What is a “midlife crisis” and why should I care?

In contrast to my last five or ten posts, all of which were desultory criticisms of religious belief and inclinations, this one is really bad. It’s all about me, or worse yet, men approaching 40.
In an unusually intense conversation earlier tonight with someone more comfortable with Earth than I am, it was suggested (don’t you love the passive voice?) that I was having a “midlife crisis.”
As usual, I balked at this not so much because of the implications but because of my lack of understanding. I know there is no hard-fast definition of “mid-life crisis,” but it appears fair to ask others for their opinions on the matter. (I refuse to consult Wikipedia just yet.)
See, I always thought this appellation was reserved for men (and men only) approaching 50 who had achieved marriage and career status and had become bored or disillusioned with their real or perceived path in life. And wanted really flashy cars, or a new chick. Put differently, a version of the “empty-nest syndrome” as applied to men, ordinarily not the chief caregivers in the family. Something therefore only applicable to those enjoying a certain SES and relationship status and therefore applicable to people other than, well, me.


Some background: I am unmarried and have had no distinct career path, although I have recently acquired a full-time job in the field I claim as my favorite. I have a bachelor’s degree in physics and attempted a medical degree, performing admirably until I fucked that up in ways not quite worth discussing here. So I was in grad school until I was 27 or so.
Much of my reason for not finding a permanent mate is rooted in rank irresponsibility, lassitude, or other factors which would rightfully give any sane potential mate serious pause; I have also used distance running–something I at which at was always decent (I came within minutes of qualifying for my country’s Olympic Team Trials in) but never great at. I also drank a lot. In the meantime, I was able to carve out a marginal living as a freelance writer. At the same time, I was often if not usually involved in a serious romantic relationship.
These matters were always wonderfully complimentary: As a running bum,I had an excuse for rarely securing full-time employment. Whoever I met along the way was always aware of this and could hence be considered fully apprised–yet there was always someone like that, and I tried, usually to little avail, to treat her well.
So here I am in the year of my 40th birthday having forsaken two major goals. Running is something I do “for my head,” but long gone are the 100-mile training weeks aimed at this or that competitive event. Thanks to other recent events, I will not be attempting to take any more relationship hostages anytime soon. In fact, were anyone in my small circle of friends inclined to “set me up” with someone, I would probably have to deliver a forceful roundhouse punch to said person’s face. Such arrangements, however contrived, usually turn out to be a bad idea.
Most recently I’ve faced the prospect of giving up on two major areas of my life. It shouldn’t seem like a big deal to scale back one’s running to the recreational level or (some might disagree here) decide that relationships are simply a bad idea, best left to those who feel they can handle them. At the same time, this leaves a gap in my outlook, and it doesn’t help that this comes at a time when I am seeing gray hairs and other evidences of a body that will eventually fail altogether.
The notion of pouring more into work–and I have a lot of it–seems goofy at this point, as it delivers an unusual amount of money but little in the way of psycho-emotional returns. I keep falling behind on it. And I can’t envision taking on the idea of traditional hobbies of men my age, whatever they are. Come to think of it, I’m only making fun of myself–what else is there?
I start volunteering at an animal shelter soon. That’s a start, I guess, but doesn’t seem to tap into whatever it is I am saying here.
By the way, mockery is appreciated at least as much as “advice” here. I’m just casting bullshit out there as a foil to the incessant religion-knocking stuff I’ve indulged in lately. So don’t feel compelled to give advice.

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  1. #1 by llewelly on February 28, 2009 - 10:15 pm

    I start volunteering at an animal shelter soon. That’s a start, I guess, but doesn’t seem to tap into whatever it is I am saying here.

    It’s a clear indicator you have given up on human partners and turned to animal partners.

  2. #2 by llewelly on February 28, 2009 - 10:15 pm

    I start volunteering at an animal shelter soon. That’s a start, I guess, but doesn’t seem to tap into whatever it is I am saying here.

