I once remarked to a fellow fortyish friend that, since so many of my acquaintances of a certain age are making huge changes for the better in their lives, it seemed to me the term "midlife crisis" was a misnomer. She reminded me that in Mandarin Chinese, the words for crisis (weiji, pronounced "way-gee") and opportunity (jihui, pronounced "gee-hway") are almost mirror images of each other.
Crisis; opportunity. These words are mirror images in any language, in meaning if not in pronunciation. Each is nothing more than a reaction to a new situation, or a falling away of the familiar.
We don't like to see the familiar fall away. We become attached to what we think we need, what we believe gives us security: our jobs, our homes, our identities, the people in our lives. But oftentimes, and particularly at midlife, what's familiar may not be what's best for us. And once we realize this, we may react differently to change.
Put simply: if you find yourself on an airplane that's about to crash, you have a choice. You can stay on the plane, and wish it weren't going to crash, and lament your bad luck, and fight with reality. Or, you can enjoy the trip down, assume nothing terrible is happening, and not miss out on enjoying whatever time you have left. Or, you can grab a parachute, and jump. One choice creates a crisis; the other two create an opportunity.
Of course, a million things could go "wrong" if you jump; if, say the parachute failed to open, or you landed in a tree and got tangled in and strangled by the parachute's filaments. You might have a fear-induced heart-attack mid-air. You could break all of your bones upon landing, and be paralyzed or in terrible pain for the rest of your life. Or, you might make it back to Earth in one piece, and later get hit by a truck, or lose your job, or lose your partner, or....
But you could also survive all of these "tragedies," and get a brand-new lease on life...which, if you stayed on the plane with the failed engine, feeling doomed, you might never experience. And, if worse came to very worst, you still would have come as close as any human being ever gets to knowing what it feels like to fly. Weiji or jihui?
As we get older, we may lose a lot of things: our parents, our youthful physiques, our marketability in our chosen professions in today's youth-oriented culture. We may suddenly lose interest in our work, in our spouses, in the activities that used to mean a lot to us. Example: your partner of 20 years announces that she no longer loves you and she's leaving. But she is the love of your life, you bemoan. You'll never meet another to take her place. Though it's true that no one can take the place of anyone else, can you really know that this person who left you is the love of your life? Maybe you are being spared from future unhappiness. Maybe you have not yet met the love of your life. Maybe, as Byron Katie says, it's wonderful when a partner leaves, because you get control of the TV remote, get to see your favorite movies, eat your favorite foods, do exactly as you like. Isn't this what we claim to want when we're with our partners?
And maybe the love of your life is you!
Another example: after many years of success in your profession, your work dries up. You call everyone you know, you knock yourself out sending around your resume and knocking on doors, answering every want ad, and it just doesn't happen...not so much as an interview. If you get a phone call here and there from people who seem to need you, they later change their minds.
Crisis, or opportunity?
I'm speaking from experience here; it happened to me. I can't say as the end of my career always felt like an opportunity. Not having an income can feel like a crisis once the well runs dry. On the other hand, I had felt burnt out by my work, disrespected in the field, and frequently wondered what might have been had I chosen another career path. I often thought I wanted to do something else. I never had enough time or energy to write, and suddenly, I had nothing but time. Opportunity. And with this freedom from my former propensity to define myself by what I do for a living, who knows what further opportunities will continue to arise? I welcome them; I look forward to them. And I know I should not be working at my former profession now, because I'm not, and recently, that has been wonderful.
When our habitual identities, supports, crutches, and mirrors are removed, we may feel we are left with nothing. Others of us may feel we are left with ourselves. We may come to see that, in truth, we never wanted anything else. In losing Other, we gain Self. And the Self, coming into its own, is free at last to be itself, perfectly.
You may experience that in midlife, you have everything you want; it's just not what you always thought you wanted. An impending crash of any kind is only a crisis if you do one of two things: fail to act on what you know to do, or fret too much over the action you take.
Crisis or Opportunity. Which definition of a mid-life shakeup feels more comfortable, less stressful, to you? Why should we drag ourselves down with the idea of change as crisis when we can instead view it as an inviting new vista through a wide-open window?
©2007 by Carol L. Skolnick; all rights reserved.