College tuition bills. Coping with aging parents. Aching backs. Children who no longer revere you – or even listen to you.
“Middle age” is, without question, one of the most challenging – even trying – times of life. It’s no wonder that so many otherwise rational fifty-somethings suddenly begin to ride motorcycles, excessively exercise and get ill-advised hair transplants. Economic pressures weigh heavily on the sandwich-generation, and the realization that the majority of one’s life has already passed leads to frequent thoughts of mortality.
Thankfully, the struggle with ‘middle age’ has always been something theoretical for me; a part of my blessedly distant future. But in the past month, a confluence of events have made me realize that middle age is quickly approaching: my doctor raised the possibility of cholesterol medication for the first time, a long look in the mirror convinced me that my hair is steadily turning gray, and I realized that if I were a major league baseball player, I would already be well into the ‘decline phase’ of my career, forced to settle for one year contracts or even an invitation to spring training.
I’m not the first person in my thirties to be struck by the fear of advancing age. Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin (1799-1837), Russia’s greatest poet, wrote Elegia – a powerful poem about the onset of middle age – when he was just 31:
The burnt-out gaiety of reckless years
Lies heavy on me like a bleary hangover.
But, like wine, the sadness of the bygone days
In my soul grows stronger the older it is.
My path is bleak. Labor and sorrow is promised me
By the future’s churning sea.
Is there any hope for my future middle age?
“He would also say: Five years is the age for the study of Scripture. Ten, for the study of Mishnah. Thirteen, for the obligation to observe the mitzvot. Fifteen, for the study of Talmud. Eighteen, for marriage. Twenty, to pursue [a livelihood]. Thirty, for strength, Forty, for understanding. Fifty, for counsel. Sixty, for sagacity. Seventy, for elderliness. Eighty, for power. Ninety, to stoop. A hundred-year-old is as one who has died and passed away and has been negated from the world.” (Pirkei Avot 5:22)
The age of fifty, the first milestone of middle age, is the age for giving advice. The source for this insight into middle age appears to be in the Torah itself: “From the age of fifty [the Levite] shall retire from the work legion, and do no more work. He shall minister with his brethren in the Tent of Meeting to keep the charge, but he shall not perform the service; thus shall you do for the Levites regarding their charge.” (Bamidbar 8:25-26) At the age of fifty, the Levite is told that his role must change. He will no longer physically carry the load of the Temple upon his shoulders; instead, he will now guide younger Levites on the proper way to perform their holy duty.
Turning fifty – and entering middle age, generally – represents the beginning of a shift from doing to guiding. When we reach the age of counsel, we begin to measure success by the achievements of others – our children, students and younger associates. Along these lines, the middle aged author, Rachel Simon, describes her role as a teacher: “Meaning now courses through my days because every day flows toward someone else’s tomorrow.” (Rachel Simon, The House on Teacher’s Lane) No wonder so many people struggle with the transition; middle age demands that we find meaning in ways that transcend ourselves.
How, then, should someone in their thirties prepare for the inevitable onset of middle age, and maybe even avoid the dreaded midlife crisis? Perhaps by learning to find joy in another person’s triumph, and by beginning to realize that helping one’s student or child succeed can be every bit as meaningful as reveling in one’s own success.