Will I face a midlife crisis?
Is there any way to prepare for it?
You will probably endure a midlife crisis, and it will most likely hit you harder than you expect. The good news is, there are things you can do to prepare.
In this episode of Signposts, I talk about how to prepare for your midlife crisis and what you might expect when it comes.
Listen above, and be sure to subscribe to get new episodes of Signposts as they are released.
Hello, this is Russell Moore, and you’re listening to Signposts: questions and conversations about faith, life, and culture. I work with a guy by the name of Dan Darling. You may listen to his program, read his stuff – it’s really, really, good stuff and he’s a great brilliant guy that I really enjoy working with. But his name is Darling, which means that there are all sorts of opportunities for people to sort of make jokes about that. Usually when he walks in the room I quote Conway Twitty – “Hello, Darling.” When I see him first thing in the morning, there are all sorts of iterations of that. I had a dream a few nights ago that there was something going on that was a Dan Darling dance party. And I remember waking up – “what in the world is that about?” And it wasn’t until I got into the office that I realized, “Oh, it’s Dan Darling’s 40th birthday on that day. So maybe that was sort of back there in my mind, and the way my unconscious interpreted that was a Dan Darling dance party.
He walked up to me that day and we were talking about his birthday, and he said, knowing that I had gone through the 40 boundary marker not too terribly long ago, he said, “Well, any words of counsel on turning 40?” And I said, “Yeah, it’s terrible and it’s all uphill from here. The next two years are going to be really, really bad, but it’s going to get better.” And he was like, “Well, thanks for the encouragement that you’ve given to me!” I was mostly joking, kind of joking, but not really. And here’s why I say that.
I know that if we kind of looked at the demographics of who listens to this program, probably most of you are very young. There are others of you who are older, probably not very many of you, who are right now having to face that question of a potential midlife crisis, to use the word – the phrase that is used often in our culture. But what I want to say to you is that you need to prepare. Right now, young man, young woman, college student, teenager, young married twenty-something, you need to prepare right now for your midlife crisis. And I want to say to those of you who are older people that you need to be preparing right now to help shepherd those younger than you through that time of midlife.
Now, the reason I say that is because there are some people who would suggest that there’s really no such thing as a midlife crisis. This is a 20th century psychobabble sort of term and there’s some truth to that. There are studies that can show you that the idea of a midlife crisis as a distinct, definable thing is largely that. And so I would have said if you had asked me about, you know, many years ago if you’d said, “Wel, are you going to ever be addressing the issue of a midlife crisis?” I probably would have laughed and said, “No, because a midlife crisis isn’t a real thing. It’s an excuse for immature guys to tool around in sports cars at best and at worst to split up their marriages with affairs and so forth and to blame it on midlife and midlife crisis.” I still think that’s true to some degree, but not entirely true.
And so just in the same way that there was a time when I would have made fun of the idea of, say, “the inner child” because it’s such a new age-y sort of trope that is used in some really, really bad ways. I don’t make fun of that anymore. And the reason for that is because after all of these years in ministry dealing with people on the outside and on the inside, one of the things I’ve learned is that childhood and adolescence really do keep showing up in our lives constantly. And that really shouldn’t surprise us as people who are Christians. When Jesus continually talks about becoming childlike and about the importance of the little ones, we ought to understand that and have some respect for that. And I also would never dismiss the idea of the midlife crisis.
Now in one sense, I would say don’t worry about midlife crisis because there’s an article in The Atlantic magazine not too long ago called The Real Roots of the Midlife Crisis that is really fascinating. But this is being written here by Jonathan Rauch, and he says that when he turned, say, in his 30s and 40s, he said the fog of disappointment and self censure was there, but that sometime in his late 40s and early 50s that fog started to lift, he says, at first almost imperceptibly, then more distinctly and by now at 54 I feel as though I have emerged from a passage through something. And he goes on to say that he was told by an older man, a writer that he admired very much, the following: “Midlife crisis begins sometimes in your 40s when you look at your life and you think is this all, and it ends about 10 years later when you look at your life again and think actually this is pretty good.”
Now there’s research to back that up. There are studies that suggest that that what we face sort of in the middle of our lives is not so much a crisis, for most people anyway, as a U curve. If you just look at the sorts of attitudes that people have about their lives and about the the world, there seems to be a trough somewhere in the late 30s and early 40s, and then you’ll notice that that starts to go up and up and up once you get into the early 50s. And so as people age, actually, the sort of attitude that many people would assume – “The older you get, the ornery-er you get, or the sadder you get” – is just not true for most people.
And there are lots of reasons for that. I mean, there are hormone levels that fluctuate and dip during that time that takes some adjusting to. There’s also sort of natural life pressures. Many people at that time in their lives both have small kids and aging parents, and maybe are juggling and rearing their children, maintaining their careers, and caring for parents that either have a lot of needs now or potentially would at any point in the future. That’s a real thing.
