I used to live next to a man named Steve, a physician in his early fifties. He was long since divorced, and his kids were fully grown. On his fifty-third birthday, he resolved to make the change in his life he’d been putting off for the last ten years. He closed up his medical practice, said goodbye to his friends and neighbors, and went off to live in India somewhere near the Himalayas. The last I heard, he was living in an ashram, going by a new Sanskrit name.
Reactions to Steve’s departure in my area were mixed. Some were happy that Steve had finally decided to follow his bliss. Others were shocked that he would abandon his lucrative profession and go to a place where he had no friends or family, and saw Steve as crazy or irresponsible.
As Steve’s situation illustrates, the “midlife crisis”—a time in some middle-aged people’s lives when they rethink their priorities and make changes accordingly—is a subject of mixed feelings in our culture. Some applaud people who have the courage to reevaluate their direction in life and go for what they truly want, while others see it as “too late” to change one’s course midlife and ridicule the idea.
Personally, I’m with those who see midlife crises as a wonderful thing—I don’t think it’s ever too late to start considering what we’re here to do in this life. What I wonder is why we call these times in our lives “crises” at all. The way the term “midlife crisis” sounds, it’s as if it’s somehow wrong or problematic for us to ask ourselves whether we’re really pursuing our true calling and make the adjustments we need to go after it.
It does seem to go against the grain in our society to give serious thought to your purpose in life and whether your work is consistent with it. People who explore and talk about their directions in life tend to be seen as impractical dreamers with their heads in the clouds. At worst, they’re seen as self-centered or egotistical. After all, if you spend time contemplating your mission in life, you must see yourself and your desires as important, and people who see themselves as unimportant are likely to wonder “who you think you are” and feel resentful.
You can confirm this by having a conversation with someone in your workplace about each other’s purposes in life. If you say to a coworker “I wonder if I’m really following my true calling in this job,” they’ll probably give you a puzzled look or think you’re cracking a joke. Or perhaps they’ll chuckle dismissively and say something like “yeah, I have a ‘purpose in life’ too, but I don’t wear it on my sleeve.”
The conventional wisdom appears to be that, as long as you’re holding down a steady job and paying all your bills, everything else in your life will take care of itself. You’ll have a satisfying intimate relationship, enjoyable leisure time, and eventually a peaceful retirement. Unfortunately, given how common midlife crises seem to be, it appears that many people who buy into the conventional wisdom don’t end up with the fulfillment they expected. As Arthur J. Deikman writes in The Observing Self, “with experience, the limited nature of” the satisfaction to be found in “money, security, fame, sex or power . . . . becomes increasingly evident,” and “the search for meaning becomes increasingly urgent.”
This is why I think it’s best to buck the trend and keep your calling—your overall mission in life—in mind at all times, no matter how young or old you happen to be. Personally, I’ve had a written mission statement for a few years. I regularly look at it both for inspiration and to confirm that what I’m doing is in keeping with my purpose. Sometimes, I feel the need to make minor changes—that some words or phrases in the statement don’t reflect my present desires. But it’s stayed pretty consistent as long as I’ve used it.
Beyond a sense of direction, a significant benefit of having a mission statement is that it prevents the kind of sudden panic that creates “midlife crises.” If you’re constantly keeping track of what you want and whether what you’re doing accords with it, you’re less likely to wake up one morning and suddenly realize with fright that you aren’t making progress toward your goals. If your deepest desires do start to change, you can gradually correct your statement to keep yourself on track, rather than finding out what you want through a sudden epiphany and having to drastically alter your priorities.
It’s tempting to put off thinking about these issues. Perhaps we feel we need to become more financially stable, shore up our personal relationships, or just get some more experience in the world before we make decisions about the overall direction of our lives. We’re just too overwhelmed by minor details, in other words, to look at the big picture.
Unfortunately, the minor problems that take our focus off the big picture seem to be a constant in our lives. There will always be bills to pay, deadlines to meet at work, and conflicts to resolve in our relationships. We’re never going to “have time” to give serious thought to what we’re here to do in life, until we either consciously choose to make it a priority or get hit with a sobering epiphany. As Lloyd Reeb aptly puts it in From Success To Significance: When The Pursuit Of Success Isn’t Enough, the feeling that “you have too many responsibilities and obligations to feel the freedom to dream . . . . is, in part, what leads many people to a midlife crisis.”
If a “midlife crisis” means a period when we actually stop and look around at what we’re doing, and whether it’s fulfilling us and our callings in life, I say we can’t have such a crisis too soon. It’s a shame many of us have to wait until “midlife” to experience it.