Midlife Is a Real Thing—Here Is What I See Now That I am 50

“Midlife” is a real thing. It is a real and meaningful passage of life, different than what came before. I’ve slowly come to understand this. About the “midlife crisis,” I am not so sure. A life lived well is full of change and challenge and therefore full of crises; to label one of them a “midlife” crisis seems arbitrary. But midlife itself is real, and I have at last come to see—with gratitude overdue—that this vital and powerful time of life is where I now get to be.

That midlife is a real and meaningful passage is hard to understand from the perspective of the 20s and 30s and even part of the 40s. For much of the first half of life, progress through life is in large measure physical, social, and acquisitional. Our lives change because we physically mature, attain legal and societal privileges, arrive at milestones such as graduations and creative firsts or professional attainments, and make major purchases. This kind of outward progress through life, progress by big steps everyone can see, slows down and even largely ceases by 50. From the distance of younger years, it would seem that change and newness therefore end, the color of life ends, and a stasis sets in, the 50-year-old becoming part of the background of the world while the younger people now go through their vibrant adventures. 

And that assessment is pretty true. To the background, yes. When I turned 50, I naturally brought to this age the expectations formed by my having been through my 20s, 30s and 40s. The sense of life’s progress stopping, of stasis setting in, of life losing color, was disheartening and even frightening. However, I get it now. I have come to understand what midlife really is, and I am finding my footing within it. The background is actually a different kind of foreground. 

I am no longer skating over the surface of the world, collecting the attainments that give my life weight as I go. There is more attainment to collect, more new things to achieve or do or see, but all this doesn’t mean the same thing anymore. The accumulated weight of where I have been, and what I have done, has now added up to something, it seems, because now I feel the weight. I even feel it as a part of me. Now I have submerged more fully into the world than ever, and as a result I am nearer to its core. The stasis, if that’s what it is, is in part a characteristic of this change in position. 

It has all added up to something. These decades’ worth of fears confronted, experience earned, problems solved, abilities practiced, foolishness survived, people inadequately treasured, and ego storms that churned into nothing—all of it has, without my ever having planned it, made me into someone who now has something more to give to those who ask for my attention, participation, work, or thought. Now I have something in addition to the ideas and energy focused on the task at hand; there is also a broader awareness that provides the leverage of confidence in affecting the efforts around me, and even nudging—helpfully, I hope—the momentums and trajectories of those arcing through their still-vivid lives near mine. What is more, I find myself called into this submerged role more and more, in various contexts in my life. And what is still more, I welcome the place there. This is the most disorienting change of all, the way that what I expect and respond to—what I want—has also changed. 

Certainly, I have come to different places in life before. Several times, I have seen the landscape shift because of one or another new development. I have navigated either well or poorly the opportunity and difficulty of these changes. But this shift is so different. At midlife, at 50, I find the challenge is to navigate a shifted interior landscape. If what I want has changed, then to some extent, who I am has changed as well.

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It has been difficult to figure this out. The essay you are reading was hard-won. I turned 50 this year. Last year, as I approached the age, I worked on a book I thought I might publish by the time I got there. It was a collection of the insights I thought I had attained. The work was mostly trash, and once I came to see this I abandoned it. Part of the problem was in the project’s framing. Wisdom, if it comes, does not come by attainment. It does not come in the form of lessons learned, because our lessons tend to be too specific for the different predicaments of people within different lives. Wisdom is something broader: less learning than unlearning, less gain than surrender. Rather than a collection of insights like ornaments filling a windowsill, wisdom is the vista revealed out that window as the worth of attainments falls away.

Here is as good a place as any to say something more about the color fading. In midlife, feeling happy gets harder. I don’t know how to gage my inner experience or compare it to others, but I heard a comedian say that because he is now in his 50s, he only gets about two good days per month. Something about that line, exaggerated though it is, sounds not all that exaggerated at all. My inner thermostat has always been set somewhat toward sadness; I am not saying I have ever been habitually cheerful. But still, a feeling of lightness is no longer something I can count on experiencing during an occasion of ease or excursion in which I’ve planned to let happiness run. Instead, I might arrange some pleasant moment or event, only to discover the plans are fallow because no lightness, no particular change in outlook, shows up. Happiness might still come; it hasn’t left altogether. But if it was once shy, it becomes elusive. Always fragile, it now is fickle. And the way forward gets grayer because of this change. We discover—“we” meaning at least that comedian and me—that our pleasure was always partly biochemical. The fountain of good feeling was the spillover from a reservoir that—who could have imagined this—would not always remain so full. We discover as well that happiness was also fed on novelty, the adventure of new things happening, many of them sanctioned and expected big changes so that the fear attending them was small. This too is a well that runs dry. Indeed, novelty itself gets old, something that is hard to understand until it happens. New experiences lose their capacity to thrill or delight. Yet new challenges remain inspiring, and there is an important and stirring clue in this. New challenges to some extent become easier to confront, and the reason has to do with that view out the window. 

It is possible to live a happy life where the daily experience of happiness is less. Add this to the list of discoveries it took time for me to figure out. The easier happiness of the past was a narcotic, in the sense that I know the way ahead is better without it, even though I would choose to have it back again if I could. As I say, new challenges still inspire. The problem with challenge in the past, with adversity or difficulty, was the price I would pay in terms of the feeling I might lose or deny with that difficulty’s onset. Now the price is not so high. The light I am trying to protect quite likely is not going to shine anyway, and this is liberating. In place of easy happiness, there awaits greater freedom of purpose, and in this a depth of joy. 

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If I now seem to be getting ready to say that getting older makes us selfless, don’t let me go there. I still have plenty of selfishness. The premise that younger people are more selfish and older people less so faces contrary examples on either side. Let me talk about the soul instead.

We are souls, inhabiting physical bodies that are cast through physical space and time. The soul follows along in the arc of this cast, feeling the motion. We love flavor, fun, friendships—and we seek these things. We shirk pain. We do it all seemingly for the soul’s benefit, for the hope of the soul’s delight. But the motion slows. We clear the height of the arc. The soul feels different then. Rather than motion, we feel the weight, feel what gravity reveals about the soul as it begins to pull. We feel the soul as if for the very first time. How disorienting, indeed. How frightening. But is the soul not the point? Is it not what we had to get to all along? 

We are nearer to the core of the world because we are nearer to plain truth of the self. The good and the bad of the self, both of which in my case are beginning to feel like who I really am. I am grateful, because I never would have come to this place by my own choice, the place without precedent in the earlier ages, the place of happiness where happiness is nevertheless often remote. In midlife, you get to be, and you are challenged to be, the self you did not realize you were being prepared to be through all of these years.