Monday, August 15, 2011

Middle age

Here is Miranda Sawyer on being middle-aged and perhaps thinking about having a crisis about it.

I think there are two kinds of problem here and they are sometimes conflated.  That's not such a bad problem because they are also clearly related to one another.  Let's call them:

1.  The problem of lost youth


2. The anxiety of comfort

Grand names for pretty mundane things, but they are, I think, distinct.  The problem of lost youth arises when you realise that you are not the young thing you once were.  This means not only that you have to accept that a lot of things you once might have thought were aimed at you (fashion, new technology, music) are not in fact aimed at you but also, perhaps more frightening, that you are now more like your parents were when you were a striving and objecting youth than the current striving and objecting youth.  (Spending my life teaching and talking to people aged 18-25ish makes me sometimes forget this fact but sometimes it reminds me of it starkly and violently.  Also, as my own kids grow up I think I will be more comfortable in the thought of not being a young thing myself.)  In part, this problem is also to do with a loss of possibilities.  I won't now ever be an Olympic athlete or professional footballer.  I won't ever be the charismatic guitarist in a challenging but popular new band.  (These weren't ever genuine possibilities, but now they are definitively ruled out not only by my sheer age but also because I don't think I'd want them any more.  The loss of those desires is something that is itself a little sad.)  Anyway, wrapped up in the problem of lost youth is a connected bundle of thoughts about loss of vigour, or sexual potency, of potential and of energy.

The anxiety of comfort, on the other hand, is a feeling you get when you realise at some point in your life that you have a job, a family, a house (and mortgage or rent) a car to tax and MOT etc.  These often impinge on my thinking in the guise of problems and difficulties but they also stand together as a reminder that I have already acquired and achieved various things.  I don't think any more about what it will be like to have a place of my own for the first time.  I don't aspire to the various things that I already have achieved.  True, we can replace these with other things to aspire to (a better job, a bigger house) in a never ending chain.  And such desires might well keep away for a while the anxiety of comfort by replacing it with a different kind of unfulfillable need.  But this is only ever temporary.  No.  The problem here (and it might be odd to think of it as a problem, but I reckon it is) is that at a certain point at least in the West and in certain parts of Western societies we really do have more or less all that we ever really wanted and more than we ever really need.  We can retain ambitions and hopes but, materially, all is well.  You can go and buy a sports car for weekends and jeopardise your comfort in various ways, but all in all, things are pretty good.  I think this is itself a cause of anxiety since I at least am not very good at appreciating what is excellent about comfort.  I tend to find it dull, boring, routine.  The thought that I might be doing for the rest of my professional life more or less what I do now is strangely irritating.  But why?  I quite like it.  It's what I spent years trying to do...  Some people, eh?

Anyway, that's what I think is the problem.  The two are related because part of what we miss in youth is the very precariousness and uncertainty that is gone.  And it is removed by the attainment of those very things that generate the irritating comfort.  

In other news, here's a greeting from the excellent 'someecards'


Anonymous said...

Luckily, the Epicureans have not only an explanation for why these two problems are present in many human beings, but also how they may be dealt with.

stc said...

Well, it depends! There are also middle-aged crises about suddenly realising you won't ever have the kind of ordinary comforts you thought you have (I now realise that I *won't* ever be able to afford a house or flat of my own, for example, or a family, or any of the ordinary things I hoped I would have, which is a very different kind of thing from realising you now do have the things you used to be striving for). But then maybe I'm just having a very early midlife crisis (or a late quarter-life one? A third-life one? I feel like I've been having a continual life crisis since I was thirteen, to be honest, with only the odd year off as momentary relief).