“When did everybody else get so old?” asks Jennifer Grant in her new book of the same title (Herald Press), a memoir that explores the physical, emotional, and spiritual changes of midlife.
She notes that the word midlife is often uttered as the set-up for a joke, even though it’s usually quickly followed by the word crisis. Her book is often funny, even as she asks hard questions about the ways we think about the second half of life, which can creep up imperceptibly as children age out of the nest or pounce with ferocity in the form of trauma, illness, and divorce.
This crisis really isn’t about age at all.
Grant reveals that the term midlife crisis comes from the German torschlusspanik, which translates as “ ‘shut-door panic,’ or the fear of being on the wrong side of a closing door.” Torschlusspanik isn’t just for the middle years of life, whatever those years may be.
Sometimes the space on the other side of the door feels like dead space—an empty house or one less seat at the table. Lauren Winner wrote of that kind of crisis in Still: Notes on a Mid-faith Crisis (HarperOne), the book that grew out of the dissolution of her first marriage: “I am not thrilled by the idea that I am entering a vague in-between.”
And yet there’s also a particularly potent combination of increasing fragility and growing strength to be found on the other side of shut doors.
Franciscan Father Richard Rohr wrote in Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (Jossey-Bass), that though “most of us tend to think of the second half of life as largely about getting old, dealing with health issues and letting go of our physical life . . . what looks like falling can largely be experienced as falling upward and onward into a broader and deeper world, where the soul has found its fullness, is finally connected to the whole, and lives inside the Big Picture.”
Unfortunately, Rohr also notes, “Before the truth sets you free, it tends to make you miserable.”
I thought of these books as I pushed my 6-year-old son on the swings of the neighborhood playground. When I was my son’s age, my own parents were so much younger than I am now—almost two decades younger. So many of us started parenting later than the previous generation. We now wrestle with the challenges of midlife with small children still at home. We’re straddling two phases of life at once. Doors are shutting around us, but we aren’t ready to move beyond them. Panic isn’t too strong a word.
Is there really a way to fall upward instead of falling apart? I went to these books for answers, but two recent albums also spoke clearly to me of how midlife—or whatever you want to term that anxious, muddy period—can be a time of surprising growth, especially when approached with clear-eyed candor.
In an interview with Rolling Stone Aimee Mann described the title of her album Mental Illness as “so blunt that it’s funny.” To some reviewers it seemed she was throwing some shade at herself—Mann will always be, to many of us, the wild-haired tormented singer of ‘Til Tuesday whose boyfriend implores her to hush and keep it down in the ’80s classic “Voices Carry.” But calling your album Mental Illness telegraphs not just a glib sense of humor but hard-earned self-confidence and an unwillingness to hide or dissemble—marks of artistic and spiritual maturity.
In fact Mental Illness isn’t glib at all; it’s a deeply compassionate record whose author recognizes how hard it is to “be a person,” as Mann told NPR, “to negotiate relationships . . . to negotiate loss . . . to have perspective on your own problems . . . to break out of the habits and dynamics of your childhood.” That commingling of directness and compassion are gifts, I’d like to think, of midlife.
Meanwhile, Canadian singer-songwriter Leslie Feist didn’t want to use the “D-word” (depression) when describing the fog she encountered before writing her last album, Pleasure, telling the Toronto Star that she preferred the religious term “dark night of the soul.” She wanted to avoid pathologizing what is a natural phase of human experience.
“I don’t know if it comes from,” she said, “the vertigo of too many memories, the weight of carrying all these stories and versions of yourself in triangulation of who you are in relation to all these deep, long friendships and crumbled relationships and resilient relationships and, like, who’s real and who turned out to be hollow and who is what they purport to be . . . But it felt like kind of a passion play . . . I got kinda lost there for awhile.”
Fans who knew Feist as the quirky singer of “1 2 3 4” and “Mushaboom” might be surprised by the stark compositions and tone of her latest work. On the album’s title track she sings:
That is how we evolved / we became our needs / ages up inside / escaping similar pain
Feist is wandering the mysterious terrain of midlife, the in-between space where we begin to understand what’s built us and what we’ve built. On a hunch, I looked up her birthday and found she and I were born just six months apart, both bicentennial babies who turned 40 last year.
Maybe midlife is when the mystery begins to lift, when we wake up and notice who we really are—faults and wounds and gifts too. Maybe what feels like an ending, a phase of melancholy, remorse, or regret, is the beginning of a new kind of strength—the mental and spiritual resilience that allows us to be more fully present to each other when it gets hard to “be a person.”
“We move forward in ways that we do not even understand and through the quiet workings of time and grace,” Rohr writes. “When we get there, we are never sure just how it happened, and God does not seem to care who gets the credit, as long as our growth continues.”
A version of this article also appears in the July 2017 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 82, No. 7, pages 38–39).