolescence naturally, plus four pregnancies and childbirths, and the bumpy recoveries afterward from those 9-month alien takeovers.
But the physical transformations have been simple compared with the psychological and emotional ones. The most profound schooling in life has come not from age, but from love and loss.
I had the good sense to marry a sunny soul who brings out my lighter side. I’m a much better person to live with now, but it took years of communication and compromise to smooth out the jagged seams.
Parenthood enlarged my heart, ushered me out of the center of my world, and made me a real grown-up. Watching my dad die from cancer melted down my entire internal circuitry. If love is an opening to a new world, loss is being forced to leave a world that is irretrievably gone.
When a caterpillar transforms inside its chrysalis to butterfly form, it first disintegrates its body before rebuilding into winged form. Humans don’t get the privacy of a chrysalis. We do this transformation thing out in the open, and sometimes it’s a messy business.
Change is hard. We either evolve, or we die un-evolved. Death keeps us focused on what we’re here to do. And the nearing prospect of it can and should be a galvanizing force.
I’m in midlife. I forget words, often. My joints sometimes creak. I have gray hairs and a grooved forehead and laugh lines. I don’t eat or sleep like I used to.
But I see life much more clearly now. The motivations behind people’s words or actions are so obvious that I am rarely shocked, flummoxed or impressed by anything that is done or said. It all seems predictably, understandably human.
I’m always telling my kids that life is a game of “Now what?” There’s no use stewing in what’s already happened. We have to learn our lessons and move forward from wherever we are.
There’s no trophy for the hard, humbling work of learning. If we learn, we evolve and move on to more lessons. But if we don’t evolve, we get the same infernal lesson in life over and over again.
We all get stuck in cycles sometimes. Job issues, relationship issues, family issues. We protest, lament, cry foul. Situations don’t change. Other people don’t change. If we’re wise, we choose to change the way we see and approach the problem. That overbearing parent, or boss, or boyfriend is not our personal jailer, they’re flawed human beings like everyone else.
The world is not conspiring against us. It’s telling us to make a change. Shifting our mindset is the way out of repeat.
Resistance to change is human. A voluntary transformation requires honesty, humility, capitulation and the hard work to rebuild.
It’s like the caterpillar – we need to allow ourselves to dissolve completely if we want to move on to the next stage. We can’t hang on to our wormy body and expect to jump to butterfly.
Capitulation is both the letting go of the familiar and the trust in the unknown. And it takes mindful determination to make the new form hold, instead of falling into the comfort of old.
The cliche of midlife change is that it’s about getting cosmetic surgery, or a sports car, or a new partner half your age. No amount of playacting can get us back to youth. Regression is the wrong direction entirely. Evolution is about moving forward.
Change is in the air. My little people are gaining independent momentum themselves, and my heart soars and aches to see it. I don’t know what’s next, but shifting winds around me will surely require an internal shift too.
Thrill-seeking is for adolescence. Midlife is the time to find peace and joy, gratitude and meaning, within ourselves. The answer is inside the chrysalis. Metamorphosis is about dissolving our many parts back to primordial soup and thoughtfully building pieces back together in a way that allows us to fly.