The Midlife Crisis

04 December 2017

What exactly is a midlife crisis? One way to think about it is that it’s the creeping feeling that what we’re doing with our lives isn’t worthwhile. The midlife crisis is Clarissa Dalloway wondering whether the life she has chosen is the life she should have chosen, and terrified that the answer may be “no.” Or worse: the midlife crisis can be the feeling that no choice of life could ever have been worthwhile. That nothing we could have done would have made that much of a difference in the world. That all choices of vocation are pointless, groundless, and arbitrary.

The problem with that way of understanding it, of course, is that this is really an existential crisis, and an existential crisis is like a Big Mac: you can have one at any time.  (It’s arguably just as healthy, too.)

Maybe we could at least say that midlife and the existential crisis go together: it’s a more natural time to start worrying about one’s career choices than, say, grade school. We start to “feel our age”; we suffer the loss of close kin; the prospect of our own death starts to seem less abstract. The fact that we will die, and all those we know will die—that’s what Camus meant when he talked about “the cruel mathematics that command our condition,” the mathematics that, in his view, render all effort unjustifiable.

But maybe we can go further than that. Kieran Setiya, this week’s guest, makes an intriguing additional suggestion. The midlife crisis, he says, is not just caused by the bad things that have happened—the body’s aches and pains, the losses we have suffered, the bad decisions we have made—but also by the good things. We spend our twenties and thirties desperately scurrying to get that promotion, write that book, found that movement, create that app. If we fail, we are unhappy; if we succeed, we don’t feel nearly as satisfied as we thought we would. 

So maybe the midlife crisis, for those who experience one, is life telling us something about the structure of desire. Maybe life is telling us that we are foolish if we focus all our energy on projects and goals, and that instead we should be enjoying the process, the journey, the road. Maybe, says Kieran, we should also start doing things that have no goal, like walking or (drum roll please) philosophy.

Is that right? I don’t know. I also like what C. P. Cavafy has to say in his beautiful poem “Ithaka.”

As you set out for Ithaka

hope your road is a long one,

full of adventure, full of discovery. …

Better if it lasts for years,

so you’re old by the time you reach the island,

wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,

not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.

Without her you wouldn’t have set out.

Yes, we’d better learn to enjoy the journey. But without a destination, there is no journey—there’s only aimless wandering about. “Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.” Maybe that’s the wisdom of midlife: keep your goals, and try to pick good ones, but enjoy them for the journeys they make possible.


Comments (5)

Swaz's picture


Tuesday, December 5, 2017 -- 12:52 PM

The mid-life inflection point

The mid-life inflection point is the the time for a thorough self examination. If one looks to change the outside world, think sports car or face lift, then it becomes a crisis..

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, March 6, 2020 -- 7:53 AM

On Sunday, February 23, 2020,

On Sunday, February 23, 2020, I wrote herein about an essay I had been wrestling with, concerning knowledge, opinion and belief.. The piece had consumed much time and skull-sweat. Yesterday, I received notice that a potential publisher had received my email submission and was considering the piece for its' next issue (or perhaps, one subsequent to that one...???) I have been writing what friends affectionately call 'deep shit', for about fifteen years now. Far past midlife, I do not worry too much about it. I hope to be a published philosopher acolyte, but if that does not happen, I'll be able to say: OK, I tried my best. I think about having a nice car, sure---face lifts?: not so much. A better home in another country? Affirmative. Enough money to not be worried about my retirement pension falling apart? You bet. There are things I would have liked to do, or do better. All-in-all, though, I am pretty content with this old skin. I will keep trying to do those things I love to do. For as long as I can do so. Fate is never assured---it depends upon contingency. Yeah, I said that, too.'s picture


