The Midlife Blues

MELIK KAYLAN – The Wall Street Journal

Copyright The Wall Street Journal
February 2, 2008; Page A10
Dante felt it long ago on the Tuscan plain, the turbid ebb and flow of midlife misery. In his opening to the “Inferno,” he furnished probably the most celebrated lines in the Western canon on the subject:
“In the middle of the road of my life/I recovered myself in a dark wood/ The right road being lost. It’s so hard to describe/ That wood so savage, dense, harsh/Just thinking of it renews my fear.”
It turns out he wasn’t alone. This week a massive American-British study of some two million souls throughout 80 countries confirms, empirically, that middle age immiserates us all without regard to income, culture, gender, marital status or previous experience. The study offers a new visual to illustrate the overarching mood swing of life: the U-Curve, in which mental stability and happiness bottoms out in our 40s and into our 50s.
We then get more cheerful as we round the curve and head into the final stretch. In the U.S., women hit bottom at 40 and men at 50, according to the study…
…One thinks of midlife turbulence as a time when people change, jobs, careers, partners. In Dante’s case, the upheaval had occurred already. He’d lost the once-straight road. His moral universe upended, he had to reimagine its symmetry and begin the machete work of ordering and naming his way through the confusion of the Inferno and its nine circles, and then on to Purgatorio, Paradiso.
One suspects that, with women and men both, midlife is a time when the mirage of life’s perfectibility and symmetry, as envisioned in one’s youth, comes back to trouble you like a conscience. In plain language, one might call it a last chance at happiness, or of “getting it right.”
Midlife is perhaps the last opportunity to shape your fate before you have to accept it; a phase when you are suddenly taunted by the lives unlived because you can still, though only just, try to live them; a time when you can still become what you might have been. Equally, it’s the last time when you are troubled by a pretty face — another path not taken — before you can look on pretty faces with equanimity, not as bearing a direct message to you, but to other, younger folk.
Midlife is a last chance to keep your word with the 10-year-old you once were, who looked forward at life and made a pact with the future. You wake up in middle age to feel you have drifted. Amid a solid family, wife and job, you might feel a kind of awakening, though possibly a delusional one fueled by chemistry. The feeling might haunt you into one last eruptive attempt at realignment.
What then would be the “right” road: To keep to one’s groove, or to opt for the road not taken? Luckily, the study tells us, once past 50 you won’t care either way. Hang in there. It will all blow over. If Dante had only known. He may never have troubled us with The Divine Comedy.
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