THE BLOG
10/11/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Living With Meaning At "Midlife"

Because I received so many inquiries over the last week from people who described some kind of existential angst or sincere concern about "midlife," I've decided to take a short detour from the way that I began our Living with Meaning conversation. In this week's post, I would like to address directly the search for meaning during midlife--a natural stage and, frequently, a critical crossroads on our life path. So please forgive me, you'll have to wait until next week to learn about the third core principle of Viktor Frankl's System of Logotherapy that I introduce in my book, Prisoners of Our Thoughts!

What is this so-called "midlife" and why should we even be concerned about it? Indeed, if I ask you to tell me the first word that comes to mind when I say "midlife," what would it be? More often than not, the word "crisis" would pop up as being most closely associated with the word "midlife." And when we describe people who appear to be experiencing a "midlife crisis," we usually don't describe them as being very "healthy," nor do we tend to describe them in glowing or positive terms. In some way, they seem to be lost, their lives appear to be devoid of authentic meaning, and they may look--and even behave--like they are "regressing" in order to capture time gone by. Let's face it, people with these characteristics are not a very pretty sight! And, regrettably, they often become a burden on those around them.

So, again, what do we mean by "midlife" and how is it truly related to (or should we dare go so far as to say that it actually causes) a life "crisis?" As someone who considers himself still in midlife, I wanted, among other things, to see if I could learn something new about me since my life has always been in "transition." How about you? (I recall the words of my ancient Greek ancestor, Heraclitus, who said, and let me paraphrase, that "you never walk through the same river twice!").

From what I can discern, midlife transition is a natural stage that happens to "many" of us at "some" point in our lives. Exactly when this point occurs, to muddy the waters further, is open to debate, although there appears to be agreement that it occurs usually at about age 40 years, give or take 20 years (how's that for precision)!

Defining midlife, better known as midlife transition, is easier to do by describing the symptoms or behavioral manifestations that have been found to be associated with it. These symptoms may and can include the following:

• Discontentment or boredom with life or with one's lifestyle (including people and things) that, more than likely, have provided fulfillment for a long time
• Feeling restless and wanting to do something completely different
• Questioning decisions made years earlier
• Questioning the meaning of life, including "Is that all there is?"
• Confusion about who you are, i.e., self-doubt, and/or where your life is going (For example, "Am I a failure?")
• Yearning for an earlier time in one's life and/or a desire to return to/take back one's youth and the things that it represents in mind, body, and spirit
• Sadness, depression, irritability, unexpected anger, aggression

Midlife is also a time when many adults take on new job responsibilities and, therefore, often feel a need to reassess where they are and make changes while they feel they still have time. In this regard, it was a psychologist, Elliot Jaques, who coined the term "midlife crisis" in a 1965 article in which he referred to a time when adults begin to realize their own mortality and reflect upon how much time they may have left in their lives.

The range of what we see and do
Is limited by what we fail to notice.
And because we fail to notice
That we fail to notice,
There is little we can do
To change
Until we notice
How failing to notice
Shapes our thoughts and deeds.
--R.D. Laing

But midlife is not only a time for reassessing our lives in the face of our own mortality. This transitional stage is also a time when our bodies undergo physical and hormonal changes. Coupled with the emotional changes (refer to the list above) that occur during this "transition," life at midlife can be quite challenging even if it does not reach the level of "crisis" per se. Likewise, even though these symptoms at midlife can occur naturally, they also could result from some significant loss or change--such as divorce, loss of a job, the death of a parent, having to care for aging parents, or children leaving the "nest." Coming to terms with such loss or change, which often comprises a real "crisis" of its own, can be difficult enough, but when it is complicated by midlife transition, the process can feel bewildering and overwhelming.

Again, it is especially at midlife when we encounter a critical crossroads on the path to meaning. Rather than having a so-called "midlife crisis," writes Mark Gerzon in his book, Coming Into Our Own: Understanding the Adult Metamorphosis, we can, during this period, begin a search for deeper love, purpose, and meaning that becomes possible in life's "second" half. In other words, envisioning life as a quest, not a crisis, during and after midlife is an opportunity that holds great potency for all. Indeed, with increases in life expectancy, which is influencing how we define "midlife," more people of all ages are beginning to view life's second half as a meaningful pathway to unlimited possibilities. Indeed, whether or not you believe that the Chinese word, weiji (危機 translated as "crisis") is composed of the characters for "danger" and "opportunity," the fact remains that, in the final analysis, opportunity always awaits those who are experiencing "midlife," no matter what their chronological age or personal circumstances.

Retirement at later stages of life demands attention to questions of meaning. Why is it, for instance, that some people seem to "retire" from life while others simply transform or redesign themselves for new and meaningful challenges in living and work? The life and legacy of Viktor Frankl have taught us, in no uncertain terms, to approach the aging process from a position of personal strength and in a way that respects the dignity of the human spirit. The post-midlife years of Dr. Frankl, who had not retired at over 90 years of age, provides a window for us to see how important both the will to meaning and the freedom to choose our attitude can actually be throughout our lifetime.

Not too long ago I came across a gentleman by the name of R. Waldo McBurney, who had been recognized as "America's Oldest Worker" in 2006. At the time, Mr. McBurney was only 104 years young! Among his many accomplishments since passing through "midlife," Waldo also became a published author (at the age of 102 years, I should add!). But what is truly remarkable about his work is his attitude and perspective towards life itself. Waldo's view of life is reflected in the title of his book, which I proudly display in my library: My First 100 Years! Now how is that for exercising the freedom to choose your attitude? Moreover, when you read about Waldo's life, you learn right away that his is a life with meaning. Waldo, you make Viktor Frankl very proud!

It's time to go inward, take a look at myself.
Time to make the most of the time that I've got left.
Prison bars imagined are no less solid steel.
--Rodney Crowell (Track #4 from the album, Fate's Right Hand)

So, what about your life? And for those of you who are worried, concerned, or struggling with midlife (and beyond), please keep Waldo McBurney in mind. And be willing to explore and accept your feelings, while not becoming a "prisoner" of your own thoughts. Allow yourself time to reflect upon your life regularly, not only when you are forced to confront life's challenges or "crises." At worst, try to view your glass of life as being half-full, rather than half-empty (I recall a former client describing his glass as being not only half-empty but leaking too!). To be sure, there are many, many things that you may do--physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually--to live with meaning at all stages of life, including midlife. Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to go find "Waldo," in you!

I look forward to learning from your thoughts, questions, and experiences. Let's continue to use this forum to learn from and support each other so that we may all live with meaning no matter what "stage" of life we may find ourselves at the moment! And remember to stay tuned in the weeks ahead for more principles for discovering meaning in your life and work!

You can find out more about Dr. Alex Pattakos in his HuffPost Bio and at http://www.prisonersofourthoughts.com. Contact Alex at: alex@prisonersofourthoughts.com.