A dentist friend of mine recently told me that he is starting to see patients who have split perfectly healthy molars from top-to-bottom, like firewood, by grinding their teeth in the night. This is a new phenomenon and one that is, in his opinion, driven by stress. It is invariably people in their late 40’s and early 50’s who present with this problem.
If my friend is right it would accord with recent research which suggests that, among all age groups, those aged 40-59 experience the most stress and pressure and are the least satisfied. In fact, the MacArthur Foundation National Study of Midlife found that by the age of 50, 35.2% of American’s say they had experienced a midlife crisis. (34% of the men, 36.1% of the women). These people reported themselves as part of the study, so the figures are probably much higher and, of interest it seems that most people in the study only recognised they had experienced a midlife crisis after it was over.
Despite a febrile and energetic debate about the role and experience of millennials and baby boomers, we continue to ignore the phase of life that contains the greatest psychological risks and plays the most important role in the formation and trajectory of our longest life phase. We also fail to note that this period represents the corner-stone in the arc of a person’s life, the period where the trajectory if the second half of life is formed.
If we understand and appreciate the dynamic of the middle years properly they can become the single most creative period in our lives and the cornerstone the holds together the arc of our lives. If we don’t understand these and exploit these years properly, and so many of us don’t, they become the single greatest period of doubt, depression and even despair, and the true potential of the second half of life is never fulfilled.
The first, and biggest mistake we make is to consider our middle years as an extension of our early adult-hood. They are not. They have a unique dynamic, make unique demands on our lives, family, friends, workplaces and psyche, and offer unique (and wonderful) rewards.
Unfortunately, not recognising the distinct role these years play, many of us (especially but not uniquely those in professional roles) don’t modulate our focus to suit our age and continue to push ourselves in our jobs, families and recreation to the same or higher standards than before. We burn the midnight-oil, start early, churn out the content and get the results. But it gets harder. It takes more and more energy to produce the same results and doing the same thing we’ve always done is just tiring. Every year we bounce back a little slower, it’s takes a little more to put on the bright smile and we have to dig that little bit deeper to push through.
The price of not distinguishing between early adult-hood and the middle years is that we don’t notice that energy is no longer our greatest resource, but we continue to act like it is.
The truth is that if we don’t create new methods of producing results we will get sick, have breakdowns, damage our relationships (all of which represent the core resources we need to protect and husband for later life!) and we will miss the most important function of the middle years: the opportunity to take charge and create the second half of life.
So, what’s the answer? Slow down, meditate, do more exercise, eat well, invest in relationships… these are all essential, but underneath them all lies one simple and grander truth. A wisdom that has been preached, sold, explained and received over and again in all the world’s wisdom traditions: find your leitmotif and build a life around it.
This is the real work of your 40’s and early 50’s. Whatever it takes.
The term leitmotif comes from the world of music where it denotes a recurring theme running through a symphony, a theme that pulls the various parts of the piece together. It was first borrowed by the early psychologists including Jung, but it was the Dutch organisational psychologist Bernard Lievegoed who really understood that it’s not only a theme, but the underlying context of a person’s life.
Your leitmotif is a recurring theme throughout your life, but it is only in your 40’s and 50’s that you are able to look back and see the pattern.
Many people in this stage of life report the feeling of being ‘pulled’ towards something new. It can occur completely irrational.
I have a friend, an excellent nurse and ward matron who has recently left her job in a large hospital to go to Tanzania to work in rural hospitals as a volunteer. She doesn’t quite know why, but she just knows she has to do it. Hardly rational behaviour, yet if she doesn’t take the plunge and follow her heart, she knows that the second half of her life will become a wasteland. So she’s going.
On the other hand, I recently interviewed my uncle (who is 71) about his life-journey and he had an insight that echo’s something I regularly hear: “when I think about it, when I talk about my life to people, pretty much everything I tell them about happened before I turned 40”.
The middle years are the pivot-point. The time when you get to really start knowing who you are and what you stand for. Despite a dominant narrative to the contrary, your middle years are the right time to take a risk and to explore something new, something that sings to your heart. Your middle years are the time to start writing that symphony!
In the modern world, the middle years of life can be some of the toughest of our entire lives because they tend to bring deep and existential crises to the surface. We relate to these crises like illnesses; something to be avoided, managed, cut-out or anaesthetised. Most of us have tried all these strategies at some point.
The piece we are missing is that these crises represent the whole point of the middle years! They are the only way we can see and grasp hold of that thread, note the contours of our leitmotif.
Intrinsic to the middle years of life, these crises should be embraced and examined because they represent the key sources of knowledge about what we are here to learn and give back. These crises have been experienced by all people at all times and in all cultures and in much the same way. The flavour and trappings are different, but the crises are the same because the journey is the same: find your leitmotif so you can hang the rest of your life (and wisdom) off it.
Looked at individually these crises stand alone as barriers to happiness and freedom, but from the perspective of your leitmotif they are essential indicators that occur to guide you towards a conscious creation of the second half of life.
If you can stop long-enough, still the waters and look, you will see the thread of your leitmotif running through your life. Your middle years represent the vantage point from which to identify this pattern.
If you do this work well, the second half of life truly becomes the symphony Lievegoed imagined it to be. However, if you just continue with what is immediately in front of you; taking one step after another, supporting, helping, serving your career, your family, your friends, you will miss the indicators that are trying to tell you who you really are and what you have to give.
Those indicators are there. Ignore them at your peril.
 “Phases; crisis and development in the individual”, Pharos Books, Rudolf Steiner Press, 1979, London, p.227.