    It’s a clear indicator you have given up on human partners and turned to animal partners.

  3. #3 by Sbrd on February 28, 2009 - 11:51 pm

    IMO, midlife crises are more around 40 than 50. Guys are more subject to them than women in my experience. It’s kind of an OMG is this all there’ll ever be?! reaction. But what about this other stuff I dreamed of doing?! Oh oh, gotta do that stuff before it’s too late.
    It’s fear of mortality really, a sense (usually incorrect) that the path to old age has now become clear, and there’ll be no more surprises in store.
    I’ve seen some crazy stuff going on as a result of this phenomenon, that’s for sure…

  4. #4 by Sbrd on February 28, 2009 - 11:51 pm

    IMO, midlife crises are more around 40 than 50. Guys are more subject to them than women in my experience. It’s kind of an OMG is this all there’ll ever be?! reaction. But what about this other stuff I dreamed of doing?! Oh oh, gotta do that stuff before it’s too late.
    It’s fear of mortality really, a sense (usually incorrect) that the path to old age has now become clear, and there’ll be no more surprises in store.
    I’ve seen some crazy stuff going on as a result of this phenomenon, that’s for sure…

  5. #5 by DrugMonkey on March 1, 2009 - 1:31 am

    I’d suggest going with the red motorcycle. that’s always a winner.

  6. #6 by simba on March 1, 2009 - 9:24 am

    With skater pants and a black shirt- that seems to be the midlife crisis uniform around here.
    You could always write a book or six.

  7. #7 by T. Bruce McNeely on March 1, 2009 - 9:51 am

    Extreme sports!
    Snowboarding
    White water kayaking
    Street luge
    Rock climbing
    IronMan triathlon
    Ultra marathoning
    Hang gliding
    Surfing
    Downhill mountain biking
    Not extreme:
    Pole walking
    Lawn bowling
    Curling
    Water aerobics
    Hope this helps…

  8. #8 by Michael Render on March 1, 2009 - 10:21 am

    I find the 40’s to be hard. It is a time when you are old (and hopefully wise) enough to take a realistic look at your life and ambitions and young enough to still have ambitions. It is the beginning of the realist period. I think that is why so many people buy that dream car or motorcycle. That feeling of “oh my gosh, I’d better do it now.” I took up Tae Kwon Do.

  9. #9 by hinschelwood on March 1, 2009 - 10:54 am

    Not a comment on the post, I just noticed the time it took to load the “chimps” picture on the left side of the page. So I downloaded it for a closer look. Yup, 851×564 pixels, shrunk into the space of a thumbnail. Half a megabyte for a thumbnail image! Please reduce this waste of bandwidth down to a sensible size. You can set it as a link to the full size picture.

  10. #10 by ancientTechie on March 1, 2009 - 11:21 am

    As a guy over 60, I can assure you that you still have plenty of time to try new things, as long as you remain reasonably healthy. Think in terms of life experiences. I took up wake boarding last year and it gives me something to look forward to — and stay in shape for — during the cold winter months.
    Fishing can be oddly satisfying, if you’re looking for some way to relax. It can be humbling, though. Marine psychology certainly lies beyond my grasp.

  11. #11 by ancientTechie on March 1, 2009 - 11:21 am

    As a guy over 60, I can assure you that you still have plenty of time to try new things, as long as you remain reasonably healthy. Think in terms of life experiences. I took up wake boarding last year and it gives me something to look forward to — and stay in shape for — during the cold winter months.
    Fishing can be oddly satisfying, if you’re looking for some way to relax. It can be humbling, though. Marine psychology certainly lies beyond my grasp.

