Being and Nothingness, the for-itself and the in-itself, bad faith, and the existential predicament; these Existentialist concepts were...
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.