Beyond that, though, is there is a very real sense that at some point in the middle of our lives, we really do have a crisis. And I’m not using that in the jargony, 20th century sort of way, but more along the lines of what Dante said when he talks about being in the woods, in the middle of life’s journey, which is something that almost everybody who writes or reflects on a midlife crisis will refer to that opening there of the Inferno.
Why is that a crisis? Well, I think it’s a crisis because… There’s a relatively new book that I think is insightful in many places, even though I disagree with some of the sociobiology throughout it, called Selfie, talking about the formation of the self in contemporary times. The book starts out talking about, of all things, suicide. And the author says that suicide can be predicted most often by levels of social perfectionism. My life has to meet these goals, and my life has to be these certain things, and then there’s a failure or a humiliation of that. And what this author goes on to say is that every suicide is a failed story. Because he argues that people live by essentially one of two stories. People in the West tend to live by the story that he calls the Aristotelian story, sort of the story that you would think of when you think of the old Greek epics. You’re you’re on an adventure, you’re conquering the obstacles that you have, and you’re sort of moving onward and upward through life. And eventually that story fails. You realize I haven’t succeeded in all the ways that I wanted to succeed.
Or, he says, people live by the Confucian story, as he calls it. He would say most people in the East tend to live by this story which is, I’m part of this community, I’m embedded within a community, and if I fail my community, if I fail my family, if I fail my village, if I fail my people, then my life is wrecked. I don’t, I’m not worth anything anymore. He’s of course using these as shorthand, and I think to some degree both of those stories tend to show up in all of our lives, different emphases in different places and cultures and with different people.
But to some degree, we’re defined by both of those things. More importantly, though, I would argue as a Christian that everybody is defined by that, not Aristotle or Confucius, but that Adam and Eve story of what it means to be created in the image of God. And so God created us with vocation, with calling – “subdue the earth, take dominion over it, cultivate it” – is the message that God gives to Adam and Eve, and flourish. Go out forward and fill the earth. We all have that sense of calling in that sense of vocation. We express it in different ways, and we all eventually recognize that that calling is frustrated.
So when God says to Adam, “You will bring bread from the earth but you will do so with the earth fighting you with thorns and thistles, you will give birth to the next generation and and cultivate and nurture the next generation. But you will do so with the pains that come with with childbirth and then the pains of that snake striking at the heel of your child.” We have that sense of frustration that is present there.
We all realize the things that in my teens and 20s and maybe early 30s that were all possibilities for me. So no matter how bad my life is, if you’re living a really rough life right now as a teenager, you’re going to be able to say to yourself, “This isn’t going to be this way forever. It’s going to get better.” And let me just say to you teenagers, it will. It will get better than than that. When you were in your 20s, even if you’re really frustrated with your love life, or you’re frustrated with your work life, you’ve got all of this possibility in front of you and you think, “Well, things can get better.”
But there comes a point where you start to realize, “Wait a minute, time’s running out. I don’t think it’s going to get any better with my love life or with my work life or with whatever goals that I have have set for myself or have been set for me by my culture, about my family, about my church, or whomever.” That’s a very real thing. I also think that added to that, there is often a sense of regret that shows up in people’s lives. People have a sense of when they start paying attention and start looking back on their lives, there often seems to be an accumulation of things that leave a sense of shame or of guilt.
So if you’re in a sort of hormonal whirlwind of adolescence or your early 20s, it’s kind of easy to fool yourself into thinking the things that I’m doing right now aren’t going to matter. They’re not permanent, and I’m not going to think about them because I won’t distract myself with something else. But that doesn’t hold. Eventually we start thinking about these things, and there is a sense of often a burden of regret. And so I think all the time of.. one are my favorite poets, Czesław Miłosz, he wrote a series of 12 things that he learned from someone in his life. And number 12 is the one that stays with me all the time. And it’s this: he says that he has learned that in our lives we should not succumb to despair because of our errors and our sins. For the past is never closed down and receives the meaning we give to it by our subsequent acts. That’s a really, really hard thing to believe. Even if you know it cognitively, to actually feel that.
So a lot of times when people will either say, “I’m going through a midlife crisis,” or when you can look at them objectively and say, “Wait a minute. I think this person is going through a midlife crisis.” What’s at the root of that? Now here’s why I want to talk to you 20 year olds right now, and to you 32 year olds right now, and tell you to pay attention to this right now and start preparing and cultivating for it, is because every single week just about I’m hearing about somebody in my orbit, Christian, often pastors, or church planners, or missionaries, or others who are extraordinarily gifted and doing great things for the kingdom all through their 20s and all through their 30s, and then somewhere in the late 30s, early 40s, mid 40s they hit a wall. And you’ll see it show up in all kinds of different ways. You’ll have people who will just be burned out and exhausted and say, “I’ve had it with ministry” and walk away even if that ministry is vocational, whether or not it’s service in a church.
