Mid-Life Question

The glory of the young is their strength, and the honor of the old is their gray hair.
— Proverbs 20:9

Look carefully at the quote above. Notice something missing? We jump from young to old and seem to forget midlife. Youth is associated with strength. Old age is associated with wisdom. So what's midlife associated with? For too many it's a time of resignation and disappointment, regrets and unfulfilled dreams and the recurring premonition that it will always be that way. Ecclesiastes tells us that everything has its season: "There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven," (3:1). So what time is mid-life for?

The young adult novelist, Laurie Halse Anderson observed that the problem is that midlife comes at an inconvenient time. "It's bad timing, but a lot of kids become teenagers just as their parents are hitting their midlife crisis. So everybody's miserable and confused and seeking that new sense of identity." My question is why the misery?

We've all heard of a mid-life crisis. Maybe we've even had one (or a few).  There seems to be a lot of writing about it - but maybe we should protest the term. Sure, for some people there's a real crisis of identity that age brings: questions of health, mortality, career choices and family dysfunction. But for a lot of people, it's more about the midlife question than the midlife crisis. What's next? What's my purpose? What's my contribution? My legacy? Pick the question. For some, it's all these questions and more. A question is not the same thing as a crisis. A question opens up possibilities; it can prompt the next chapter. A crisis shuts us down. It paralyzes.

In the past weeks, we've read quite a lot of Jeremiah in the annual Jewish calendar. He's associated with doom; it's easy to conclude that he's the perfect prophet of midlife. But then he offers us this: "For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope," (29:11). In context, this is a message to exiles about the future. One eighteenth century commentator translates the word "future" as the end, indicating not tomorrow but in a time far from the current moment. Resigned to loss of place and identity, the people might think that they will have no name, no legacy. But that's not the end. An popular expression which is in Israel is "If the end if good, all is good. If it's not good, it's not the end." Not everything in life ends well, but what if we mentally or emotionally end it before it's really over?

The same commentary observes that we want the future to be good, and God knows this. God, if you will, assumes positive intent. And then uses the thought to reframe our seventy years in exile. These seventy years which you thought were bad were really good; they have the potential to be transformed through repentance and change. Nothing is static. Stasis is a choice. Make a different choice, the prophet advises.

In an important way, the cycle of Israel's nascent growth, challenges, exile and redemption is a pattern for all of humankind. It's also the pattern that Jeremiah followed. He began his career in his youth, when everything was possible. He retreated into the difficulties and severe hardships of destruction and ill-fated leadership in midlife but, as Rabbi Binny Lau concludes in his study of Jeremiah, "The book concludes by showing how salvation sprouts from the unlikeliest of places, from machinations that even prophets cannot predict." Ironically it was in exile that his career flourished, and he was given "a new lease on life." Lau then projects this on to the State of Israel as the next phase of biblical redemption, with all its challenges.

What's your next redemptive chapter? 

What's your midlife question?

Shabbat Shalom