As a clinical psychologist, I love working with people navigating the midlife crisis.
The midlife crisis often gets a shallow treatment in popular culture. It is epitomized by a depressed, middle-aged person who self-medicates by going out and buying a sports car.
(Personally, I think the association is one of coincidence. Most people can only afford that kind of luxury when they start making pretty good money in their middle years. But that’s beside the point.)
The midlife crisis is the moment when our inner sage reaches the mountain peak that overlooks the surrounding landscape. Horizons are pushed back. The air becomes thin and crisp. The fatigue from the climb hits in full force.
The midlife crisis is a collection of physical and emotional responses to one of life’s most admirable accomplishments - staying alive for a really long time. Any successes or failures you have accrued along the way are accessory to the amazing accomplishment of waking up with breath in your lungs day after day, year after year, decade after decade.
If we don’t frame the midlife crisis in these broad terms, then we will always misunderstand it. Staying alive is a remarkable achievement… and a temporary condition. Yep, we are going to die. And the fact that our life will end is the only reason we can say that our life has a middle. Typically, it’s from the vantage point of the mountaintop that we get our first real glimpse of that eventuality somewhere in the landscape below.
Now to the big question at hand. How do we cope with the stress of feeling like our best days are behind us and that ahead of us lies a slow decline culminating in death?
The answer is easy.
The answer lies in recognizing that this is a trick question. The only reason we think our best days are behind us is because there is an illusion at play. As children, we rarely select role models to emulate who are already in their golden years. (If we do, it’s most likely the younger version of those individuals who attracted our attention.) And that’s totally understandable. Children aren’t usually interested in old people. Kids usually select role models that are in their middle years or younger. And that image, along with the implied narrative structure those role models provide, guides so much of our longings. The picture we create as kids is cemented so firmly in our consciousness that we often forget about it.
A big part of the midlife crisis is recognizing that we have outlived, or – more accurately stated – grown older than, our early role models.
There’s an easy solution. Find new role models.
I call this finding your Elder Avatar.
And I have good news. Getting older really does get cooler with each generation. 65 isn’t what it used to be. Neither is 85.
Do some research. Have conversations with people you respect. Ask the question, “Who are some older people that you admire?” And get specific. Ask the shallow questions as well as the tough ones.
Who has good style?
Who has taken care of themselves?
Who challenges your idea of what looking great looks like in old age?
Whose accomplishments do you admire?
Who has modeled retirement in a way that you respect?
Who has modeled the task of slowing down in a way you can aspire to?
Who looks happier?
Who has grown more open? More accepting? More understanding?
Who has modeled confronting illness or disability in a way that inspires you?
Who has died in a way that feels meaningful to you?
Let me help you get the brainstorming process started by offering a few examples of my own Elder Avatars.
I started turning gray in my early 30s. At first, I didn’t know what to think or how to feel about this. Then, I found an Elder Avatar to lead the way. George Clooney. He started turning gray at a young age and embraced it. I can lean into that.
The jazz legend Herbie Hancock. A phenomenal musician with a career like a fifty-year hurricane. But what’s more impressive to me is his large soul. If I could choose between attending a concert or sitting down for a meal, hands-down, I would choose a meal. The man is a deep thinker who takes humanity seriously. And I would much rather sit down with the old Herbie Hancock than the young Herbie Hancock.
When I think about approaching death and dying, one name comes to mind. The Jewish psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl. His book "Man’s Search for Meaning" is by far the most profound book I have ever read. It is a short 100-page read and, in my opinion, should be required reading in public schools. He died in his 90s, and when I think about the question, ”What does a meaningful death look like?”, this is the man I would like to emulate.
My Elder Avatar is a cumulative case study of these individuals. And there are more on the list that I didn’t mention. (Tom Waits, David Beckham, my doctoral advisor, my father-in-law… just to name a few.) Their achievements, character traits, and courage give me a sense of optimism and excitement. They tell me that what lies ahead is far richer than what I experienced in my younger years.
Finding an Elder Avatar is not quick work. But just beginning the project can provide incredible relief from the anxiety and depression and fatigue that often come with a midlife crisis.
Find those people that challenge your assumptions about aging, and put them on your list.