Hidden Blessings: Dispatches from the midlife trenches

Midlife Crisis shirt from Etsy seller Resilience Streetwear

This weekend I am doing one of the most cliche things I've ever done: I am going to a midlife crisis workshop. Let me pull back and say it even bigger: I am a white divorced 42-year-old mom, and I am going to a midlife crisis workshop. I built a literal empire on offbeatness, but the current reality is pretty fucking stereotypical: just a confused midlife white lady going through a midlife crisis, here! NICE TO MEET YOU.

Some of you likely relate, but most of you probably don't — one of the joys of the internet is that I know a lot about who's reading, thanks to all my various analytics. The vast majority of you are younger than me, most of you by about a decade. Let me be clear here: I have no fucking clue what I'm doing (which I'm learning is pretty age-appropriate) but figured I'd send out a dispatch from the trenches of midlife, for those of you who can feel it lurking on the horizon.

Nothing is fair

"I thought I did everything right," a friend told me recently. "I went to a good school, married a good partner, worked on a good career. So why do I suddenly feel like I'm failing at everything?"

…because it turns out that all milestones we strive for in the first half of our lives don't guarantee anything, least of all happiness. Because it turns out that being human is uncomfortable sometimes. Because life is unfair.

Some of us grow up knowing this, of course. But those of us who were sheltered by privilege or good luck or hard work or some combination of the three have the rough wake-up call at a certain point that doing things "right" (even by offbeat standards!) doesn't mean you're suddenly happy.

A note about the offbeat connection here: some of us (and by "US" I mean me) like to tell ourselves that part of how we do things MOST right is by doing them differently. The unspoken assumption here is that when you do things differently, thoughtfully, carefully, you will be able to avoid the failures of life — because you are smart, and you are unique, and therefore you are able to cheat the mundane bullshit that happens to all the muggles.

HA HA. Joke is on you. Whatever your standards of "right" are (whether you're climbing an academic ladder, corporate ladder, mainstream suburban family life ladder, or offbeat alternative ladder), the only thing that's guaranteed is that life's not fair, and fucked up shit happens to everyone. The end.

Nothing is permanent, least of all being alive

Oh sure, we know this sort of theoretically, but somehow we shield ourselves from the depth of it. It's easy to tattoo "Carpe diem" on your ankle in college, but way rougher to have a life-threatening illness or accident and realize — oh no, you seize the day not because you could sorta like be dead tomorrow, but because you could ACTUALLY BE A CORPSE TOMORROW. Like, literally dead.

So on the one hand, you realize it's all falling apart and all you have is right now. On the other hand, you realize the good side of that — if all you have is right now, you probably should enjoy it since you could actually be dead tomorrow?

It's also not all bad — nothing is permanent also means that shitty things pass. That's comforting. We're all going to die, and that stupid construction outside your window is going to be done at some point. I've had moments of sobbing, "It'll never be like this again…" and then being like THANK FUCKING GOD! Wait no, FUCKING TRAGIC! Happy things are fleeting! Awful things are fleeting!

Good shit and bad shit are all tangled up

At 42, my torso is criss-crossed with scars. My boobs have pancaked. I have secretary ass from decades of sitting at a computer. The backs of my hands are weathered and veined. And yet, I'm also in the best physical condition of my life, stronger and leaner and more fit than I've ever been, by magnitudes. Every day I'm closer to dying, and yet every day that I'm not dead, I get to use my body to do cool stuff! Huh!

I wouldn't have been motivated to get in shape if I hadn't have had some scary medical experiences to shake me out of complacency… so I guess having emergency abdominal surgery was the best thing that ever happened to my body? It's tangled up.

How does it make sense that I had some of the best sex of my life while in the depths of grief? It makes perfect sense of course because it's all tangled up.

How is it possible that I cry SO MUCH all the time now, and yet generally speaking am happier than I've ever been after decades of being a tough bitch who never cried (WEAKNESS!), now I cry about everything. Leaves changing color? TEARS! Being terrified of being alone forever? TEARS! Good music? TEARS! Seeing an old friend? TEARS! Because it's all tangled up.

If it was all figured out, it's not any more

I used to be so clear about how good stuff = good, and bad stuff = bad. I used to work so hard to get more good stuff, and avoid any bad stuff. So much striving to avoid bad stuff! So much working to accumulate good stuff! Then it turns out that, surprise! It's actually all the same! It's all tangled up, and in my efforts to avoid bad stuff, I missed some good stuff. And that all my efforts to accumulate good stuff didn't keep the bad stuff from happening anyway.

