Tom Matlack asks the question: what happened to our midlife crisis?
I recently learned that a close friend’s father, who I always assumed was a titan of his industry, is broke. My friend is pushing 50, and his dad must be well into his 70s, as he tries, in vain, to make enough to pay his mortgage. My friend’s mom now sells cemetery plots.
Whenever I see pictures of the 99-percenters in the Occupy Movement, I try to figure out how old the participants are. They aren’t kids. They aren’t old enough to be leftover 60s hippies either. There’s a wide spectrum, but the mean looks to be about my age.
I’ll be 47 in December. I noted that President Obama turned 50 last August, and the thought crossed my mind, “He’s the President of the free world. What have you done?”
The truth is that I had my crisis at 31—a profound, bone-crushing, near-death kind that changed me cell by cell. Over the last two decades, I’ve done a lot professionally—or at least enough to keep my family housed and clothed on a reliable basis. But mostly I have grown up as a father, husband, and man. Not that the process is over, by the way. These last few weeks I have been realizing, in a good way, how much more there is to being a good husband and father than I ever realized. Life continues to push me, make me work harder, look deeper, and love more fully.
The idea of a sports car or teenage girlfriend or career change when I hit 50 seems like a quant bit of American nostalgia. We don’t have midlife crises as men anymore, but are collectively in an ongoing crisis. Who the hell has a single career anymore? We’re lucky enough even if we’re able to have a single good job. Our parents would have been dead by this time in prior generations. But now our parents have plenty of years left, though they are participants in pension plans that are now bankrupt. And then there is the medical fact of our own life expectancy. It used to be that attending your 25-year college reunion was the start of the beginning of the end. I attended mine last summer, and the tone wasn’t the beginning of the end but the beginning of the middle: guys with little kids, starting new careers.
Looking back made me feel old, but looking forward made me feel pretty darn young. I work out probably more than I ever have these days. I have a kid getting ready to go to college, another in high school, and one just starting first grade. At my reunion, I gave a talk about manhood to my classmates. The room was filled—despite me being a loner in college and, frankly, a middling public speaker often riddled with anxiety—with soon-to-be-50-year-old guys nodding their heads. I was helped on that one by my topic (“Are Men Really That Bad?”) and my timing, as Arnold’s love child became public literally two days before. A couple of weeks ago, I spoke at the Boston Book Festival and was shocked by a crowd approaching a thousand strong. For the first time I wasn’t talking to women about men but mostly older men. “Maybe the midlife crisis hasn’t disappeared,” I thought to myself, “but just changed forms.”
I told my classmates that I started the Good Men Project because men my age seemed to be facing a new set of challenges at work and at home. More than anything, the public rap sheet on manhood has nothing to do with the private struggle most guys I know have finding the right balance and finding meaning in their lives. The expectations and aspirations have all changed with no set formula on how the hell to figure out what to do. It’s just scandal after scandal on the front pages.
Not long ago I happened upon the Comedy Central roast of Charlie Sheen, featuring Mike Tyson, Jeffrey Ross dressed as Muammar Qaddafi, William Shatner, one of the surviving Jackass stars (now sober Steve-O, who did show off his life sized tattoo of his own face on his back and ran into Tyson’s fist on purpose to try to knock himself out), and an object-of-middle-aged-lust Kate Walsh, among others. I was at a relative’s house; otherwise I would not have been caught dead sitting through the thing. Charlie Sheen is, to me, exactly what is wrong with manhood, as I have said publicly. But as I watched this group make fun of each other’s struggles with drugs, pigeons, divorce, fatherhood, and a myriad of other human frailties set in the spiraling world of 2011, my hatred softened. Then someone made a joke about Charlie’s age—46, the same as me—and I really began to listen.
By the end of the hour I was laughing hysterically on the outside, while realizing on the inside that I am actually a lot closer to Charlie Sheen than I am to Barack Obama at this point in my life. And I am happy that I am. He’s finally sober, trying to be a dad and sort through what the heck to do with his life after the grand-daddy of all train wrecks. He’s a man but he’s also a human being. He’s made profound mistakes and knows it. He’s trying to figure out how to live in the world with a sense of meaning and humor. His whole life is still ahead of him, all at the age when men of a prior generation where packing it in.
As usual, I really don’t have the answer here, if that is what you were hoping for. Only this: if Charlie Sheen, the worst of the worst by the media’s calculation, can at least try to wade his way through the crisis that is manhood at-large these days, then we, as a gender, may in fact have more hope than we thought. At the very least, this discussion of manhood isn’t going away any time soon. It’s critical for men of all ages, from our boys to our elders. But there’s something about those of us in the middle for whom it has a particular resonance, filled with both pain and opportunity.
In the end, my hope is that in all this mess a different kind of manhood might emerge, one that is more compassionate, less obsessive, less violent, more capable of loving women fully, more able to deal with ambiguity, more content with less material wealth, and grateful for the transcendent. But then I hear of the Iraq War veteran getting beaten to within an inch of his life at an Occupy rally, or think of my friend’s dad, humping yet another deal that likely won’t get him out of hawk, and I wonder whether my dream is possible.