  12. #12 by Jim on March 1, 2009 - 11:55 am

    Giving up competitive long distance running was one of the most life changing and traumatic events in my life. You can always find another romantic partner at any age. But giving up running profoundly changes your view of yourself and your future.
    Yeah, pickin up dog duty in your free time is about all life has left for you Kevin.
    HTH
    Jim

  13. #13 by Jim Fiore on March 1, 2009 - 12:41 pm

    My take is that the midlife crisis is largely suffered by those who have been on autopilot during their 20s and 30s, and who have not been particularly introspective. If you’ve been living according to some plan (e.g., now I go to college, now I get married, now I have 3 kids, now I buy a new house in the suburbs, etc.), particularly if you never really thought about the plan, waking up in your 40s could be a slap in the face.
    My reaction is pretty much the opposite of Michael Render’s, namely, that the 40s were in general very good to me (51 next month). It was a time when my career became fully established, I became financially secure, and had managed to keep myself pretty healthy as well. Granted, I couldn’t do the workouts I used to run at age 16 or 17 (like pounding down the impossibly steep Smith Hill Road at crazy speeds), but on the other hand, my skills at musical instruments had increased appreciably.
    Regarding romance, I married late (37), so I think both of us were/are a little more realistic than the average 24 year old. Fortunately, my wife and are both pretty “low maintenance” types, which helps. I would never expect my wife to be perfect in any way, not the least reason being that I’m certainly not.

  14. #14 by Science Avenger on March 1, 2009 - 2:08 pm

    My midlife crisis (I’m 44) took the form of two realizations about a lot of things aluded to by others:
    1) it’s now or never.
    2) I’ve been as good as I’ll ever be.
    Luckily those lists don’t encompass all there is. #2 was the slap in the face to me, not mortality, but that I’ve been as fast and as strong and as accomplished in the many youth-dependent activities as I ever will be. No more bettering my personal bests, they are now permanent.
    #1 Prompted me to loosen the grip on the change purse (which turned out to be quite serendipitous) and buy the big nice house I could always afford but always feared because of the complication, expense, and commitment. It also prompted me to blog, and to take on some challenging personal quests.
    My advice? Get out of your routine, go to different places, do different things, talk to different people. See what interests lay there that never got noticed before.

  15. #15 by Science Avenger on March 1, 2009 - 2:08 pm

    My midlife crisis (I’m 44) took the form of two realizations about a lot of things aluded to by others:
    1) it’s now or never.
    2) I’ve been as good as I’ll ever be.
    Luckily those lists don’t encompass all there is. #2 was the slap in the face to me, not mortality, but that I’ve been as fast and as strong and as accomplished in the many youth-dependent activities as I ever will be. No more bettering my personal bests, they are now permanent.
    #1 Prompted me to loosen the grip on the change purse (which turned out to be quite serendipitous) and buy the big nice house I could always afford but always feared because of the complication, expense, and commitment. It also prompted me to blog, and to take on some challenging personal quests.
    My advice? Get out of your routine, go to different places, do different things, talk to different people. See what interests lay there that never got noticed before.

  16. #16 by Tommykey on March 1, 2009 - 3:18 pm

    I’m turning 40 this year, and in celebration of it, or rather more in response to it, I am doing something I have never done before. I am going to spend a week on a live aboard boat in Belize scuba diving at the various reef formations there. I’m really looking forward to it. I already discussed it with my wife and she is cool with it.
    Assuming all goes well, when it is done, I can feel that I at least did one really cool and interesting thing in my life.

  17. #17 by SDC on March 1, 2009 - 3:51 pm

    I can relate to the ‘loss of running’ thing. I was at my best a far worse runner than you, but for purely selfish reasons thoroughly and deeply enjoyed long runs, running with the running club, and running races. The genetic roll of the dice in my case didn’t favor longevity as a runner, and unfortunately nothing else has managed to be a satisfying replacement (swimming, cycling, etc).
    I am probably in the middle of a midlife crisis myself. Or maybe I just hate my job. I am itching to get out of the IT gutter like nobody’s business. Otherwise things are seemingly pretty OK.

