Take a couple of minutes to read a splendid little essay in the New York Times by Wajahat Ali, about “A Midlife Crisis in the Age of Trump.” Wajahat does a good job summarizing a major accelerant of a midlife feedback loop: the seemingly overwhelming feeling that time is running out.
It’s not true, of course. Wajahat is only 37. He’s already an accomplished writer, a television commentator, a performed playwright, a husband and father, and more. Yet, he writes,
I fear that I’ll never accomplish my “to do list by 40,” which includes writing that best-selling novel, creating that epic comic book hero and hosting a talk show that I imagine could bring understanding to a polarized country.
In his mind, this wasn’t supposed to happen to him:
I used to think a midlife crisis was a problem manufactured by privileged suburbanites. But my personal angst combined with my anxiety about the state of the country have made mine feel very real.
His experience is very much like mine and many others’. Starting in my late thirties, and then intensifying into my mid-forties, I couldn’t ward off pestiferous feelings and ideations that nothing I was doing in my life was worthwhile. Compounding those feelings was a sense that time was closing in on me. If I didn’t quit my job and light out for Africa (or wherever) to win a Nobel prize right now, it would soon be too late.
When I spoke with him at a conference in April, I told Wajahat that this really isn’t about his actual career or accomplishments; it’s a psycho-emotional transition that will go on for a number of years, with a major payoff after 50. That ever-so-urgent to-do list will recede in importance as his values shift away from racking up points on life’s social scoreboard and toward core relationships and connections. He will come to feel, as an older friend told me when I was in my 40s, that ambition is overrated.
He got that, but his reaction, understandably, was (as he writes): “What? I have to wait until 50? Hell no!”
What can help Wajahat right now? His own strategy: “I went back and recommitted to my ‘to do list,’ but with one major edit: I deleted ‘by 40’ and added ‘inshallah’ (Arabic for God willing).” He is using his rational mind to de-emphasize the artificially short time horizon which his feelings are trying to impose on him.
If Wajahat keeps reminding himself to delete “by 40” from his thoughts, he’s doing a kind of home-brew cognitive behavioral therapy: breaking self-defeating thought patterns. That’s a useful strategy, though not a complete solution, because his feelings, not his reasoning mind, are running the show.
By the same token, it’s also useful to know—and to remind ourselves—that the idea that we peak in midlife and then slide into physical and developmental decline is bunkum. In fact, people nowadays often stay physically healthy and developmentally vigorous into their eighties, and they tap sources of joy and depths of contentment that were not available to them at 37. On the odds, Wajahat is nowhere near his peak. Society’s stereotypes about aging are part of the reason so many people feel in middle age that time is running out.
Message to Wajahat and others sharing his feelings: you have lots of time. And the transition you’re experiencing will help you use it better. Understanding those facts is not a magic bullet in midlife (there is none), but it helps ease the time trap.