Tuesday, August 09, 2005

The Screaming Passage

Mid-life crisis.

An incredible majority of the men I know have some form of mid-life crisis somewhere from ages 41-45. Myself included.

What the hell is a "mid-life crisis" you ask? (Particularly you females, and males under 40). It's fundamentally an identity crisis.

It can be triggered by external events. Sometimes it's "empty nest", or a change in job status, or finding one too many grey hairs on the shower floor. Some men experience a physical change akin to female menopause, wherein a drop in testosterone causes multiple physical and psychological changes. But this doesn't happen to everyone, and even when it does I believe it is just another possible trigger of the internal mental turmoil that is the true mid-life crisis.

And even without major external triggers one day most of us wake up and realize
"This is not my beautiful wife! This is not my beautiful house!"
(Or, if you didn't listen to a lot of Talking Heads, it may be more of a "I'm running out of time. Is this all there is?")

Author Gail Sheehy once wrote a book about women's menopause, The Silent Passage, which was well received. She later followed this up with Understanding Men's Passages, discussing the "fears and self-doubts of men over 40 who struggle with identity crises both at work and with their partners and children."

"Identity crisis" is a term coined by Erik Erikson, who primarily used it to describe certain features of mental development during the teen years. But I think Sheehy was right in using this term to describe a similar period of exploration and redefinition with respect to the social world that occurs in a mid-life crisis.

"What's wrong?"
"Nothing."
"Why won't you talk to me?"
"About what?"
"About what's bothering you."
"I don't know what's bothering me!"


Introspection is not the strong suit of most men I know. It's neither taught nor encouraged. (And it's not just our fault - most guys learn early on that "sensitive male" translates to "nice guys finish last" and "I think of you as a friend"). And this probably contributes to the confusion and inability to articulate or deal with the mental turmoil an identity crisis can induce.

The ways men deal with it run the gamut, from the cliches of a new sports car, new girlfriend, or new hairpiece, to less obvious changes like the start of a new hobby, new friends, or new job. There is one thing in common - change.

We don't know why we feel unsatisfied (or sometimes even that that is what we are feeling). Even the most happy men I know - happily married, great family life, great job satisfaction, clear life achievements - start to get this niggling after 40. And like men, we act. We change something.

What we change may not have anything to do with the root cause of the crisis. And it may not (usually does not) actually stop the feeling. The change usually affects all those around us, some peripherally, and some devastatingly. Which means that the male mid-life crisis is not just a problem for the male, it's a problem for everyone around him.

It could be that processes for change management exist that would help guide us through this period. But it probably falls into the same category as so many other trivial events that affect only a very few people and don't deserve a concentrated scientific exploration and solution (like selecting a mate, the raising of children, the death of a parent).

Or it could be that I have the wrong perspective. I should apply some of those great business school aphorisms, like "Change brings opportunity," (Nido Qubein) or "Effective people are not problem-minded; they're opportunity minded." (Steven Covey)

Or maybe just back to David Byrne...
And you may ask yourself
Where does that highway go?
And you may ask yourself
Am I right?...Am I wrong?
And you may tell yourself
MY GOD!...WHAT HAVE I DONE?

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