Middle Age: Crisis or Opportunity?

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Manjit Kaur in her middle age

By Manjit Kaur | Opinion |

Growing old is something we all must face; nobody can escape the ageing process, even though in our media-driven, cosmetic surgery culture, many try. However, what we fail to see is that old age is not just about physical appearance, but about your state of mind and inner beauty. Guru Amardas (SGGS, 1413) is right when he say’s: “Those who develop a realisation of inner divine wisdom never grow old”.

Historically, when average life expectancy was less than 40 years, there was no sense of middle age. You were a child, then an adult and that was it! However, as average life spans have increased to 70 years and over, we have seen the emergence of the idea of ‘middle age.’ Currently, this is considered to be between the ages of 30 to 45, but most importantly this is not just about the physical changes that come with ageing, it’s also about the cultural and psychological shifts we experience. In this article, I reflect on the so-called ‘midlife crisis’ and discuss my own experiences navigating this phase.

Middle age is often dubbed the ‘second adolescence.’ Just like when you were a teenager, it’s like going through another challenging period of rapid change. Comparing it to a second adolescence implies a time of self-discovery, exploring your identity, and re-evaluating your life goals—like what happens in the first adolescence. This suggests that middle age is a time when people may undergo significant psychological, social as well as physical changes.

The concept of the midlife crisis refers to that period in your life of intense emotional turmoil and questioning your accomplishments and life choices. This phase typically occurs when people realize they won’t live forever and feel like time is running out to achieve their dreams. This crisis can manifest in various ways, such as a sudden desire for significant life changes, including shifts in career, reassessment of relationships, or pursuing passions that were previously unexplored. While not everyone experiences a midlife crisis, for those who do, it can be a key moment in life for personal growth and self-discovery.

Navigating a midlife crisis involves struggling with big questions about the meaning of life and finding a balance between a commitment towards others and the search for personal fulfilment. It’s an opportunity for self-reflection, discovering new features of oneself, and potentially redefining priorities and values. Despite the negativity associated with the term “midlife crisis,” it can also be an opportunity for positive change and growth bringing a renewed sense of purpose and contentment with life; it’s almost like having a second life!

Different traditions have their unique perspectives on the ageing process and stages of life. Sikhi, divides life into three distinct stages with corresponding responsibilities and expectations, though most critically, the common thread for navigating all ages is to develop a reflective meditative mindset. As Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji states, ‘ Childhood, youth and old age – know these as the three stages of life. Says Nanak, without reflecting on the Divine, everything is useless; you must appreciate this.’ (SGGS, 1428).

Psychological theories provide quite detailed insights into life development. Eric Erikson, for example, proposed an eight-stage model where each stage represents a challenge that individuals must navigate from infancy to old age. This perspective differs from the person-centred theories of Carl Rogers and Sigmund Freud, which focus on the development of psychosocial identity. Both frameworks emphasise the significance of social and psychological factors in shaping human growth, which professionals tend to refer to in counselling therapy.

Reflecting on my journey through middle age, I faced a constant struggle against societal, community and family expectations. I encountered constant reminders to suppress my individuality and to conform to predefined roles. Trapped in this environment, I experienced a loss of identity and agency; at times it felt like being in a mental prison. Breaking free from such oppressive situations and thinking for yourself is not easy, especially as you are made to feel guilty, and a selfish and bad person!

The desire to rebel against the expectations that were imposed on me to be a ‘good woman’ was in a sense my midlife crisis. The transformation was profound, unlocking a sense of freedom and a deeper connection with spirituality and my purpose in life. Contrary to my initial fears, distancing myself from ‘group thinking’ did not diminish my connection with Sikhi; instead, it strengthened my bond with the teachings of Guru Nanak.

The journey was not without its challenges, and at times I can remember my partner struggling to comprehend the depths of my transformation. Nevertheless, it was my faith in Guru Granth Sahib, and the support of friends, who understood my struggle, that sustained me. The decision to reclaim control over my life brought forth a newfound sense of responsibility and purpose, though it was not easy.

For many years I had to deal with feelings of guilt, but I have come to realise that prioritising self-care and autonomy is not selfishness but a pursuit of balance. Taking charge of my life has been a liberating experience and I am convinced that Guru Nanak has been with me always on the journey. The support of fellow travellers on my path has been invaluable, and I extend my gratitude to them.

For many, navigating the challenges of midlife can be as daunting as adolescence, but it also brings the potential for new beginnings, creativity, and opportunities. To embrace this transformative phase, one requires the support of loved ones and the inner courage to break free from external and internal expectations. This journey may feel like a roller coaster, but for me now in my 60s looking back at my midlife journey, I can say without hesitation it has been the most fulfilling time in my life. Far from being a crisis, for me, midlife was a time for personal growth, self-discovery, and new adventures.

Manjit Kaur, a UK-based therapist and counsellor, is a presenter at the 1 Show Live at Panjab Broadcasting Channel, UK. She can be contacted via email at manjitkaur1show@gmail.com

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