FEELguide EDITORIAL | The Dirty 30s: The Search For Mid-Life Meaning In The Modern World

by • June 14, 2011 • FEELguide EditorialsComments (0)3508

“The hardest things in life are always the most rewarding.” Or at least that’s what they say.  But when you’re in the middle of those hard things (i.e. grappling with middle age) you can’t help but want to beat your head against an even harder thing.

For some reason I can remember a vivid “age moment” when I was 19.  It was during the first year of my five-year Architecture program at university and I was looking at one of the wise 24-year-old fifth year students that passed by me and I thought to myself, “Wow — now that’s old.” I shudder to think what my 19-year-old self was thinking about 35-year-olds back then because there’s a very strong chance my current self would not want to hear it. As great and important as everyone tells you they are, sometimes our thirties can feel awfully dirty. Either way, we all get old sooner or later, so it’s best not to dwell on it, right?  Last night over dinner I had a deep, long talk with some friends about age, life, dreams, failure, success, family, love, career, hope, and a host of other “macro” facets of the human experience. At one point, one of my best friends turned to me and said, “Sometimes it overwhelms me to realize that someday this will all be over.  You, me, all of us. All of it will be dust.” That statement had somewhat of a “controlled burn” effect on me — it managed to char a circle around my Dirty 30s thoughts and finally contain them, cutting off the fuel for them to get any bigger. And once again, it raised the most profound question of all:

“Why are we here?”

I once met a writer who told me about her friend who was doing research on his Ph.d.  A very brilliant guy, he chose to focus his doctorate work on the study of near death experiences around the world to determine any commonalities that might exist, thereby revealing a more thorough insight into the phenomena, as well as any possible truths these revelations might contain.  He began to travel the globe and soon enough started gathering testimony from various people in various languages in various countries.  Although none of these people had ever met each other, the climax of so many of these testimonies indeed began to reveal a common element that was starting to making the hair stand up on the back of his neck: at the height of their experience, they were each communicated what is perhaps the most powerful question any human being could possibly be asked with respect to how they have lived their lives: “How have you loved?” Now, whether you believe these accounts or not, the power of the question still remains, and over the past few years it has provided me with the most elegant and comprehensive model for wrapping my head around why we are here: the purpose for each of our lives is to come to the deepest understanding of love as humanly possible. Assuming as I do that this is true, it raises the following question:

Are we entirely 100% in control over how far we get towards this profound understanding on our individual journeys, or are we each merely sails in a universal wind (in other words, are hopes and dreams merely an illusion)?

Last weekend I came across an incredible excerpt from the biography Einstein, written by Walter Isaacson about the life journey of this iconic scientist. In the book, Einstein revealed one of his most cherished beliefs: Schopenhauer’s saying, ‘A man can do as he Wills, but not Will as he Wills,’ has been a real inspiration to me since my youth; it has been a continual consolation in the face of life’s hardships, my own and others’, and an unfailing wellspring of tolerance. I’ve been weighing this for the past several days, but for the purposes of a thought experiment let’s grant it as a truth:

How is our pursuit of love and happiness affected if we are not the architects of our own free Will?

Schopenhauer used the word “Will” in the same context as “desire,” “striving,” “wanting,” “effort,” and “urging.” His philosophy holds that all nature, including man, is the expression of an insatiable Will to live, and he believed that the ultimate reality is one universal Will. This Will is the inner nature of each human (experiencing) being and assumes in time and space the appearance of the body, which is an idea. Accordingly, existence is the expression of an insatiable, pervasive, Will which  generates a world that surrounds us with negatives such as conflict and suffering, senselessness, and futility as well as many positives. It is this “Will to live” that perpetuates this cosmic spectacle. For Schopenhauer, the human experience is nothing more than an ant farm and we should get over ourselves (any belief that we are somehow in control of our place in this farm is an illusion — the first thing that comes to mind is Sean Young’s android “replicant” character in Bladerunner who was devastated when she learned she is nothing more than an artificial being whose life experience was not real).  Perhaps for Einstein, his embrace of this favorite Schopenhauer saying had a grounding effect on him.  Very few human beings had taken in such a broad glimpse of the unfathomable scale and complexity of the universe as Einstein did at that point in our history, so it makes sense that he would accept this most humbling of beliefs as truth.  And from his own account, it appears to have helped him come to peace with man’s place in the universe and helped him find his own version of happiness.

The difficulty I have with this lies in the contradiction that it raises with the mechanisms of evolution. Even though Schopenhauer’s ideas were a precursor to Darwin’s theory, and he believed that that all life strives to preserve itself and to engender new life, he also believed that our mental faculties are merely tools to that end. In contrast to what Darwin discovered, Schopenhauer incorrectly saw species as fixed and locked. Therefore, I would argue that we are indeed the architects of our own free Will which leads to this next thought experiment:

How is our pursuit of love and happiness affected if we are the architects of our own free Will?

