Total exhaustion. Gnawing feelings of anxiety. An uneasy sense that I haven’t lived up to my potential. An occasional wistful glance back at the lives I might have lived. Fear that I might be poised on the cusp of a slow but steady decline. Yep. This is middle age.
Roughly around the time I hit 40, I found myself lying wide awake in the velvet dark of midnight wondering what I was doing with my life—feeling paradoxically spread too thin, bored, and restless all at the same time. And apparently, I’m not alone.
Ada Calhoun recently documented the myriad causes of midlife crisis in Gen X women like me. Among other things, “Midlife,” she says, “is when we need to take care of everyone else while we are our most tired.”
Tiredness seems an understatement for the way I’ve felt over the last few years. I’ve sensed that deep down bone-weariness that has had a way of untethering my soul from its center. The physical grind of caring for kids, maintaining a home, and working in the spaces in between, can evolve into a spiritual crisis.
Increasingly I’m beginning to think that a midlife crisis is mainly a crisis of meaning. It arises when the story we find ourselves living in doesn’t match the story we expected to inhabit.
I can’t live adrift, so I look for lighthouses and lifelines. The last few weeks I’ve been reading three wise women who have navigated these waters and know from experience the currents and the shallows and the rocks hidden beneath the surface of this choppy midlife sea.
Free of Me, Gift from the Sea, and the Faraway Nearby
Three books stacked on my bedside table right now are helping me see a way forward through the fog of these middle years. Sharon Hodde Miller’s Free of Me, Anne Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea, and Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby, are lighting up my evenings. All three women reflect in their own distinctive ways on identity, on finding one’s self or losing it, and on reorienting our gaze in search of meaning.
Sharon’s journey in Free of Me is one from self-preoccupation to self-forgetfulness, from self-absorption to spiritual freedom, from an unhealthy focus on self to a gaze lifted toward God and toward others. With honesty and vulnerability, she unveils the natural tendency to make so many things—family, friendships, church, calling, and even God—all about us. Self-focus, she reveals, causes our souls to drift out of tune. “Apart from the grace of God, our souls turn in on themselves,” she observes, “We become bent. Salvation unbends our souls and points us toward God and others, but left unchecked, our souls will always drift back to that inward position.”
“Apart from the grace of God, our souls turn in on themselves”
—Sharon Hodde Miller
Sharon’s writing touches a tender place. I suspect there is some reorienting I need to do in response, but discerning which dimensions of my heart and soul need work in this area takes introspection and prayer. And that’s where Anne begins to speak to me.
Anne Lindbergh was the wife of celebrity aviator Charles Lindbergh. She was a mother of six, an aviator in her own right, and also a brilliant writer. Even though Gift from the Sea was published more than 50 years ago, her thoughts on midlife and being a woman pulled in too many directions are spot on, incisive, poignant, and still relevant.
“Eternally,” she says, “woman spills herself away in driblets to the thirsty, seldom being allowed the time, the quiet, the peace, to let the pitcher fill up to the brim…Here is a strange paradox. Woman instinctively wants to give, yet resents giving herself in small pieces…I believe that what woman resents is not so much giving herself in pieces as giving herself purposelessly.” The remedy she suggests is a filling up of the soul that can only be experienced in moments of solitude and contemplation. Only by filling up, can we hope to be prepared to give purposefully.
On the surface, it may seem Anne’s prescription moves in the opposite direction of Sharon’s. Anne finds meaning through retreating temporarily from her myriad responsibilities to look inward. But her inward journey is not solipsistic. Her delicate descriptions of the island where she occupies a simple cottage for a week, and her delicious fascination with the natural world give her away—her journey is outward as much as it is inward. She savors “the day’s last sliver of pale green light on the horizon… the dark scar left in a dazzling night sky by a shooting star.” She invites the beauty of creation to fill her soul and she loses herself in the joy of creating.
And then Rebecca Solnit joins the conversation. Almost as if mediating between Sharon and Anne, Rebecca synthesizes some of their insights. She says, “To dig deeper into the self, to go underground, is sometimes necessary, but so is the other route of getting out of yourself, into the larger world, into the openness in which you need not clutch your story and your troubles so tightly to your chest. Being able to travel both ways matters.”
Sometimes I need to go inward, but I’m also called to live outward. Understanding myself, the story I’m in, and the meaning of it all, depends on the ability to travel in both directions. Personal growth is punctuated by the movement between these two orientations—inner and outer.
The Truest Self
Sharon delves into the freedom that accompanies the journey out of self when we turn our gaze toward God, while Anne gives us a portrait of a retreat into the deepest part of the self that is healing and renewing. Rebecca reminds me that these two journeys are not competing, they’re complementary. There will be days or seasons when I need to look searchingly within, and others when I’m called to forget myself in praise, in service to others, and in meaningful work. Self-awareness can help me identify and heal through wounds, while self-forgetfulness releases me to live purposefully. Introspection gives me the reserves to give of myself in the context of relationships, while self-forgetfulness gives me the mental and emotional space to be fully attentive to God and to others.
Each of these women has a word for me. Sometimes being faithful will require that I lose myself, but in the end, the losing leads to finding my truest self in Christ.
“God’s desire,” says Sharon, “is not to diminish us but to resurrect us…The more we become like him, the more we become our truest selves, rather than cheap imitations of others.”
In the middle of midlife, I hope and pray I’m on my way to becoming my truest self.
Anne offers an uplifting portrait of middle age as “a period of second flowering, second growth.” She explains that middle age is often misunderstood as a period of decline, but if properly understood, it’s a period of incredible growth. “The signs that presage growth, so similar, it seems to me, to those in early adolescence: discontent, restlessness, doubt, despair, longing, are interpreted falsely as signs of decay. In youth one does not as often misinterpret the signs; one accepts them, quite rightly, as growing pains. One takes them seriously, listens to them, follows where they lead. One is afraid, naturally. Who is not afraid of pure space—that breath-taking empty space of an open door? But despite fear, one goes through to the room beyond.”
If you’re with me here mired in the crushing demands of middle age, let’s try and see the door opening before us to the path beyond. Let’s endure the growing pains, and come through them wiser and kinder, sharper in mind and deeper in soul.
What are you doing or reading or thinking that’s helping you navigate these waters? I’d love to know.