Age & Melancholia
The peace of mind we desperately want will not come from anything outside ourselves.
It seems that I’m not the only one who’s feeling the weight of middle age. In a recent Wall Street Journal piece (02/19/1), Stephen Kreider Yoder took his teenage son out of school for six months to travel in Africa. “I had a gnawing sense, at age 53, that my life was slipping away,” he reveals, as part of his justification for the trip.
And an even more recent article (03/03/12) explored the big upswing in gray divorces, the fact that the divorce rate for people 50 and over has doubled in the past two decades. I don’t think this is what our great sage, Hillel, meant when he said “If not now, when”.
Not surprisingly, the divorce trend “springs at least in part from boomers' status as the first generation to enter into marriage with goals largely focused on self-fulfillment.”
There are, of course, a myriad of problems with these two strategies as effective tools for coping with middle age.
While I’m sure Mr. Yoder bonded with his 15 year-old son (I’m less sure how it impacted his wife who was left behind), it’s unclear how that trip prevented his life from slipping away, whether he will need further trips – longer and more exotic to keep his gnawing sense at bay.
Equally obtuse is how divorce is an effective (never mind appropriate) path to self-fulfillment.
Ultimately what both these philosophies seem to share is the belief than an external action, in both cases fairly drastic although one less permanent than the other, will alter their internal circumstances.
This trip, this divorce, this “new life” will ward off aging and the melancholia that accompanies it. It’s almost a cliché mid-life crisis.
And it’s not that we don’t all feel what they feel. We all experience our lives as moving at an ever faster clip, the years flying by, our age creeping higher, the illusion of control fading fast.
We don’t need a change of circumstances; we need a change of perspective.
We are all frightened and concerned. We don’t want to miss or blow any opportunities. But I don’t think the work we need to do involves anyone or anything outside of ourselves. I don’t think the peace of mind we are desperately searching for will come from any external accomplishment or achievement.
We don’t need a change of circumstances; we need a change of perspective. We need to focus on being grateful for who we are and what we have. We need to learn to enjoy the moment and the blessings inherent therein. And we need to find the internal strength and calm to move forward through the second half of our lives
Part of the secret (okay, the whole secret) is to work on developing a relationship with God, a relationship that is larger than our individual lives and our unique time on earth. We need to take our choices seriously and make choices that matter while simultaneously recognizing our limited role in the grand scheme of Jewish history. It is both empowering and freeing.
It is always a mistake to think that this vacation, this person, this house, this marriage, this job would ever provide fulfillment. And it is a mistake to abandon these in an illusive quest.
True fulfillment comes from making thoughtful choices and being at peace with them, from giving to others and focusing on their needs instead of our own and from a relationship with the transcendent. It arises from the sense of our own Divine creation and potential, and from perspective on ourselves as part of an age-old people.
It’s tempting to believe that something new will solve our problems. It’s easy to believe that drastic change will revitalize our lives. It’s certainly easier to blame someone else for our situation than take real responsibility.
But real growth and real change and real contentment arrive in slow, small increments. We need to learn patience. We need to build on our wisdom and experience, not throw it out the window and start all over. The real choice we want to make before it’s too late, the real “if not now, when?” is to take responsibility for our lives and our choices and to devote ourselves to developing a relationship with the Almighty and His people. It’s the only path of no regrets, the only antidote to mid-life depression, discouragement and sports car purchases…