  18. #18 by rBST on March 2, 2009 - 1:06 am

    A straight-shooting wise person would probably say, “Stop looking at the past, man. Shut up and settled with wha’choo got now.”
    Your shoelaces are untied.

  19. #19 by rBST on March 2, 2009 - 1:06 am

    A straight-shooting wise person would probably say, “Stop looking at the past, man. Shut up and settled with wha’choo got now.”
    Your shoelaces are untied.

  20. #20 by Rev. BigDumbChimp on March 2, 2009 - 9:00 am

    Just don’t go buy a corvette. Whatever you do.
    Any time I see a man driving one of those that is older than 30 they seem to always have that midlife crisis look.
    It’s sad.
    No corvette for you.

  21. #21 by Lofcaudio on March 2, 2009 - 11:00 am

    Kevin,
    This is just my two cents (and is probably not even worth that):
    I think you are lonely.
    We are social creatures who crave attention and affection. While I think that some of your needs in this regard are probably met with your online presence on this blog (and others, from what it sounds like) along with the running community, they are probably not a complete substitute for a more tactile encounter that endures beyond the superficial and mundane.
    Do you think of yourself as a bridge-burner? Do you think that people are wise to steer clear of you (lest they get burned)? Hogwash. We are all fire-starters and there’s not a one of us who is the perfect boyfriend/husband/friend/son/father/etc. who hasn’t blown it time and time again.
    Keep reaching out. There are a lot of beautiful people in the world, many of them who are willing (and able) to love someone like you. And even more astounding–some of these people will want to be loved by you AND CAN be loved by you (so gotta keep those “selfish genes” in check every now and then).
    If none of this applies, you can throw it in the pile with all of my other worthless posts.

  22. #22 by Warren on March 2, 2009 - 2:01 pm

    1. THESE are the properties of the rational soul: it sees itself, analyzes itself, and makes itself such as it chooses; the fruit which it bears itself enjoys—for the fruits of plants and that in animals which corresponds to fruits others enjoy—it obtains its own end, wherever the limit of life may be fixed. Not as in a dance and in a play and in suchlike things, where the whole action is incomplete, if anything cuts it short; but in every part and wherever it may be stopped, it makes what has been set before it full and complete, so that it can say, I have what is my own. And further it traverses the whole universe, and the surrounding vacuum, and surveys its form, and it extends itself into the infinity of time, and embraces and comprehends the periodical renovation of all things, and it comprehends that those who come after us will see nothing new, nor have those before us seen anything more, but in a manner he who is forty years old, if he has any understanding at all, has seen by virtue of the uniformity that prevails all things which have been and all that will be. This too is a property of the rational soul, love of one’s neighbour, and truth and modesty, and to value nothing more than itself, which is also the property of Law. Thus then right reason differs not at all from the reason of justice.

    Marcus Aurelius, Meditations XI. Emphasis mine. http://www.bartleby.com/2/3/11.html
    I’ve found this to be a remarkably perceptive summary of life around and after 40. As some musical group or other observed at some time in the past, nothing’s shocking.

  23. #23 by Doc Bushwell on March 2, 2009 - 2:40 pm

    …but in a manner he who is forty years old, if he has any understanding at all, has seen by virtue of the uniformity that prevails all things which have been and all that will be.
    Weren’t most men in Marcus Aurelius’ era almost dead by the time they reached 40?
    I’ll see your age 40-50 and raise you nut-swinging male bonobos a trump card: menopause.

  24. #24 by Doc Bushwell on March 2, 2009 - 2:40 pm

    …but in a manner he who is forty years old, if he has any understanding at all, has seen by virtue of the uniformity that prevails all things which have been and all that will be.
    Weren’t most men in Marcus Aurelius’ era almost dead by the time they reached 40?
    I’ll see your age 40-50 and raise you nut-swinging male bonobos a trump card: menopause.

