Monday, February 11, 2019

Avoiding the Middle Age Bitterness Trap

I'm getting through middle age by tapping into my inner Peter Falk

Hitting 40 did not seem like much of a milestone, but age 43 has suddenly brought all the middle-aged thoughts I thought were coming three years ago. They aren't all necessarily bad. I think all the time about how I've done a lot in my life, and that what I do for a living has had a positive impact on the world. I'm okay not being young anymore. The bad thoughts are the morbid ones, of course. At this point it's very likely that I have more yesterdays than tomorrows. The problem with having gained a renewed will to live in the past eight years is that death scares me a lot more than it used to. In my younger days I was pretty ambivalent about living. I have learned to enjoy life more fully and now I desperately don't want to have to give it up. Sometimes on my morning commute I hope that when I eventually go I'm more prepared for it.

At the same time, watching other middle-aged people around me has made me hyper-aware of the traps of middle age. The two big ones are bitterness and resentment, which usually come together. Middle age is when you have the harrowing realization that you have become what you are. In youth you tend to think of yourself becoming something, there is still room for self-invention, and still room to think that your faults will eventually fade. If you don't "make it" in your chosen field by your 40s, well, you're never going to make it. That can be a spur for bitterness and resentment.

For the vast the majority of us never achieve the things we dream, and our consumerist society is constantly pushing us to "dream big," which usually means a big disappointment. In that respect I am glad that I left academia at the age of 35, when I was still young enough to reinvent myself and recover from the mental blow that transition made. If I did so at 40 I wonder if I would feel so good about myself right now.

I have seen so many people succumb to bitterness and resentment in middle age, their souls wilted and withered. This form of self hate always ends up getting projected onto other people. It closes minds and closes hearts and deafens ears to the sufferings of others. Those who are frustrated at their position and feel let down by life inevitably derive satisfaction from seeing other people brought down to their level. If the people around them are not as miserable as they are, they will make it so. These are the poisonous gossips at work, the family members who engage in belittling behaviors, the tyrannical boss who goes out of their way to always make you feel small. 

What's especially frightening to me is that this form of middle aged dysfunction has been weaponized for political use. White men in their 50s were Trump's most loyal bloc, the group most likely to be resentful about their lives. Those emotions can be easily turned against the "other" who is then blamed for their situation. I was just talking to a friend who said a bunch of his formerly apolitical friends (also middle aged) suddenly became vocal Trump supporters. It makes sense to me, considering the appeals he makes to resentment and those most receptive to it.

So every day I tell myself not to succumb, and to try to throw a lifeline to the people I see drowning in an all-consuming bitterness. Sure I never became a tenured professor or published a book, but there are things in life a lot more important than that. 

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