I’ve seen other people who have sabotaged their entire lives with immoral behavior, or with substance abuse, or with all sorts of things going on in their lives. And you look at it and you say, “Why in the world would you risk everything that you’ve built with your ministry or your marriage or your kids or your reputation or all of those, why would you risk all of that for this? That is nothing. And often what I find, if you really spend time with people, what I find is often what was happening was itself a kind of suicide. People weren’t ending their lives, but they were ending their calling that they couldn’t escape and that they believed was crushing them. And this was the way they could do it. I’m not saying that that’s a conscious sort of decision, but it’s what was happening this way.
Often, I will hear people in the situation say, “Well, I was trying to get caught in alcoholism or affairs or whatever the situation is. Well, why is that? I think it comes down to really the two fundamental questions of what it means to live a life, and that’s identity and inheritance. If you listen to me for very long or or read anything that I’ve written, then you’ll notice these two things show up all the time. Because I think they’re critically important to our understanding of ourselves. Who am I? What does it mean to be made in the image of God? What does it mean to be loved by God? What does it mean to have an identity that is hidden in Christ? (Colossians 3) And then inheritance – what actually am I living for? What actually does it mean to live a good and successful life?
And so when those two things are confused, then often what I find are situations where sometimes even really good things can end up being crushing and sometimes even demonic. So I’ve known, for instance, men who will talk a great deal about being providers and protectors for their families. Good. That’s exactly right. I want to encourage that. Provide for your family, protect your family. But these days, I’m always listening when when someone talks about that to see whether or not that is someone who is binding up his entire identity in being a breadwinner, to use the cultural term, or being that strong fatherly presence in a home. Even a very good thing can be used as a weapon against someone.
I will often hear women who are talking to me about being committed to discipling other people within the church or committed to the cultivation of their families. Again, really, really good. But I want to listen and to see whether or not this woman has confused herself with her gift and whether she’s confused her future inheritance with her success. And I think that happens often with both men and women as they start to look around and they they see other people, and they start to say, “Well, wait a minute, maybe I’m falling behind, because I’m just not as good a mom as she is, or I’m not as good a dad as he is, or I don’t have the sort of marriage that they seemed to have, or I don’t seem to have the sort of success in my work as this person has, or I don’t have the same kind of fruit in my ministry as that person has.”
And in reality, if you think about it, that sort of comparison and internal doubt rooted in envy is something the scripture condemns. It is just an identity confusion and an inheritance confusion. There is always going to be somebody who is a better evangelist than you are, or teacher than you are, or father than you are, or a mother than you are, or husband or wife or whatever the specific calling that you’re thinking of right now. Someone is always going to be better at it. And not only that, you don’t even know people’s real stories usually, unless you’re seeing them internally. You’re only seeing what’s being displayed, and what’s being presented.
That can lead, when you combine it with those other factors that we were talking about earlier, and with a self that hasn’t been protected by gospel definition and gospel hope, that can lead to a really, really dangerous sort of a situation. So why you need to prepare for this now and why you need to prepare to prepare others for this now is really similar to puberty. And I’m a dad of five sons and had to have the get ready for puberty conversation. I don’t know how many times so far. And so what I try to do there is to say, “Hey, these things are going to happen to you. Don’t freak out, know ahead of time I’m telling you these are the changes that your body is going to have. And these are the changes that you’re going to have emotionally. These are the sorts of rocky things that you’re going to have to go through. The reason for it is to launch you out into something that God has designed to be to be really good.” That’s what it is.
One of my sons, one time I was talking about this said, “Well, when does it end?” We were talking specifically about sexual attraction, those sorts of issues. When does it end? My response was, “Well, I’ll let you know because it really doesn’t end,” and he teared up and said “Are you kidding? It doesn’t end?” Yeah, it doesn’t end in that way, but it ends the way you’re experiencing right now. You’re not going to always be going through these mood swings and pimple outbreaks and all of those sorts of things to prepare him ahead of time.
I think the same thing is true for these other stages of life because in some way or the other. We all live out our own personal book of Ecclesiastes. Now, think of what Ecclesiastes does. The preacher there is looking at his life and he says, “I thought that life consisted in wisdom and knowledge. And then I was exhausted by that. It doesn’t bring meaning in vanity. I thought it was pleasure seeking – not that. I thought it was wealth, thought it was power, or thought it was all of those things, and all of those things disappoint me and ultimately we’re all dead like a dog.” You could sum up the book of Ecclesiastes that way. So is that a crisis? Yeah, that’s a crisis, in the same way that in the same way that it’s a turning point.