  25. #25 by Trin Tragula on March 2, 2009 - 4:14 pm

    I have also used distance running–something I at which at was always decent (I came within minutes of qualifying for my country’s Olympic Team Trials in

    Hey me too. I came within minutes of the qualifying time for the 400 meters.

    You are not having a mid-life crisis. What you have is probably Peter Pan Syndrome.

  26. #26 by Trin Tragula on March 2, 2009 - 4:14 pm

    I have also used distance running–something I at which at was always decent (I came within minutes of qualifying for my country’s Olympic Team Trials in

    Hey me too. I came within minutes of the qualifying time for the 400 meters.

    You are not having a mid-life crisis. What you have is probably Peter Pan Syndrome.

  27. #27 by Doc Bushwell on March 2, 2009 - 5:00 pm

    hinschelwood — Not a comment on the post, I just noticed the time it took to load the “chimps” picture on the left side of the page. So I downloaded it for a closer look. Yup, 851×564 pixels, shrunk into the space of a thumbnail. Half a megabyte for a thumbnail image! Please reduce this waste of bandwidth down to a sensible size. You can set it as a link to the full size picture.
    Perhaps you might whip the gerbils in your RAM to tread faster in that little wheel.
    That is to say, I have never noticed such difficulties with the chimp graphic on any of the computers I use, but then I do not have a stopwatch that is accurate to the nearest nanosecond.

  28. #28 by Gráinne on March 2, 2009 - 6:07 pm

    Just to look at one thing-the new job. It can be absolutely terrifying to settle down to a career and a path that you see as being “for good” or forever. Remember starting in my current job and being totally overwhelmed by the fact that I had chosen what I was going to be doing until I retired. Seemed endless. I had also side-stepped from my previous job and felt very shaken in my identity…we do tend to define ourselves a little by what we do. Personally, the easiest way to deal with the dread of looking ahead for years and years and deciding that this was definitely what I would be doing was….not to. Resolved to give it my absolute best, but with the get-out clause that I didn’t have to stay forever. Once I took the pressure off I actually enjoyed myself and am happy with it now.
    A big change in work +/- relationship status is a life adjustment too. Can feel almost like an extreme stress or depression. But while it can be a trigger to evaluate your life and find it lacking, it can also be taken as an opportunity to step back and decide what is most important and work on achieving that. And if you wanted to be all psychological about it, decide what stops you from achieving goals just before you get there. Getting to a certain point in med school but messing it up, having long-term relationships but not making that final leap… Time to ditch the little saboteur? Ultimately though, it’s your life. You don’t have to conform to any particular social ideals regarding a certain job or doing the marriage and kids thing…but you deserve to be happy.
    Bit rambling. May not have made any sense. Sorry!

  29. #29 by Doug K on March 2, 2009 - 7:16 pm

    Have you read Scott Tinley’s Racing the Sunset ?
    Might help a bit with the competitive running cold turkey. Personally, I started on triathlons, since I could set new PRs ;-) which of course is just postponing the discussion.
    Can’t recommend giving up on relationships, tried it a number of times but that way lies despair.

  30. #30 by Jim Thomerson on March 3, 2009 - 3:04 pm

    I suppose I had mine around age 50. I had been doing a good bit of environment related consulting, course development, etc. So, do I develop this outside source of income and retire at 55? Or do I scale back and concentrate on what I really like to do and retire at 60 something when I can afford it without outside income? I thought about it, found a small amount of funding and took off for Venezuela. I spent the rest of my career doing fish taxonomy and the like and was/am a happy camper.

  31. #31 by llewelly on March 3, 2009 - 7:07 pm

    Doc Bushwell | March 2, 2009 5:00 PM:

    hinschelwood — Not a comment on the post, I just noticed the time it took to load the “chimps” picture on the left side of the page. So I downloaded it for a closer look. Yup, 851×564 pixels, shrunk into the space of a thumbnail. Half a megabyte for a thumbnail image! Please reduce this waste of bandwidth down to a sensible size. You can set it as a link to the full size picture.

