How Not to Waste a Good Midlife Crisis
I remember the moment I first felt old. While watching a band that shall remain nameless, I thought the men of a certain age—with their dad bods and hairlines—looked weird playing guitars. Perhaps it was a simple identification—I remember buying their first CD—but the idea persisted. Robert Smith applying lipstick night after night at 60 years old. Bono and The Edge, still without surnames. And Thom Yorke, in his fifties, surely must get sore dancing like that, right?
Then, on the edge of 40, I joined a band.
Three years in, I still feel self-conscious pulling up to a dive bar in my brother’s minivan (he’s in the band, too!). This is on top of those out-of-body moments playing to a crowd consisting entirely of the other bands on the bill—with members often nearly 20 years our junior.
The truth is pop music, no matter the genre, will always be a young person’s game.
We try to stay in our lane. Our blend of angst-ridden post-punk (we call it “riot dad”) sticks to age-appropriate themes. And none of us expect to have the rolling stones in our sixties to play songs we wrote in our twenties about physical acts that, four decades later, would likely require heavy pharmaceutical reinforcement. Then again, I can’t imagine ever having had the kind of swagger to sing the line “every inch of my love,” to say nothing of writing it. (I feel weird even typing it here.)
Perhaps I was never born to rock.
The truth is that pop music, no matter the genre, will always be a young person’s game. The best and most potent lyrics often betray a razor-sharp sense of certainty. Sure, the occasional mixed message sneaks through. But the typical point is crystal clear: “Fuck you” or “I want to fuck you.”
The issue is not so much about knowing better as we age, but rather that not knowing better doesn’t age well. Where guileless optimism or facile pessimism passes when the future lies ahead, they ring false when you have so much life behind you. But art—and music in particular—is always the collision between an innocent wish to create something new and a grandiose fantasy to inspire others.
And the central conflict in getting older is reconciling the primal desire to change minds with a basic mandate to change one’s own. In other words, the project of maturity is to avoid getting stuck—whether in stale forms of creativity or old ways of being. In fact, this task holds much potential. Which is to say, I might be wrong about (most) old guys with guitars.
Shortly before joining the band, I went back to school to become a psychoanalyst. If playing drums with my older brother wasn’t clear enough, then changing my career certainly portended some kind of unease, if not an outright midlife crisis.
Elliot Jaques, the Canadian social scientist and psychoanalyst, first coined this particular term in 1965 at the ripe age of 48. In Death and the Mid-Life Crisis, he posits a transitional phase between the promise of early adulthood and the reality of one’s impermanence. These days, however, the concept might be more useful to describe a frame of mind than some kind of inevitable condition of aging.
Popularly, of course, a midlife crisis connotes the stereotypical older man who upgrades his reliable sedan with the convertible coupe or trades in his devoted partner for the younger woman. To the outsider, this coping strategy is transparent. And it doesn’t take psychoanalytic training to understand he’s defending against death by enacting juvenile fantasies.
But Jaques wasn’t concerned so much with superficial acts of sexual anxiety. (What is a sports car if not a penis, Dr. Freud might ask.) He was interested in the reduction of sexual appetite. But it’s important to remember that, psychoanalytically, sexuality encompasses the multiplicity of one’s creative impulses. As such, Jaques is exploring the effects of a diminished libido—the very life instinct that compels these creative acts. And contrary to the stereotype, this crisis is not exclusive to men (though Jaques also points to the unique impact of menopause in women).
Examining the career trajectories of famous (primarily male) artists, Jaques charts the changing shape of creativity as we get older. His point was that the character, not necessarily the quality, of expression evolves beginning in one’s late thirties. For Jaques, artists are no less committed to their work but nonetheless become progressively more focused and patient in creating it.
While he attributes to this stage a dawning awareness of—and confrontation with—one’s own mortality, the crisis of midlife isn’t about facing death and thus giving up. Instead, it’s about finding a path to live “through to the enjoyment of mature creativeness and work in full awareness of death which lies beyond — resigned but not defeated.”
Accordingly, Jaques draws a distinction between two modes. He writes, “The creativity of the twenties and the early thirties tends to be a hot-from-the-fire creativity. It is intense and spontaneous, and comes out ready-made.” The work is uninhibited and often unconscious.
In contrast, the output of the older artist tends to be more “sculpted” and worked over. Internal pressures (as well as the objective realities of family and work obligations) reorient the individual toward what analysts call “reality testing.” This is when we are able to measure our wishes and goals against the conditions we can’t always control—the actions of others or our own mortality.
While some ends might remain loose, we still have the power to tie up the essential threads.
In this way, the individual begins to face and then work through his or her feelings about the ultimate deadline (as it were). Jaques asserts that, as we age, we strengthen “the capacity to accept and tolerate conflict and ambivalence.” Sculpted creativity is thus the result of a practiced craft (what Malcolm Gladwell might attribute to the “10,000-hour rule”) in combination with a more practical relationship to the ultimate purpose of creative expression.
One’s work need no longer be experienced as perfect. It can be worked and reworked, but it will be accepted as having shortcomings. The sculpting process can be carried on far enough so that the work is good enough. There is no need for obsessional attempts at perfection, because inevitable imperfection is no longer felt as bitter persecuting failure. Out of this mature resignation comes the serenity in the work of genius, true serenity, serenity which transcends imperfection by accepting it.
What a relief!
Critically, this form of resignation is not facing failure but rather reconciling with the inevitable conclusion of a life’s work. Where the creativity of youth comes out guns blazing, a more mature expression emerges—with an implicit (perhaps unconscious) awareness that some things are inevitably left unsaid or unfinished.
But while some ends might remain loose, we still have the power to tie up the essential threads. The desire to reach and change an audience might never go away; it simply evolves if we allow ourselves to grow. At best, any artistic outlet is a vehicle for interpersonal growth.
That said, the fundamental questions rarely, if ever go away. We all have some theme (or three) we grapple with in our work and lives—namely, ideas or fears of abandonment, disintegration, and, of course, mortality. These themes betray an even more fundamental question: Why are we here? Religion, philosophy, science, and, of course, psychology are all collective efforts to find satisfactory answers. But I’d argue that art remains the most effective means we have of coping with life’s fundamental ambiguities and uncertainty—not because it provides comfort but instead honors questions.
This might sound too wide-eyed. But the more I work with real people, the better prepared I am to accept not knowing. Patients often come to us for an answer, but our job is to help them discover it within themselves. Lasting change only begins with genuine insight, which is an internal, bodily experience. Anyone who claims to have the answer (i.e., your answer) is a fraud—whether it’s a therapist, religious leader, or rockstar.
Certainty eludes us. And we court illness the more we resist this basic premise. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you why our current president acts the way he does. And I don’t know why our exes treated us that way. And I really can’t say what our parents were up to back then. But I am very curious about all of these quandaries. Fortunately, age provides more opportunity for insight—and psychoanalysis is one of the few professions in which it is a genuine asset.
Working with this ambiguity is as much a function of my training as it is the natural evolution of my advancing age. While I may have reached the current statistical middle of life, it is up to me how I face it—personally, philosophically, and, indeed, creatively. The true crisis of midlife comes when we can’t relinquish the nostalgia of youth to embrace the grace of adulthood. No matter how the song goes, we can’t always die before we get old. Ideally, we simply get old and die.