My Mid-Life Crisis

I turned 40 this year and I’m having a hard time with it.  Not the number; way too many people have a problem with the number (just the existence of phrases like “you’re only as old as you feel” or “40 is the new 20” is proof of that).  I’m having a problem with this phase of life.

It’s an inherent belief that it takes about four years to hit my stride.  It took about four years to figure out high school (and then I was done); it took about four years to figure out college (and then I was done); it took me about four years to figure out how to be a boyfriend (then I got married); it took me about four years to figure out how to be a husband (then I had kids); it took me about four years to figure out fatherhood (I still work at it, but I only get incrementally better); it took about four years to figure out my job (I still work at it, but I only get incrementally better)…

This is the first time since I could string together a coherent sentence that I’m not trying to work through four years of something. There is no life milestone that’s staring me in the face.  There’s nothing I have to adjust.  It’s off-putting.

Whenever I was working through one of these four-year-strides, I had an enthusiasm about the future.  I was looking forward to something.  In high school: “getting out on my own is going to be great”, as an apartment-dweller: “having a house is going to be great”, as someone who just likes to stay in and make fun of what’s on TV: “marriage is going to be great.”  I was always looking toward the immediate future knowing that, “Once I conquer this, I will have that.”   What’s the next milestone?  Retirement?  Kids’ graduation?  Those are a decade away (at least).

I was reading Timequake a few days ago.  It’s the last novel Kurt Vonnegut, an already-wise man, ever wrote.  It’s about how he was trying to make a story about everyone having to live years of their lives over because of some weird jump in the universe, but because the universe operates the way it does, no one could make a different choice; everyone had to simply watch their lives turn out the way they already watched their lives turn out. But he couldn’t make it work.  He worked for years and years on it and it just never seemed right, so, instead, it’s a series loosely-connected snippets of his original Timequake novel along with how he felt about writing it and how he feels now that it’s done.  It’s full of nuggets of wisdom:

“For Christ’s sake, let’s help more of our frightened people get through this thing, whatever it is.”

“If there is a god, he sure hates people”

“Listen: We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different!”

“Science never cheered up anyone. the human situation is just too awful.”

“So it is not one whit mysterious that we poison the water and air and topsoil, and construct ever more cunning doomsday devices, both industrial and military. Let us be perfectly frank for a change. For practically everybody, the end of the world can’t come soon enough.”

“They like life alright, but that they would like it even better if they could know that it was going to end sometime.”

“Why throw money at problems? That is what money is for. Should the nation’s wealth be redistributed? It has been and continues to be redistributed to a few people in a manner strikingly unhelpful.”

After I read it, I got jealous.  Not at the author’s ability (he’s on another level), but his insight.  He wrote this thing when he was like 80.  He had an entire life behind him and all the reasons in the world to share these truths.  Like me, he wasn’t looking forward to anything either.  He was only looking back.  That’s what I was jealous of: this clear focus that he was finished with whatever this is; if he has to look, back is the only direction possible.

And that’s my crisis.  I don’t have a full life to look forward to — not like I used to — but I’m also not done — not like I will be.  I’m stuck between being enthusiastic about tomorrow (like I was with all those other milestones) and being nostalgic about what was (like Vonnegut).

That’s what I have to work through.

Maybe that’s the next four years.

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