Monday, March 9, 2020 -- 9:04 AM

The contemporary phenomenon

Some of us have a mid-life crisis when we set goals for ourselves and then achieve them. "What's next?" we ask, and find we have to set off in a new direction.. Marcel Proust in his vast novel records a point in his life when his early goals came to seem no longer worthwhile. His fictional alter-ego, Marcel, has pursued success in high society, which he once saw as the way to live a life that would simulate living in a timeless world of art. His admired aristocrats physically resembled their ancestors, who were painted and written about by great artists, and they lived lives free of the need to earn a living. Because their lives seemed to the young Marcel governed by aesthetic values, they were, in a sense, works of art themselves. Or so they seemed. But on closer acquaintance they were shallow, venial, and corrupt, while at the same time he has left behind the people in his life, like his mother and grandmother, who were great human beings - humble, sincere, and kind. At this point Marcel feels closest to death, as he has lost his purpose in life. But then he discovers in himself the power to write about the social world he has come to know so intimately, and in so doing he transforms his world of experience into a world of art, where these time-bound, limited people become archetypes of the virtues and vices he has come to know. His life is redeemed through art, in the sense that out of his disappointing experience he has created a human world that is both alive and immune to the passage of time, a world that will endure as a permanent record of human life as lived in his own time and place..

My guess is that there are many humble people who work all their lives to support their families and who never reach a point where they ask "Is that all there is?" Are they better or worse than the ambitious who set lofty goals, which when they achieve them wonder if it was all worthwhile? For myself, I set out long ago to become "wise," and pursued wisdom through education. At the university I discovered that there was a wide range of opinion as to what constituted wisdom, and I found the study of literature the most appealing path, as the study of literature offered to combine knowledge with pleasure. Now I know a little bit about a number of things, and am completely ignorant about a great many more. I have opinions that seem wise to me - often consisting of statements that go "on the one hand . . . but on the other hand" - but that are often met with cheery rebuttals, as others have come to different conclusions. I do find Proust's solution of listening to great works of art pleasant and consoling, but my wisest conclusion is that wisdom is different things to different people. I have enough money to live comfortably in retirement, but I can't preach disregard of money to those who haven't enough of it to meet their basic needs, or to support those whom they love. Still, there are many more who over-value personal wealth. They do so, I think, as a hedge against an exaggerated fear of becoming destitute. Or, like our President, they take wealth as the ultimate measure of self-worth. And too many admire the wealthy precisely for this reason. Others seek a kind of immortality in personal fame -" that last infirmity of noble mind" - but bolstered by the lessons of great literature, I am sure that those who do so are not wise.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Sunday, March 8, 2020 -- 5:22 PM

I can't say how much I love

I can't say how much I love this poem.

Awesome blog and show. I listened to this in 2017 and now with Ken's passing each of these re-runs becomes all the more weighty.

I booked a flight to be there for Ken's commemoration only to see the Coronavirus cancellation. I look forward to making that when it becomes reality.

Ithaka may have prompted the journey but I truly feel there is no you to give it to. It was ironic during the show that Keiran went halfway there when a caller invoked a Soul meme to answer Mid Life crisis (Ken had a deep breath.) I don't find the secular answers any less preachy without coming to terms with our lack of free will and a reframe of human agency. I could say more but ... it's a problem with few cross-bearers.

Thanks for this blog and show.

Karen Dunn's picture

Karen Dunn

Thursday, March 12, 2020 -- 10:52 PM

If you imagine the experience

If you imagine the experience of meaning is related to ego satisfaction you will inevitably be disappointed.

The experience of meaning is finding a true or unique connection between things, people, ideas or some combo of these. Often, closing a gap between what we need and getting it is associated with meaningful behavior because this is one of our earliest and most rewarding experience of meaning but this is rudimentary. There are so many ways to open your eyes, ears and mind to mysteries and otherness. Curiosity, not striving, is the root of the egos experience of meaning.

I enjoy William James and John Dewey;, The Meaning of Truth, The Moral Philosopher and Moral Life and Theory of Valuation.

Karen Dunn
Philosophy Major
Whitman College 1982