According to the Latin text Labentibus annis (c.1280), St. Omobono of Cremona, a very successful merchant, experienced an existential crisis after the death of his beloved father. Shortly after the burial, Omobono began to reflect on the brevity of his life and the fleeting attraction of his work. While pondering the ephemeral nature of life, “his formerly calloused preoccupation with increasing his wealth began to cool, and he began no longer to follow his associates, not do his job, with his usual craftsmanship.” In this document, we have one of the earliest depictions of a “midlife crisis.”
The term “midlife crisis” was first used in 1965 and made popular in the 1970s. When considered rationally, the phenomenon is not really a crisis at all. Rather than a sudden moment of intense panic and desperation, the common malaise more accurately exists as a predictable dip in satisfaction and joy brought about by the recognition of mortality and the realization that a career—even a successful one—often resembles a series of endless projects with no final resolution or larger meaning. As such, people often talk about getting stuck in a rut or hitting a wall. Research suggests that this afflicts about 75 percent of people and generally occurs after working for about 30 years.
Most successful people tend to work very, very hard. This work ethic generally produces positive results and economic well-being. But an excessive attachment to work can also contribute to stress, tension, and detachment from family, friends, and faith. The famous philosopher Josef Pieper offered five “awakenings” that can provide a counter-weight to the demands of work and relief from burdens.
Philosophy: reason unaided by revelation. Philosophy entails the search for truth, meaning, and beauty. Philosophy activates reason and the life of the mind. Find ways to read and think more deeply about the essential aspects of life.
Beauty: Beauty does not command; it can only summon. Strive to inculcate the beautiful into your life through art, music, and nature. One must actively cultivate beauty or it may remain invisible.
Love: The emptying of oneself for the sake of another. Do yourself a favor and read (or reread) the classic examination The Four Loves, by C.S. Lewis. In this short book, Lewis defines and explores friendship, affection, romantic love, and charity in simple but compelling ways.
Prayer: Genuine prayer, the real you in conversation with the real God, cannot be phony or artificial. It requires the combination of intellect and will. In Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, the usurping King Claudius tries to pray, seeking divine pardon for the murder of his brother. Yet Claudius realizes that neither his soul nor his heart actually desire forgiveness, and he abandons the attempt: “My words fly to heaven, my thoughts stay below / Words without thoughts never to heaven go.” Death: Nothing has the power to prioritize life as quickly as death. Those who suffer from a “midlife crisis” are likely to be of an age when death of friends and family members becomes far too common. The moments of sadness also afford opportunities for reflection and redemption.
Omobono Tucenghi experienced his awakening after the death of his father. He retired from the active world of business and dedicated his remaining years to works of mercy and a life of prayer. His commitment to service and philanthropy earned him a reputation for holiness and sanctity. In 1199, Pope Innocent III canonized Omobono for his heroic vesture toward his faith, family, and community. This incredible story began with the passing of a father, leading to a midlife crisis, and saved by an awakening.
PAUL J. VOSS, PH.D. is an associate professor at Georgia State University and the president of Ethikos, a management consulting firm.