I used to be clear about a lot of things. There were things I was really clever about, and worked out great systems for managing. I was quite sure that if I kept doing the things that were working, in the ways that I'd figured out how to do them, that they would stay the same and keep working. Well, HA HA on me because here's the reality: that's not how phases of human maturation work! We all know this about children and teenagers — just when you figure out how to manage one phase (toddlerhood: check!), a new one moves in (wait, preschool!?). There are eras where things seem more set or less set, but if you think you have ANYTHING all figured out, you're in a state of actively avoiding the realities of your own maturation.

Oof? The good news here is that it turns out there's LOTS of new shit to figure out. This is tough because figuring shit out means also looking really stupid while you learn… but I've gotten to a place now where I'm like, "If I don't look dumb as fuck, I'm probably not learning as much as I should be." Growth is uncomfortable. Learning is awkward. Maturation isn't something that happens — it's a series of moments that are more or less awkward, depending.

Hidden Blessings book club, anyone?

If thinking about this stuff excites you, I recommend the book Hidden Blessings: Midlife Crisis as a Spiritual Awakening. If you need me, I'll be headed to the midlife crisis retreat this weekend in a rented convertible.

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  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this article! I'm 45, and for the most part, I've enjoyed my 40s so far. I have tried to find ways to approach middle age that make me feel less….well…old and frumpy (I'm talking to you, saggy boobs and suddenly-expanding waistline), but sometimes I just feel tired and worn out and confused. Somehow I thought I'd have it all sorted by now, but I think I'm actually regressing! I try to keep myself active, mentally and physically, by trying new things (like the 25K trail race I just signed up for next spring). My husband and I are extremely fortunate in so many ways, and we have a really fun and exciting and offbeat life overall, but time suddenly seems to be flying by. I've become increasingly aware and frightened of my own mortality, as well as my husband's, particularly since he's 7 1/2 years older than I am. Knowing I'm not alone in these feelings definitely helps.

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    • Congrats on the trail run! That's awesome!

      I totally identify with the "thinking I'd have it all sorted out by now" part. I think that's a huge thing that's blocking me from being happy (I mean, I AM happy, but…) is that I am clinging to ideas I had in my teens and early 20's of how my life, would be, and WHO I would be when I'm in the place I am now, instead of enjoying my life and appreciating it for what it is.

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  2. You have no idea how timely this is. Thank you so much- this feels like exactly what I needed to read this morning. I hope your retreat is awesome and I really look forward to reading whatever you choose to share about it afterwards.

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  3. The bit about thinking an offbeat lifestyle will help you avoid all the mundane crap is SO TRUE. 'I'm not falling for their corporate career BS marriage & babies & white picket fences so I'll be just fine' — hahahahahahhahahahaah no. Here I sit, at 48, with my weird hair, wearing all black, at a table covered with skulls, surrounded by cats, working for a giant corporation so I can pay the mortgage & have food 'n stuff, still struggling to figure life out the same as everyone else. Being weird is no magic talisman against life. It's the same mix of good & bad & it's crazy hard for everyone.

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    • Yeah, that really is the biggest lie we offbeats tell ourselves… that being offbeat will some how save us from bad things. Other people did X and were unhappy, so if I do Y, I will be happier! Annnnnd… Probably not. Do what feels best, but know that you're still dying just like everyone else!

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  4. Thank you! Whew. I can remind myself to breathe now; that I know that I am not the only one.

  5. There with you – I've been privately managing, but hearing what you're going through is incredibly helpful. Enjoy your retreat! I'll be reading the book when you're gone! Can't wait to talk about it!

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  6. What is a Midlife Crisis Retreat? Is that actually a thing?
    At 45 with a career in academia, my midlife crisis is becoming a personal trainer. I may be the only one with a PhD in my community college kinesiology class, but it is still a blast!

