Kieran Setiya, The Midlife Crisis. An outstanding essay. What exactly is a midlife crisis?
In the form that will concern us, then, the midlife crisis is an apparent absence of meaning or significance in life that allows for the continued presence of reasons to act. Although it is often inspired by the acknowledgement of mortality, the crisis can occur in other ways. It may be enough to prompt the midlife crisis that you see in your future, at best, only more of the achievements and projects that make up your past. Your life will differ only in quantity from the life you have already lived, a mere accumulation of deeds.
A weblog as I envisage it is a form of writing that is midway between the unpublished privacy of the personal journal and the publicity of an article published in a professional journal. The blogs that interest me the most are thus those that include some of the self-reference of a Facebook page absent the full-bore, and boring, narcissism that characterizes most of them while retaining, in the main, an objective trans-personal focus. This by way of justifying some talk of myself.
Setiya's characterization of the midlife crisis fits my case almost exactly. My crisis lasted a long four years, starting at age 41. In the fifth year, a year's worth of travel and teaching and study in Turkey pulled me out of it. Three years later, at age 49, I embarked upon the happiest period of my entire life, a period which continues into the present. And the decline of physical powers consequent upon aging does not prevail against my sense of well-being. Looking back on the difficult crisis years, I ask myself: What was that all about?
"It may be enough to prompt the midlife crisis that you see in your future, at best, only more of the achievements and projects that make up your past." Exactly. That was the trigger for me, that and the action I took at 41.
Hired right out of graduate school at 28, I was awarded tenure at 34. Until tenure, life for an academic can be an emotional roller-coaster. It's up and down with the prospect of up or out, and if out, then most likely out for the count. Tenure brings a measure of peace. I settled in and enjoyed the job security. But then the worm began to gnaw. What now? More of the same? Will I spend the rest of my life in this boring midwest venue among these limited colleagues, decent people most of them, but academic functionaries more than real philosophers? Teaching intro and logic, logic and intro to the bored and boring? What starts out an exciting challenge can turn into a living death. It is truly awful to have to teach philosophy to a class of 35 only five of whom have a clue as to the purposes of a university and a scintilla of intellectual eros. It is like trying to feed the unhungry. (Cf. John Henry Cardinal Newman, The Idea of a University, a book overpaid administrators ought to be hit upside the head with and then forced to memorize.)
And then there was the rising tide of political correctness that in those days was only about half as bad as it has become. Why anyone with a conservative bent and a real love of the life of the mind would embark upon the quixotic quest for an academic post in the humanities in the current culturally Marxist climate is beyond me. You might get really lucky, find a job, and get tenure. But to what avail? You wanted to live the life of the mind in a university, not have to keep your mouth shut and your head down in a leftist seminary. No free man wants to spend his life in dissimulation.
Philosophy is different things to different people. For me it is a spiritual quest. Try to explain that to the average hyperprofessionalized and overspecialized academic hustler. The quest demands isolation from academic careerists and busybodies. It demands time for spiritual practices such as meditation. And so at age 41, having spent two years in a visiting associate professorship at a better school, I abandoned the tenured position at my home institution to live the life of the independent philosopher.
It was a bold move, foolish in the eyes of the world. "What about your career?" I was asked. The bold move triggered my midlife crisis and led me into the desert for a good long period of purgation. I have emerged from it a better man.
So if any of you are in the midst of a midlife crisis, view it as a sort of purgatory on earth. Perhaps you need to be purged of vain ambitions and unrealistic expectations. Make the most of it and you may emerge from it better than when you went in. Don't try to escape it by doing something rash like running off to Las Vegas with a floozie. Endure it and profit from it. If you must buy a motorcycle, do as a colleague of mine did: he rode it through his midlife crisis and then had the good sense to sell it.
Related: The Real Roots of Midlife Crisis. A good Atlantic article on happiness and the U-curve.