    Perhaps you might whip the gerbils in your RAM to tread faster in that little wheel.

    That is to say, I have never noticed such difficulties with the chimp graphic on any of the computers I use, but then I do not have a stopwatch that is accurate to the nearest nanosecond.

    hinschelwood’s post is about bandwidth – not about RAM. Most likely, nothing in any particular computer is a limiting factor. Rather, hinschelwood’s problem is the result of the connection between his computer and your server. A faster computer will not help him. He needs a faster connection – which may not be available in his area, or a tool such as adblock. (Personally, I have that image adblocked. I have plenty of bandwidth, but animated images of any sort make me want to scream and throw feces. )

  32. #32 by llewelly on March 3, 2009 - 7:07 pm

    Doc Bushwell | March 2, 2009 5:00 PM:

    hinschelwood — Not a comment on the post, I just noticed the time it took to load the “chimps” picture on the left side of the page. So I downloaded it for a closer look. Yup, 851×564 pixels, shrunk into the space of a thumbnail. Half a megabyte for a thumbnail image! Please reduce this waste of bandwidth down to a sensible size. You can set it as a link to the full size picture.

    Perhaps you might whip the gerbils in your RAM to tread faster in that little wheel.

    That is to say, I have never noticed such difficulties with the chimp graphic on any of the computers I use, but then I do not have a stopwatch that is accurate to the nearest nanosecond.

    hinschelwood’s post is about bandwidth – not about RAM. Most likely, nothing in any particular computer is a limiting factor. Rather, hinschelwood’s problem is the result of the connection between his computer and your server. A faster computer will not help him. He needs a faster connection – which may not be available in his area, or a tool such as adblock. (Personally, I have that image adblocked. I have plenty of bandwidth, but animated images of any sort make me want to scream and throw feces. )

  33. #33 by Kevin Beck on March 3, 2009 - 7:15 pm

    Actually, as soon as I saw that comment I fixed the problem by creating a proper thumbnail, but was too lazy to admit having done so. I didn’t know we’d been using HTML to shrink a big-ass image, and Doc B can be forgiven since 1) the pic itself is a great find, 2) she learned a good amount of coding on the fly when we moved to ScienceBlogs.com, and 3) she’s the only one here who writes consistently about science topics. Well, if you don’t count Jim, who’s sort of a transitional species between science writer and agitator.

  34. #34 by Kevin Beck on March 4, 2009 - 11:30 am

    Anyway, I should acknowledge the depth and coolness of the various responses here (although llewelly’s “It’s a clear indicator you have given up on human partners and turned to animal partners” sounds like something no one should publicly admit to). I am not certain any discrete condition qualifying as a “midlife crisis” really exists–and if it does it surely pales in comparison to the reality of menopause–but nonetheless these observations are useful.

  35. #35 by Kevin Beck on March 4, 2009 - 11:30 am

    Anyway, I should acknowledge the depth and coolness of the various responses here (although llewelly’s “It’s a clear indicator you have given up on human partners and turned to animal partners” sounds like something no one should publicly admit to). I am not certain any discrete condition qualifying as a “midlife crisis” really exists–and if it does it surely pales in comparison to the reality of menopause–but nonetheless these observations are useful.

  36. #36 by CyberLizard on March 4, 2009 - 4:00 pm

    I don’t think I’ve commented here before, but this post struck me. I don’t quite comprehend all this fear relating to getting older. I mean, I fear dying and realize that every day I’m alive is another day closer to the grave (cheery thought for ya’) but I actually was looking forward to my 30th birthday. Ever since I was a kid I wanted to be 30. Now that I’ve past that, 40 is just another number. But then, I’m weird. I actively search out grey hairs in my beard and rejoice that I have crows feet. I find something fascinating with the process of observing the gradual changes in my body as I get older. Prolly has something to do with being short, having a “baby-face” and being told, up until just a few years ago, that I looked like I was 12.

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