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  7. I was just thinking that it sounded more like a spiritual crisis, or awakening than a mid life crisis (then I saw the promo for that book!). Sounds like you already got it figured out. Truly a great example of how something that seems dire can lead to the greatest things, and something that seems great can turn out to be worse than you could imagine. It reminds me of this Taoist tale :http://www.rainbowbody.com/newarticles/farmerson.htm

    The thing is life is never meant to a series of linear progressions as we mature and march towards death. It's more like a spiral, and definitely a dance. Judgements of good and bad are futile since we don't know where they will lead. Things just are, and they are always in alignment for our highest good and for the lessons we need to experience to learn and grow. No need to wait to midlife to soften and surrender into what is… Loving the tangled mess of life whole heartedly but if it happens "mid life" then great, at least you have the next half of your life with this amazing new perspective!

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    • I LOVE THAT TAOIST STORY! I've referenced that many times with myself, as a way to try to ride out the highs and lows of life with more equanimity.

      And you're right: I'm going through a mix of midlife crisis (aging! existentialism! torschlusspanik!) combined with a spiritual awakening (surrender! faith! things bigger than me!). It's a head-fuck, for sure.

  8. I don’t quite qualify for mid-life age-wise, but I guess I just reached the crisis part early, thanks to crap that happened. I have mostly found it humbling. We ain’t no special snowflakes, we’re all just whirling in the currents of a bigger storm we don’t control with all the other flakes, each alone and all the same too. That’s tough to swallow.

    As you said, bad things happen to good people for no reason we can grasp and nothing is black and white. I was raised intensely Catholic, and somehow integrated the notion that if you did good things you were rewarded in life. Yeah, no. I am no longer Catholic but if you read the doctrine, it says you will be rewarded in the after-life, no mention of having an actual easy life first… Learning to trust that there is a reason for things I can’t grasp is a conscious effort, but it does bring serenity when I manage it.

    The consciousness of my own fragility, of how powerless we are in the face of death and illness and plain bad luck adds a kind of crispness to every little thing. I struggle with an urgent need to get things done, in case I never have the oppurtunity again and time is running out yet at the same time being swamped with the futility of it all, because it’s obvious that the goals I measured success by when I was younger won’t all be reached. So have I failed in my life? And yet there is still time to turn around and “do stuff” to make it right. But what stuff? What are my new goals? How can I “win” at this life-thing? Because I am still very much a fighter, it’s just that right now I’m confused on what to fight. Secret; there is no grand finale, I just have to down-size my grand kid visions to attainable levels. When I die, the entire nation will not grieve my passing, because I did not become a superstar. I did not build an actual Empire. My impact is on a much smaller scale, and that is very humbling and yet somehow just as poignant. Learning to be merciful with myself and my failings, cause yeah, I messed up sometimes, is my big challenge right now.

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  9. I just turned 40 and I feel like a total failure*. No kids (want), no LTR at the moment (kind a want too). Knowing that everyone is just winging it helped already but I still feel I need to get cracking on the kids things, not sure how.
    *totally aware I am not though, I have a career and friends and hobbies, it's not like I am 100% a sad cat lady. just maybe 50%? 😉

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  10. I've gotten to a place now where I'm like, "If I don't look dumb as fuck, I'm probably not learning as much as I should be."

    YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!!! An excellent lesson for all phases of life. Benign personal example that really drove it home for me:

    I picked up ballet lat(er) in life, and had a really hard time. It felt really unnatural, and hard, and I was clumsy and occasionally frustrated. I had a great teacher who picked up on my frustration at one point and said something to the effect of "it won't always be this hard." She was right, but I could tell from her tone that she was worried I was going to quit. And I kind of laughed it off, and said that I was learning a lot, and that there is value in feeling like a complete idiot for a few hours each week. And it wasn't until later that I realized that even if I NEVER got good at it (which I didn't, btw), I was still grateful for the humbling experience of being really, really terrible at something and embracing that inadequacy (while also working on it).

    tl/dr: feeling stupid can be good for you.

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    • I probably fill out the higher end of the readership here at 50, but I can relate to your dance story. I've been taking belly dance classes for about 8 years, and it's often unnatural, hard and I feel clumsy and frustrated, even this many years in. But it's also a blast, I enjoy moving my body, I love the women of all ages and sizes that I dance with, and I even love the fear and discomfort right before a performance.

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      • Yep. Just joined karate with husband and son. I would rather do yoga, but we can do this as a family, and it's run by good people, so I endure grappling and people punching me in the face and the break falls, and I enjoy the poetry of the kata and the companionship.

        It's funny, one of my friends just posted the Oprah link that's below. Extremely well-written.

    • I went back to school at 37, which wouldn't seem so bad but I was getting another (I already have 2 because college is how you get a good job and so on and so forth) bachelors but this time in graphic design.

