Men in Mid-Life Crisis: Dissatisfaction, Restlessness, and Charting a New Course
Last time we came back to the US to visit family and friends, I was struck by how many men in their 40’s looked like had been run over by a bus (no offense, guys). They were exhausted. Being pulled in multiple directions. Fighting complacency in marriage and faith. Restless and bored in their careers or saddled with responsibilities that didn’t align with their gifting. Longing for a new mountain to climb, but caught by the financial needs of their families. And almost universally out of touch with their hearts.
Many men spend the first half of life in intense pursuit of certain goals of success such as financial security, vocational advancement, recognition, and a successful family life. Then anywhere from your late 30’s to your early 50’s, you hit a wall.
Theologian Dallas Willard gives us the perfect image for this season. Imagine the dogs at the racetrack. The mechanical rabbit is dangled in front of them and when the gate goes up, they are off in pursuit. Willard once heard of a track where the mechanical rabbit broke and the dogs caught it. They went into a frenzy – yelping, biting and attacking each other; they didn’t know what to do when they caught the rabbit.
Mid-life crisis is a season where you either feel like you have ‘caught’ the rabbit and wonder, Is this all there is to life? Why isn’t this fulfilling anymore? or you realize you may never catch the rabbit and ask, What does this failure mean about me? Who am I? You may even wonder if you have been chasing the right rabbit all along, Is this really where I want to invest the rest of my life?
This season is one of the pivotal crossroads for men. Deep questions of worth and purpose are stirring and when they are unattended, they will begin to leak out into your behavior in harmful ways such as:
- Sexual acting out (pornography or affairs)
- Depression (hopelessness or anger)
- Leaving your marriage (checking out physically or emotionally)
- Hedonism (pursuit of pleasure through sports, vacations, food, sex)
- Consumerism (buying a new home, car, toy to distract or feel successful)
Obviously, these coping mechanisms are dead ends and often leave you feeling worse about yourself instead of better. So how do you address what is happening in your mid-life crisis?
Take time to go INWARD… One of the most crippling emotional deficits is lack of self-awareness. Creating space to review, to reflect, and to evaluate is essential to moving forward well into the next season. Learn how to be attentive to your heart. Cut down on noise and distraction in your life. Drive to work in quiet. Read Ruth Haley Barton’s book called Invitation to Solitude. Buy an alarm clock and leave your phone out of the bedroom. Unplug and take a 20 min walk in nature everyday. Find a friend who asks good questions to help you process what is going on inside. You may need to experiment to figure out venues and activities that facilitate introspection, but this is not optional if you want to navigate this transition well.
Make peace with your choices…. As you review your life, remember that every choice you made required you walking away from one thing to move towards another. This is a season where the memories of these crossroads seem to bubble to the surface. Some choices will hold significant regret and loss— particularly if things didn’t go as planned, so you will need to grieve the losses. Some of your choices may have intentionally or unintentionally hurt others and you may need to circle back and ask others (and God) for forgiveness. Some of the choices you will need to forgive yourself. But even if you know you made the right decision, you might still wonder, “What would my life be like if…” These are the questions that call us to fall back on the sovereignty of God and the promises of grace over all our mistakes. Don’t be frightened or depressed when they arise… unpack them. Grieve. Forgive and be forgiven. Learn. Release. Trust.
Embrace a Two Kingdom Mentality. Embedded in your dissatisfaction is what we would call “holy discontent” (see my post on “What Your Restlessness May Be Saying to You”). Sometimes the achievements and success you are after (or have already attained) do not provide long-term fulfillment because they are temporal, and frankly, they are all about building your own little kingdom. Now is the time to explore what is a rabbit worth chasing– how to use your time, energy, and gifts to invest in a Kingdom that will last. Relationships. Applying your energy and expertise towards projects with meaning. Battling against evil. Being a voice for the voiceless. Using your resources to bless others. This doesn’t necessarily mean leaving your career, Bob Buford’s book, Halftime explores many different ways to redirect your focus from success towards significance. From mid-life forward, you will find greater desire and satisfaction in investing your life in a Kingdom inheritance which cannot fade.
Take time to adjust your trajectory. This is an intense and invigorating season of strategic life planning. You are seeking to be intentional about where to invest the next half of your life. Buford’s book has excellent reflection questions such as:
- How do you best contribute your gifts to the world?
- Is it time to replant elsewhere?
- What do you want to be remembered for?
- What is draining or missing in your life?
- What changes in the structures of your life do you need to make for this next season?
Don’t judge what is surfacing (but don’t act too quickly on things either!). This is a process which requires patience and time. Expect to take a good year or two to attend reflect, review and evaluate. Just let it be messy. You are going to get in touch with disappointments, anger, sadness, longings, and dreams. You are going to be thinking about where you want to invest the rest of your life. Think of the process like putting together a puzzle… gather pieces as you reflect, have conversations with others, and pray, and THEN begin to sort.
Pull others in to help you put the puzzle together. This is a critical moment to choose against independence and invite others to speak into your life. Take your best friend or wife out and ask them what they think you should do with the rest of the life. Don’t shoot down their ideas or tune them out because you’ve heard it before. Really LISTEN because buried in their counsel are seeds of truth that may be significant at this juncture. Find a coach to ask the great questions to draw out your dreams and to help you make an action plan. Seek counsel from varied sources— different genders, ethnicities, and professions. Expand your circle of wise counselors.
Return to your Father in heaven. All of us at different points set off in pursuit of our own happiness and success. We may even think we’ve been working for God, but somewhere along the way it becomes more about our kingdom than His. The story of the Prodigal Son tells us that the Father was always scanning the horizon to watch for his wayward son’s return. Turn your face towards Home. Your Father is there longing to meet with you. No smackdowns for wasting time and money. No “I told you so’s” or cold detachment until you slowly earn back his approval. No success or failure will change how much He loves you. The spiritual resources and authority of His Kingdom belong to you, but they are accessed through intimacy with the Father. We can often trace our lives to a handful of key decision points, the mid-life crisis is one of those moments. Step off the dog track and figure out how to align yourself with your TRUE purpose here on earth— one that will bring you adventure, joy, and satisfaction and that will leave you without regrets.
This is the fourth post in a series exploring what is happening developmentally during each decade.
- Halftime by Bob Buford
- Finishing Well by Bob Buford
- An Interview with Dallas Willard on Finishing Well
- Aging Well by George Vaillant