Personal disclosure time: I’ll be 50 on my next birthday in a few weeks. Given the massive upheavals in my own personal and professional lives as I crossed that invisible threshold into “middle age”, I’ve felt fairly attuned to the cultural narratives we have around the “mid-life crisis” and the weighty expectations for “achieving dreams”, for better and for worse. I may not have acquired the jaunty red sports car as part of my transition, but when I replaced my beloved but aging Elantra last fall, I admit I *did* go out of my way to ensure my next vehicle was red. I’m still waiting for the equally-sporty blonde to show up in my life, though.
I had a realization this past week, along the lines of achieving dreams, that I have finally achieved the dream I set for myself ten years ago when I set out on the path to become a full-time, self-supporting therapist “eventually”. In doing so, I also confronted the fact that, having now achieved my dreams (dreams I didn’t even know I really had a decade ago), I was suddenly facing a gap where the driving ambition of my life has firmly resided for the last decade. It was like popping the hood on my shiny new(ish) car and finding the entire engine block had disappeared overnight. Lemme tell you, when one is talking about the subject of “the dreams that drive us”, it’s actually a terrifying thing to recognize you’ve hit the achievement milestone and the rest of your future ahead lies under a thick and obscure fog that spells out, “So now what??”
Something I was reading recently really drove home the power these Dreams can have on us. David Wexler (2004), quoting earlier research from Levinson (1978), writes,
Levinson’s research (1978) identifies a crucial aspect of […] adult development called the Dream. If you […] have lived through young adulthood with a vision of how your life should be, then you have been guided by the Dream. This stage of adult life is dominated by a push toward productivity.
This sense of purpose, while very challenging and often difficult to fulfill, is very organizing. You are guided by clear goals and themes. The obstacles are tangible, the achievements (for the most part) measurable.
The increasing awareness of your ticking clock at midlife, however, often causes the values that governed this Dream stage to lose their hold over the order of things. Two types of disorientation and disillusionment can occur.
[…] The first type of crisis strikes when you wake up one day and realize that the Dream is not going to happen. You face the often sobering realization that what you see is what you get. […] You may fear that there is nothing to look forward to except for a slow deterioration and narrowed possibilities.
[…]The second type of crisis affects you if you have achieved your dream–but suddenly find it meaningless. It does not fulfill you: “So what? Now I am successful. I don’t feel any happier.” (pgs. 76-77)
My own recent epiphany was closer to the second option than the first, not so much because the achievement had lost meaning (don’t get me wrong, I love the work that I do, and expect to keep finding the meaning in it until I’m too old to keep doing the work) as because I am definitely at that “So what now?” stage. I also came face to face with recognizing that achieving Dreams of this magnitude are also a profound privilege; not everyone gets to reach these kinds of pinnacle in spite of all their efforts, and there are a lot of bitter and disappointed people in the world who judge themselves harshly for that perception of failure. Admittedly, I often look at my choice to toss my IT career out the window in favour of grad school and a slow career change path as the start of my actual mid-life crisis. I had hit the wall in a hard way in my job of the time, and realized it was never going to go anywhere, and that even changing jobs and companies was simply going to be a case of “same shit, different basket”… and I was done with that basket (or so I thought, but that’s another story entirely). So I *get* both sides of the “ticking clock” that Wexler describes above.
These kinds of discussions are starting to come up in my client work more directly now, or maybe this is just the attunement I spoke of earlier. Sometimes it’s a client (or a client’s spouse) talking about a midlife affair; often it’s a midlife recognition of dissatisfaction and a sense of stagnation. Often it’s a question that preoccupies people to the point of distress: “I did everything my family/culture/society at large expected of me as an adult, what am I not happy? Why do I feel so restless??” The restlessness becomes a kind of emotional agitation much of the time, manifesting as depression as the disillusionment takes hold, or sometimes coming out as a kind of generalized anger at the world (or partners/families) as a sense of failure or profound disappointment turns outward rather than reflectively inward.
Sometimes we can achieve a Dream as a plateau and find there are a whole raft of new Dreams that we can now set from there; and sometimes we hit the plateau and it’s all we can do to lie there gasping for breath before we can even roll over and notice there’s more to see from here. Sometimes we hit a plateau and see nothing but fog. And sometimes those plateaus never happen. The paths forward all seem to involve the same piece of work: reorientation, and (if necessary) redefinition. Wexler refers to the need to “regain vitality” (pg. 77) as a critical response to this state of Dream recognition (fulfilled or unfulfilled), and the need most people will have to both look inward at the initial signs of distress, and making smart choices about what we do in response to identifying a state of even mild distress. Midlife affairs are a common response to seeking revitalization, for example, but often involve a lack of awareness about the internal distress, and certainly point to making choices that might be incongruent with previously-stated personal values. This is a great example of learning to differentiate between the feelings we have, and the actions we CHOOSE to engage in reaction or response to them.
I don’t yet know what the path off my own current plateau looks like, so I empathize completely with my fellow human beings stuck in the same place. Right now I’m still lying on the rocks trying to catch my breath. I’m aware there’s a vista to appreciate now that I’m here, but I’m also aware I can’t stay here forever; I’ve never been much of one for choosing stagnation. I just need some time to figure out next steps so that I can make smart choices, and as I figure that process, I’m trusting that it will help clarify how to have similar conversations with people around me on their own plateaus.