      I had no technical skills. None. I messed up sooo much. I had one professor who listened to me when I said that I was scared and worried and I felt like an idiot because everyone in my class had at least some experience using Illustrator and InDesign, these degrees were necessary for them to get promotions in their jobs as designers or assistant designers. I was starting out as a freshman. My professor said that it would get easier, that I had to stop thinking I could create something new every single time, that nothing is new, nothing is original. She actually told me to steal work from others, not plagiarize but honor the work done before me – be inspired by a magazine layout and use it as a template for my magazine layout.

      It's what I needed to hear. It made the last year of school easier to bear. Mostly. I'm just grateful that she didn't pushaw my concerns but acknowledged me as a truly non-traditional student.

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  11. This is incredibly timely. I'm 33 and I'm still far from a mid-life crisis, but I did hit a major life crisis last year, and I can relate to lots of points you mentioned. The whole "but I had it all figured out" part especially resonates. Nothing makes sense anymore. Will it ever make sense again? I'm finding comfort in the fact that no one really knows what they're doing. We're all struggling.

    • THREE different people sent me that article — and all I can say is YES YES YES. I want to send the author a copy of Hidden Blessings, because it sounds like she could use it. This article is very much from the "all the suck, none of the silver linings" angle… there's a light at the end of the tunnel, if she can see it!

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  12. I'm too young to have a midlife crisis (27 this winter), but I have been going through a rough patch in my career that's left me seeking employment again for the third time in a year. Like entry-level, seasonal employment so I can pay rent. I told my boyfriend the other day that I finally understand a little why some people are nostalgic for high school. High school was a lonely, awful time for me, but I did well in class and my teachers were always encouraging. They made me believe in my own success. I miss feeling like I had potential.

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  13. I think we have life crisis during every age in our journies. Things are not what we were told. For us Gen-Xers, maybe you remember these things: Do good in school, get into college, do good in college, and get a good job. Get married, have a couple of kids – you're living the American Dream.

    None of that, I repeat, NONE of that actually happens unless you force it. I got into college, I got two degrees, I got married. I couldn't get a job other than administrative assistant because there are no job guarantees for Fine Art majors. I got married young. We're still married but we've had a lot of stuff to deal with. No kids, thank God.

    Somehow we're still being sold, and we're still buying, the idea that if we do A, B, C we will end up with good things. So at 42 I still get mad that certain things haven't happened to me yet. But I am comparing myself to the successes of my parents, friends, etc instead of looking at their whole journey. We ignore the whole path. We look only at the successes when we need to look at everything. What successes came from failure? What failures came from following that "10 Things Top Earner's Do Every Morning"? What does my privilege give me? What have I not gotten because of XYZ?

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  14. PS: Just in case anyone thought I was kidding about the convertible.

    "Give me your douchiest," I said to the folks at the rental car place, and they did not disappoint! It was SO MUCH FUN. I cannot lie. Turns out, douchey cars are really, REALLY fun to drive.

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  15. Nothin important to add, just a big thank you. To all the contributors. There is nothin more comforting, than the feeling of not being entirely alone with the dawning realization of adult lifes less stellar qualities. I am still struggling with coming to terms with the whole "doing things right won't automatically lead you on the path to succes". And succes in itself becomes a very murky and questionable goal. I am not where I want to be at, but that's okay, because as the years pass by, I feel less and less certain of where it is I want to be.
    Anyone remember Baz Luhrmann's "Everybody's free to wear sunscreen"? That has been one of the best adulting tips I've ever met. And it really does make more sense the older you get 🙂

  16. I'm experiencing weirdly mixed emotions about midlife. On one hand I'm actually, truly embarrassed to be going on 49, a recent grad with 25+ yrs of work experience and in no way living up to my potential. I feel like I'd be in good shape if I were going on 29 instead. On the other hand I'm thinking, fuck yeah! I have 25+ yrs of an amazing career. I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me! And then I come back around to being a middle aged recent grad who can't seem to get a regular job (on the hunt for over a year), nor do I have space to do my "offbeat" thing to make my own way. OH FORTUNA! Ugh. Every choice I'm making now feel like a major life decision, even if it's just picking a new deodorant. I do eventually circle around to some kind of reassurance that 50 isn't then end, provided the right resources it's as good a time as any to start something new.

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