I’ve lately been surveying the simultaneously bewildering and utterly banal landscape that is middle age. It’s a natural thing to do because, well, this is the terrain that I am in the midst of personally traversing. But in addition to looking inward, I’ve been looking out, too. And I’ve been struck by what emerges out of the cracks of conversations and comments of people in the same stage of life. It’s hard. Perhaps not harder than other stages of life, but certainly hard in unique and uniquely challenging ways.
What I hear and what I see is that many people are struggling, sometimes silently, sometimes loudly (broadcasting their pain on social media, etc.). People are failing, sometimes spectacularly, sometimes incrementally, like the drip-drip-drip of a leaky faucet. People are at times confused, at times bewildered, at times resigned, at times annoyed, at times avoiding reality, at times barely hanging on. People are dulling the pain and the dissatisfaction in the usual ways—substances, entertainment, distractions, manic exercise and dieting, holidays they can’t afford. But pain and dissatisfaction are, of course, rather more difficult to treat than this.
It is mid-way on the journey that marriage often gets hard. Set aside, for a moment, the spectacular instances of betrayal and infidelity. These are excruciating and are kind of their own separate category. As I look around and listen in, it is often the ordinary, everydayness of life that chips away at love and faithfulness. Resentments and bitterness easily pile up. Paths not taken, needs not met, promises not kept, hopes unrealized, expectations not communicated—all of these things accumulate over years and decades and it’s easy to arrive at a place where it seems easier to jump out of the boat than to keep paddling. Mid-way is when you look around and you see marriages falling apart.
It is mid-way on the journey that parenting can get hard. Teenage years are often excruciatingly difficult. They can make you long for the days of dirty diapers, stubborn toddlers, and elementary school anxieties. This is the stage of life where kids are often struggling with the enormous pressures of middle and high school, of young adulthood and the endless questions and crises this can produce. And, of course, you can multiply all of this by about a thousand for kids growing up in the digital age, with the myriad challenges presented by living life online, This can also be the stage of life where kids start to make poor choices, where parents and kids begin to disappoint each other in really painful ways. And, of course, it almost goes without saying (but apparently doesn’t) that the pressures of parenting can take an enormous toll on a marriage.
It is mid-way on the journey when vocational questions often begin to loudly (re)assert themselves. Perhaps you’ve been doing the same thing for five, ten, fifteen years. Your years of formal education, with all of the opportunity and promise they portended, are likely receding in the rear-view mirror. Perhaps you thought you’d be further along than this by now. Perhaps you anticipated more victories than defeats, more successes than failures, more fulfillment than frustration by now. Mid-way is when it’s easy and natural to ask questions like, “Can I really do this for another twenty-five years? Is this all there is? Should I be giving myself to something different, something more life-giving, something that more closely aligned with my gifts and interests?” And, of course it almost goes without saying (but apparently doesn’t) that crises of vocation can take an enormous toll on parenting and marriage.
It is mid-way on the journey when your body starts to remind you that you are not, in fact, invincible or immortal. Everything starts to hurt more and take longer to recover from. This is the stage of life when you sometimes start to exercise more regularly and try to eat better but realize that these things are more about maintenance than they are some magic elixir of youth that will wind back the clock. Mid-way is when it evidently (and inexplicably) becomes possible to hurt yourself while sleeping. Mid-way is when you begin to buy the big bottle of Advil.
It is mid-way on the journey when you start to see people suffer. Or at least start paying more attention. Perhaps this is particularly true in the church or in other “helping” professions, I don’t know. When you’re young, suffering and death are mostly abstractions, things that we’ll have to face ourselves or help those we love through “one day.” Mid-way is when “one day” moves from the category of “theoretical possibility” to “inevitability.” And it’s easy to wonder, “How will I handle this? Have I paid attention to the right things? Have I cultivated the sort of practices and disciplines that will help me go through the hard things well?”
It is mid-way on the journey when faith can come to seem somehow harder. Perhaps the easy certainties of earlier years have been worn off by the complexity of life. Perhaps God seems more remote and less present than he once did. Perhaps you’ve lost your appetite for some of the disciplines and practices that once sustained a robust and engaged faith. Perhaps God was easier to love when you were younger, when everything seemed less confusing, before black and white was overwhelmed by grey. Maybe it was easier to trust God before you started to lose people you loved. Maybe church was once a place of vibrancy and vitality and now you’re not even sure you’re buying what they’re selling. It’s just one more thing to check off your to-do list each week. Or not.
It is mid-way on the journey when you realize that you only have so many ideas and they probably aren’t as great as you once thought they were. It’s when you notice some fairly predictable patterns and tendencies in your life that aren’t that easy to modify. It’s when you’re startled by how frequently, despite your own personal conviction that you are God’s gift to clear and cogent communication, you misunderstand and are misunderstood. It’s when you often have to face the awful truth of just how easy it is to hurt people, even (or especially) people you love. It’s when you realize that it’s quite likely there is more time in your past than in your future. It’s when you have to begin wrestle (if you haven’t already) with the inevitable truth that human life comes with profound limitations.
This all has the strong odour of cliché to it, I know. The mid-life crisis and all that. But clichés do come from somewhere. And this is what I see and hear, both out there in the lives of friends and peers and acquaintances and in the sociological data, and in here, in my own experience. It’s not all I see and hear (thanks be to God), but these are certainly some prominent features of the landscape mid-way.
This should be the point of the story where I tie things up in a nice Jesus-y bow, but I’m going to resist that temptation. Mostly, at any rate. Perhaps surprisingly (I am a pastor, after all), I am suspicious of nice Jesus-y bows. It’s not that I don’t think that Jesus is the way at every stage of our lives. I am convinced that he is. But I know how cheap and easy it can sound to a person in pain when someone trots out a bunch of religious truisms. And I know how hollow it can feel to be the one speaking them out loud.
I did say “mostly,” though, and I will say this. I do think that mid-way can be a time for the rediscovery of grace. Grace for one another, grace for ourselves, grace for those who can’t seem to get it together, grace for those who ought to know better by now, grace for those who are crawling out of messes that they have made, grace for those who are still stuck in the middle of them. Mid-way can be a time where we realize that everyone’s fighting their own battle, that most people are actually trying (or wanting to), that it’s not always easy to be human.
Oh dear, did I really write that last sentence? Speaking of clichés… Sigh.
I’m sorry if you expected something better or more hopeful from a pastor. Maybe something like “Ten Simple Steps to Get Through Your Mid-life Crisis with Jesus” or something like that (come to think of it, I think I saw one of these amidst the three hundred other “Ten Steps to a Better You” articles that I’ve encountered in the first two weeks of this new decade). You’d probably be right to expect better, at any rate. All I can offer in my meager defense is that I write here not always or exclusively as a “religious professional” or some kind of “expert” on the ways of God [shudder]. Sometimes—most times, probably—I write simply as a fellow pilgrim on the way. Mid-way, in this case.