One way our pursuit of love and happiness might be affected if we hold the above to be true, is this: if we are the architects of our own free Will, this also implies that our Will can change at any given time (either voluntarily or involuntarily). What I do accept as truth from Schopenhauer is his definition of “Will” as “desire,” “striving,” “wanting,” “effort,” and “urging.” The human brain is the most complicated organism on the face of the earth, with more neural connections than there are stars in the universe. And although we may never fully understand how it works, there are some mysteries about it that we have figured out.  One of these is how our thoughts lead to emotions which leads to behavior.  We also know that by the age of 19 or 20 our “thought pattern wiring” is pretty much set in stone.  For the rest of our lives we will always have the same thought patterns when confronted with various stimuli.  What’s interesting is that the same is not true with the next step: emotion. If you are not happy with a certain emotion that is creeping out of a thought pattern, you can indeed change it with various techniques such as cognitive therapy (i.e. shutting down a thought dead in its tracks before it manifests into an emotion), meditation, yoga, etc.

As a person trying to reconcile my pursuit of love and happiness with my age, these techniques are very useful; for example, if you find yourself getting upset when thinking about your age, then stop thinking about age and you won’t get upset. Very logical indeed. The problem I have with this is that it appears to be treating the symptom and not the cause. My bigger question is this: how did we get wired with these thoughts in the first place? Why is it that at 35-years-old, so many of my thoughts are focused on the growing divergence between:

A) My life as I always dreamed it
B) My life as it actually is

Like it or not, most men and women encounter this mental wrestling at some point or another (i.e. next time you see that balding 55-year-old with a bobble-headed bleach blonde sitting next to him in his brand new Porsche, turn around and take a deeper, more intense look). And the problem does not stop with just wrinkles and hair — this thought pattern is far more elaborate and multi-headed than that, and can result in a Hurricane Medusa of emotions stirring around in our minds which manifest in some very peculiar behavior. Schopenhauer also had another theory that the collective human experience is very much like a group of porcupines out on a cold, winter’s night.  They need to huddle around eachother to survive and stay warm, but this always results in us hurting eachother with our quills.  We retreat to heal, then return for more heat — and pain.  Repeat this loop for the rest of your life and this is the human experience.  His extremely wise advice was that we each need to find the critical “buffer gap” between each other and learn to generate our own heat.  I would take this metaphor even further by saying that our minds are also filled with porcupines (i.e. thoughts), and when they start to get out of control your mind will not only bleed, but it will also be in a great deal of pain (NOTE: below I’ve attached a short clip of author Elizabeth Gilbert elaborating on this theory, and I highly recommend it.  It’s my own personal Schopenhauer favorite).

Last year, I came across one of the most fascinating and comprehensive studies on happiness that I have ever read.  It involved thousands of people ranging in age from teenagers to people in their early 100s.  The researchers probed each and every person with the most broad-ranging questions they could come up with in order to determine each person’s happiness index rating.  The results caught even the most senior scientist by surprise when the data took the form of a bell curve.  Turns out, people in their golden years have the exact same happiness index rating as the most carefree of teenagers, with the dark valley occuring in the 40s and early 50s.  The next step was figuring out why exactly this was happening.  In examining the data, they discovered why the sunshine of the human experience gets so clouded over in the middle, and gets so sunny again in the later years.  In your 40s and 50s we become overwhelmed by a storm of responsibility: taking care of our kids, taking care of our parents, intense financial pressure, the non-realization of dreams from our youth (and the painful abandonment of these dreams), the acceptance of our life as it is vs. how we thought it would be, illness, death, and on and on and on.  The incredible and paradoxical finding that these researchers discovered, however, was that this exact same storm was what fertilized the resurgence of happiness in the older individuals.  As it turns out, even though life in the middle can seem like a big shit sandwich that we have to chew on every single day, this very same shit sandwich ended up fertilizing a new understanding and appreciation for the things in life that truly matter.

In his recent speech at the TED Conference, philosopher Alain de Botton reached the most thoughtful conclusions about where this “dark valley modern society thought pattern” comes from (whether you’re in your Dirty 30s, or your Fucking 40s, or your even Fuckier 50s).  His brilliant insight is an absolute must-see, and if you enjoyed it as much as I did I truly hope you pass it along.  He paints a fascinating picture of middle-aged life in the modern world.  He finishes by giving his audience a map showing you how to get out of that dark middle valley.  To put it simply, your pursuit of love and happiness will be infinitely more rewarding and cloud-free so long as you’re certain what you think is your own Will is indeed your own, and not someone else’s.

In other words, if you choose to accept that you are not merely a sail in a universal wind and actually are 100% in control of your ship’s direction, you must be certain that the destination you’re headed towards truly is your own, and uncompromised by external negative forces and influence.  Otherwise your journey is nothing more than an illusion, and you’re no better off than a Bladerunner replicant living out someone else’s path.

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