None of us actually knows when the middle of our lives will be. A midpoint can be measured after a life ends, but while one is still living, there’s no knowing. I had two strokes in my early thirties. I didn’t think I was going to die imminently — but I could have. And that truth doesn’t require cryptogenic blood clots, either. Someone could crash into my car tomorrow. This life could end any time.
But I’ve found that I need to hold that truth lightly. Worrying about whether I’m going to die today is no way to live — I wouldn’t be able to function if that were at the top of my consciousness. I assume that my forties, fifties, and sixties will be the middle chapter of my life. And even if they don’t turn out to be the middle, they’ve turned out to be a time of major change.
The “midlife crisis” is a cliché. But some things are classics for a reason, and major change at midlife is one of them. Some even argue that it’s necessary to change at midlife. I don’t like the term “crisis,” though. I prefer “course correction.” My own midlife course correction has involved ending a 23-year relationship and moving out on my own with my elementary-school-aged son. These changes are banal: lots of people go through them. Still, they’ve been seismic.
I’m grateful that my divorce is amicable, and that we’re committed to doing our best to be good coparents for our kid. (We made each other promises to that effect during the divorce ritual that accompanied the bilaterial giving of a get, a Jewish divorce agreement, last Elul). But even a friendly divorce represents profound change. Suddenly I’m navigating the world in an entirely different way than ever before.
Divorce has been liberating, empowering, lonely and eye-opening. The hardest part has been letting go of the stories I used to tell myself about who I was and what the rest of my life would be. That’s a lot of letting-go, and I’ve learned that it doesn’t happen all at once. Like grief, it happens in its own time, and it keeps happening.
But that’s not a crisis. Of course there was a period of agony as the marriage was coming apart, but the fact that I’m beginning a new chapter isn’t a crisis anymore. It’s just a change. Every life involves course corrections, and the midlife years are a ripe time for change.
For those of us who’ve had children, perhaps our children are old enough now that we can step back and think about something bigger than diapers and sleep deprivation. For those of us who’ve been partnered, this can be a time to look at whether our partnerships are sustaining us in body, heart, mind and soul. For those of us who care for aging parents, this can be a time to readjust the balance of responsibility to reflect current realities. For all of us, these years are a good time to say: are my choices working? Should the remaining decades of my life look like the previous ones? And if not, what do I need to shift?
Of course, this is work to which Jewish practice invites us on a regular basis, not just at midlife.
One tradition holds that Elul, the month leading up to the Days of Awe, is the time for intensive introspection and personal course correction in one’s relationship with oneself and with God, so that during the Ten Days of Teshuvah (between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) one can make course corrections in one’s relationships with others. Another tradition invites us to pause for internal course correction each month before new moon, or each week before Shabbat — even each night before sleep.
Whether daily, or annually, or when two roads diverge in a yellow wood at midlife: these course corrections, micro and macro, are not something that happens apart from our spiritual lives. They are our spiritual lives.
This is the work: noticing where we’ve gone off-course, and adjusting so that we’re oriented in the right direction again. This is one translation of the Hebrew word teshuvah, which means not just “repentance” but also “return.” Our task is turning ourselves around again, orienting ourselves not by the false stars of old narratives about who we thought we would be, but by growth, and change, and that ultimate destination that our tradition names as God.