Monthly Archives: August 2009

Comfortably Numb at Midlife?

Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you’re probably aware that the 78 million baby boomers have entered midlife. As a psychotherapist and business psychologist – and member of this new midlife generation myself – I’ve worked a great deal with midlifers seeking help for emotional conflicts, career dilemmas and life transition issues.

I’ve heard many expressions of midlife distress, but few as poignant as this one: A 47 year–old married mother of three told me of a dream in which she’s on one of those moving sidewalks, but can’t get off. On either side scenes pass by – it’s herself, living different lives, with different people. Suddenly she recognizes the Grim Reaper standing at the end of the sidewalk, arms outstretched, awaiting her. She wakes up, screaming.

How to best understand it’s meaning? One problem is that much of the research and clinical understanding about midlife is contradictory. Some, like a MacArthur Foundation study, suggest that there’s no such thing as a “midlife crisis” today; that most people sail through it smoothly. Others, like two recent studies, suggest that midlife is a time of universal depression;
sometimes severe.

For example, a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found a 20 percent rise in midlife suicide among 45 to 54 year–olds from 1999–2004 – a rise that exceeded all other age groups in the U.S.

Another study reported an increase in depression during one’s 40s to early 50s, after which happiness rises again. Researchers from the University of Warwick and Dartmouth College studied 2 million people from 80 nations and found this pattern to be consistent across gender, socio–economic levels and among developed and developing countries alike.

Some experts think the rise of midlife suicide may reflect the decrease of hormone replacement therapy among women, the stress of modern life or increased drug usage among midlifers. But they’re groping in the dark.  Such experiences can lead to many outcomes, depending on how the person handles them, not necessarily suicide.

Regarding the rise of “happiness” after midlife depression, some speculate that people may feel happier after their 40s because they’ve learned to count their blessings, or resign themselves to life goals they know they’ll never achieve.

Based on my own work over the last few decades, I find these explanations unconvincing. The data only underscore the need for a new understanding of midlife; a new framework through which people could learn to deal more effectively with the positive and negative changes they encounter. Here’s mine:

What Is “Midlife”Anyway?

First, I think the term “midlife” is a misnomer. Psychologically, it’s really the portal into full adulthood, the time when you face the challenges of “evolving” into a fully adult human. Successfully crossing that portal involves addressing some core questions: “What am I living for?” “What’s the purpose of my life?”

These questions are the source of most adult emotional conflicts, because facing them often arouses tremendous fear, denial or escapism. After all, we’re highly conditioned to define ourselves by what we have rather than who we are. We learn to turn away from looking down the road, where we see Death patiently awaiting us all, as that 47 year–old woman did in her nightmare.  The economic downturn that began in September 2008 has added to the fears about what may lie ahead.

Moreover, “midlife” actually kicks in around 35.  That’s when most people start Continue reading


“Birthers” and The Black Man In The White House

The Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Gene Robinson has a great piece about the paranoia of the “birther” movement — those, including members of Congress, who claim that President Obama was not born in the US, is an alien, not an American citizen, a “Manchurian candidate” after all, and so forth.

A recent poll shows that the overwhelming majority of those who believe in this conspiracy are Southern Republicans.  I think it’s pretty clear what’s behind this movement, and why some members of Congress go along with it; or refuse to repudiate it.  It’s the simple fact that we’ve elected an African-American President of the United States.  As Chris Matthews has pointed out on “Hardball,”  this alleged “controversy” is not about documentation; it’s about pigmentation.

That’s a polite way of saying “racism.”  I think the “birther” believers are really saying to themselves (and to each other) “Oh my God, there’s a black man in the White House!”  So they’ve got to de-legitimize him. I hope that more public figures expose this for what it is, and not skirt the issue.  Or give credence to it, as Lou Dobbs has been doing on CNN. The larger issue, though, is that our country is undergoing massive transition and evolution in many areas.  We are moving away from a dominant white male culture.  It’s estimated that in about 40 years white people will be in the minority.  Already, five states have non-white majorities.

This is our future — we’re headed towards a multi-racial, multi-ethnic America.  While the fears of those who view this as threatening can be understood, the expression of those fears through hatred, conspiracy theories and potential violence should not be tolerated.