October, 2000

There are some who contend that here is no such thing as a midlife crisis. Some are researchers. Others are academicians. Some are in the men's movement. I happen to disagree. I ask you to hear me out. 

I can talk extensively about the scientific method, its strengths and weaknesses. It has many strengths. But in this area, I feel that science has let us down. In this area, there seems to be as much unquestioned acceptance of all things scientific as there is acceptance of the viability of this culture for men. 

Men look like they're doing very well if it is assumed that cultural success holds deep satisfaction. Then a researcher might measure cultural success, asks questions about merits, and pronounces the midlife crisis a myth. In science, you get what you're looking for, and you don't get what you're not looking for. I don't blame scientists for their motivation or their ingenuity. I blame some scientists and academicians, arrogant in their certainty, whose assumptions may be based on cultural blind spots.

I have found the midlife crisis to be obvious, once the right questions are asked. And once the denial evaporates under the questioning. That conclusion is anecdotal, which is why this is a thoughts column. It is not rigorously scientific. But it is a conclusion I ask you to take seriously, because I believe it is based on accurate cultural assumptions.

The cultural denial of men's internal crises is epidemic. The culture tells men to deny the very pain that signals that something is wrong inside. Men are taught to go down with their denial and the shipwreck of their lives, being the manly thing to do. This denial enables a cultural trajectory that values the accumulation of goods instead of the good. It enables an addiction to consumer matter instead of what really matters. Who this really serves is beyond me. But the better question is, who can stop it. 

One of the things that feeds the denial is shame. Men are ashamed to admit to dissatisfaction, instead becoming the confident captain of a leaky ship. But there should be no shame here. The fact is, this culture cannot deliver on its promises, for men or women. The guarantee has nothing behind it. It's a no-win situation. The only alternative for many in this type of abusive situation is denial. 

Midlife, 35-55, is a crucial time because a man usually gets strong enough to start questioning the agenda, as well as his own happiness, at this time. There need be no shame, here, in that midlife is probably the modern time for the next psychological step of most men's maturation. This step is rarely accomplished earlier in a man's life. Fatherhood can be good preparation. However, it is not the end point, even if a man is a fine father. 

The real meaning of the word crisis is a radical change in direction. There's no shame in changing direction. Since most men are pointed in the wrong direction from the beginning,, disenchantment is actually normal. The initial direction is wrong because it points outside a man, rather than inside. Finding manhood in the marketplace, and happiness in marketplace success, becomes the dead end, calling for a radical reevaluation of the journey.

Joseph Pleck coined a term called Sex Role Strain to describe the inevitable stress caused in men by trying to live up to the cultural models of manhood. This stress is probably the main reason men live significantly shorter lives than women. This stress is also the reason that eventually causes the mind and body to wear out at midlife.

Terrence Real in his book I Don't Want To Talk About It, talks of between 50%-80% of men in our culture have a mild depressive condition called disthymia. He also attributes this depression to the way men are brought up and what is expected of them. I believe disthymia flies under the radar screen until midlife, when, again like SRS, the aggregated years create a critical mass of depression. 

There is a connection between how much one accepts the culture as benevolent and how little one recognizes a midlife crisis. To those who embrace our culture, a midlife crisis is an abnormality bordering on a disease or a curiosity. And like other abusive situations, the victim is blamed. It is often portrayed as some buffoon acting like his teenage son, an ass who gets what he deserves.

However, if the culture is seen as essentially toxic to men, then men who acknowledge and face this crisis are pioneers. It takes courage to say the cultural king has no clothes. The pronouncement lays one open to being shamed, like the aforementioned buffoon, shame being the strongest weapon of the patriarchy. Yet, men who are willing to face the shame can create a new culture that really makes the crisis an anomaly.

I know that some peculiarly blessed men get by their whole life in this society, reaching satisfaction and maturity. Their attitudes and talents match expectations, while no external crisis really cracks their world apart. But if I were a betting man I wouldn't bet on that happening to you or me. Some men win the lottery of life, I guess. But I figure the odds of either of us not reaching that midlife ambush are about the same as one of us winning the lottery.

Copyright © 2000, Larry Pesavento