But Ecclesiastes doesn’t end that way. Ecclesiastes says, “So remember your Creator, and remember your creator when in the days when you are young prepare yourself ahead of time for the fact that your idols are going to disappoint you at some point in your life. Whether it happens when you’re 40 or 50, or whether it happens much, much later on, prepare yourself for how am I going to go through a time when these things that are idols in my life that I don’t even recognize as idols start to disappoint me.”
I had a church that was looking at a potential pastor and the person on the Pastor Search Committee was talking to me because I was a recommendation for this person. He said, “Now he hit a very difficult time in his life and said that he was exhausted and he was tapped out and he had to make all sorts of adjustments in his life. Should we be worried about that?” And I said, “That’s the very reason why you ought to call that guy as your pastor. Because he didn’t hit that point of disappointment or exhaustion or whatever and seek out affairs or substance abuse or cynicism and hardening. Instead, he really used it as a crisis. And he didn’t waste that crisis. He said, “Let me go back to first principles and figure out who God is to me. Let me figure out who I am in terms of the good news of the Gospel. And let me reorient and correct my life.” That’s what discipleship is.
And so this sort of crisis, if we mean turning point, may be really quiet for you. And you know it is for me and I have never had a really dramatic sense of “Oh well, my life is completely falling apart.” There is just more of a sense of, “Wait a minute, what’s happening here.” And maybe because I have a friend who was talking about all of these guys just doing really crazy, risky things. His wife asked him, “Well, what are they, why are they doing this?” And he said, “Well, I think they’re hitting midlife and they want to sort of prove I’ve still got it.” And she said, “Are you going to do that?” And he said, “I don’t think so, because I never had it for ever.” You know, being pursued by by women or whatever the issue was, I think there’s a sense in which that can be a blessing to realize you’re not looking nostalgically back at something in the past, if that’s the case for you.
But it is going to be the case that you are going to have a time when you’re doing all of the things that you’re supposed to be doing, and you’re going to hit some point of a turning point when you start to realize some things. And what I realized at that point was a number of things. One of them was I’m just not going to be everybody that people need me to be. God’s given me a certain calling, God’s given me certain responsibilities. And that’s what I have to do. And I can’t be everything to everybody. And secondly, to realize people are crazy. People are crazy. We assume when we’re very young that the people that are grownups are all grown up and mature and reasonable and rational and eventually we’re going to get there. They’re not.
You end up with a situation where people, the older they get, are often in the middle of the very same sorts of things that they were in the middle of as a teenager or twenty-something or thirty-something. And they’re just as internally unsure of what’s going on. They just know how to perform and how to act, often. So you have to learn those things, and then also know where your vulnerabilities are. And my vulnerability that I learned, as I kind of came through that middle of life’s passage was it no matter how theologically orthodox I am at root, I’m basically a Pelagian. I basically assume, unless I’m constantly fighting it with the gospel and with repentance, that I have to perform, I have to be the best at fill in the blank. And if I’m not, that God is angry with me. And what I had to learn at that point was that I spent all of my ministry up to that point on the Bible tells me so, and that’s good and true and I need to continue that, but I need to spend more time with Jesus loves me. Not just at the theological level, but at the visceral level in order to bring about peace. And so if you look and you see people, sometimes people that you’ve even admired a lot, who as they age become trapped with carnality and juvenility and anger or whatever.
Look at that. Have compassion, don’t have judgment, have compassion, but say I don’t want that to happen to me. And prepare yourself so that as you do age, you’re able to learn the lessons of the stories of your life as you look backwards, so that you’re able to say “Ah, there it is. Okay, I recognize that. I’ve seen that before. I’ve seen that in my life before, I’ve seen that in other people before, I recognize and I know what this is,” and then prepare people for those changes in life.
That’s what Jesus does. He tells the disciples ahead of time, “We’re going to Jerusalem, and I’m going to the cross. I’m telling you ahead of time that you’re going to have persecution, and the world is going to hate you, so that you will know that when that happens that I haven’t abandoned you.” Prepare yourself now to say, “I may reach a turning point. I may reach a really difficult time. I’m not going to make any rash decisions in that time. I’m not going to give up hope that I’m going to use this as a positive time to recognize I am not whatever my gifts are. I am not whatever my expectations are.” And when your idols start to disappoint, you rejoice that is God showing you where they are not to crush you, but to welcome you into a fuller experience of him and of grace. Prepare yourself for midlife if you’re not there yet. And if you’re past it, prepare somebody else and teach them. “Jesus loves me, this I know.”
That’s Russell Moore, in my 40s but not really in mid-life, cause we have trillions and trillions and trillions of years yet to go.