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It's Not a Mid-Life Crisis

06/17/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

For years, we have labeled the stock-taking of middle age as a "mid-life crisis". Stereotypes abound of balding men leaving their portly wives and their mundane treadmill jobs to escape to a hedonistic resort in a convertible sports car with a beautiful twenty-something in the passenger seat. Or, the distaff version: dynamic but unappreciated wife leaves "domestic slavery" and finds true love and good fortune on a Mediterranean Isle. These characters have absorbed the fortune cookie inspiration of "Today is the first day of the rest of your life," and, we assume that, having reached the mid-point of their time on earth, they are opting for a re-boot or course correction for the second half.

If we truly examine the process of middle age introspection, however, we will find that most folks are really dealing not with a "mid-life" crisis, but an "end-of-life" crisis. The forties and fifties are, for many, the first time they have actually internalized the idea that life is finite and that death is a reality. It is that appreciation of their own mortality that drives these behaviors and choices. Decisions made and actions taken don't reflect "new opportunities" as much as they do "last chances". For some, middle age provides the stimulus to pursue unfulfilled dreams. Others' reaction is to opt for denial, and surround themselves with companions and environments that allow them to believe that they have returned to their "immortal" twenties and thirties.

"Mid-life" does sound comforting, even for those who accept that they are on the downhill slope of life's mountain. But, "end-of-life" provides a motivation and an inspiration for middle aged adults to authentically reevaluate their values, beliefs, and choices while still able to do so. How do I want the story of my life to read, and what will be the last chapters in my personal journal -- and my personal journey? Facing time's inevitable progress might trigger a narcissistic escapism in those of fragile character. But, for those who accept or embrace the reality of mortal life, it also affords the opportunity to review and, as needed, edit their scripts to better reflect their life's theme or purpose.

Maturity is not solely a function of age. The acknowledgment of one's existence, not only as self, but as a member of community and humanity should inspire an empathy and altruism with one's fellow travelers. The futility of greedily feeding appetites for material wealth and power should be clear as the end of life looms ever closer.

No, it's never been a "mid-life" crisis. Let's call it what it is -- an "end-of-life" crisis. Or, even better, a crisis of conscience and a call for wise judgment: How should I live my last days?