Building a family and career takes all our energy. There is almost nothing left over. Our young adult years (from 20-40 for most people) are completely consumed by success at work and home. Building a life is extremely hard work.
For most of us we have had to lay aside any personal dreams that we once had to focus on survival and success. After decades of denying our dreams the bill comes due. It is normal to view our young adult years with resentment for the sacrifices that we have had to make.
When success comes it seems empty of the fulfillment that it once promised. It is possible to be successful at work and family and still feel that your life is completely barren. A people approach mid-life it is clear that their lives are far from desirable.
Lost years of personal fulfillment leave us vulnerable to a panic response. Many will decide that the sacrifices made are no longer worth it and that they have been living a lie. They destroy everything in their lives in order to start over again.
All religions and belief systems seem to have their own version of the "The Bargain". This is a powerful lie that controls our lives throughout our early adult years. It comes in many guises and is easily adapted to any set of beliefs.
Simple stated the crux of The Bargain with God is, "If you are good, God will make your life good". The beauty of this moral philosophy is how universal it is. Atheists can easily substitute "Universe" for "God" and readily agree in principle.
In every culture and subculture that I am aware of, this same philosophy provides the bedrock understanding of what it means to be human. In the USA there is a particularly potent strain of The Bargain that permeates our culture.
We call it the Great American Dream.
If we work hard and are honest and love our country, then we will have prosperity and success and the right to rule the world. Prosperity and Success - Satisfying job where I am well treated - Well ordered family (2.2 kids and a dog) - Material comforts (house, 2 cars, home theatre, storage unit) Right to Rule - My prosperity will be guaranteed by the government - My privileges will be protected by force when threatened - In exchange I will support all government policies - Poverty outside of my group is not my problem
This is the biggest lie we all believe. The reason we all believe it is that it gives us the illusion of control over every aspect of our lives. It allows us to avoid any real responsibility for others that suffer. After all, they must have broken The Bargain.
It also lets us take credit for all of the prosperity that we are able to experience. We celebrate our achievements while shrugging off the suffering of minorities and foreigners who don't deserve the good life. We are especially hostile toward those who feel shut out from the benefits we enjoy.
Some people can continue believing The Bargain their entire lives. But for most of us it begins to break down as we enter the season of mid-life. It is this breakdown that causes a crisis of belief in our lives.
A crisis can be triggered by a major event, such as the loss of a loved one, teenager implosion, job loss or divorce. Or it may simply be the result of the daily grind of life getting to be too much to handle. However you get there, you know that life cannot and will not go on the way it has. Something has got to change.
I have lost my dreams and my hope and my sense of identity. I must seek real change to put me on a path toward the life that I want to live in. All options are on the table to pursue a better life. Success is not enough when it lacks any sense of purpose and meaning.
Most people have some kind of a mid-life crisis. I've often joked with my wife that I've been able to perfect it to an art. Starting in my mid 30s I had a mid-life crisis about every other year for a decade. I found that a series of small crises allow me to adjust my life direction without requiring me to trash everything I had worked so hard to build.
During the decade of crisis my world view was de-constructed and reconstructed with a more mature understanding of reality. Some people try to resolve the crisis in different ways, they my cling to adolescent understanding and try to double down on The Bargain. Others reject everything they once believed in favor of a brand new belief system that matches their reality.
During this time I was actively involved in an evangelical church and send my teenage kids to Christian school. Both of communities have a strong reality and eager to reinforce the community belief system. Fortunately, I am all but immune to peer pressure and this bought me time to carefully evaluate my beliefs, principles, and practices on my own terms.
As a result I was able to create a mature understanding of reality by the age of 45 that combined the best of the evangelical ideas while rejecting the caustic the false beliefs of the group. During this difficult time I was assured that I needed to find my own understanding of reality and not just accept the norms and teachings of any group. For many it is hard to differentiate between the personal identity and that of the group. But for me, this is relatively natural to think independently.
The main characteristic of the mid-life season is growing sense of being trapped by constraints that are no longer desirable. There is a growing awareness that what brought success in the early life is not sustainable. Balance of personal needs and the needs of others must be achieved. Life is more than just success. It is search for these answers that lead us to start our quest for purpose.
We never choose the season of life that we are in. The season happens whether we are ready for it or not. We never choose to embark on a quest. We do it out of necessity. We must find answers and so the quest begins.
The quest for meaning and purpose begins when we recognize that we are no longer satisfied with the easy answers of our early adulthood. We still want a great family and success at work but there is a limit to how much satisfaction these things will bring. What is true meaning behind our lives? How do we balance the infinite demands on our money, time, and energy?
This is a time of life when each person must decide how they will balance the needs of others with their own personal needs. It always involves a distinct shift from DOING to BEING. For most of my life I have been consumed by performance anxiety. I used to blame this on my childhood upbringing but now recognize that it is much more a systemic part of my personality.
This desire to perform has served me well in many arenas and allowed me to accomplish great things. But it has also left me dysfunctional in many ways. During mid-life I seriously questioned the true basis of my identity for the first time. I will never forget my mentor asking me, "Mark, who are you if you are not able to accomplish anything?" At that time in my life I had no answer. I was what I did - nothing more. This was a moment of clarity on my journey.
I can run faster that any rat in the rat race, but I'm still just a rat. I once had a manager tell me that in a horse race there are just fractions of a second that determine the winner and that if I would just invest 10% effort in my career I could be a true winner. My church buddies where telling me at the same time that if I would devote 20 hours a week to my family and volunteer work that everything would be wonderful.
While both of these demands appear to be quite different, they are driven from the same idea. I am only as good as my last performance. These external demands must be met in order to justify my existence. My life is little more than my usefulness to others. I must keep performing to have any value.
I've been on this quest for meaning for over 20 years and I can say that it definitely has an end. There is a pot of gold labeled "Self Awareness". The understanding of my personal identity that is not based on what I do has been intensely freeing to me. I am able to see that my life has value and worth even if I do nothing.
I am now free to build the life that matches my strengths, personality, skills, experiences, and quirks. I now that even my weaknesses are part of who I am. This gives me the confidence to expose my flaws to others, in a way that would have been unthinkable twenty years ago. I am comfortable finally in my own skin . I accept and appreciate my life for what it actually is ... warts and all.
As a result of my mid-life journey I am free to Work, Love, Grow, and Enjoy life in a way that is totally unique to me. I no longer care that much about the judgment of others because I am free to be authentic to live out the destiny that I have been given. Each day I have the opportunity to be someone else or to be me. I choose my life!