“Will you still need me, will you still feed me when I’m 64” laments the Beatles song. When I was young no one in our generation wanted to live past thirty, it was considered to be too old. Now we watch a 71 year old Mick Jagger prance and leap like he’s a youngster as he belts out “Satisfaction” one more time. Aging appears to be more psychological than physical now that people are living so much longer, thanks largely to modern science and more focus on healthy life styles. The old notions of aging are just that, old. If mid-life now means 55 then certainly 70 is the new 40 and then we can subtract from there. As science and psychology meet what does this mean for our lives and our relationships if age is no longer a factor?
As I ponder the vicissitudes of this strange new world it occurs to me that we live in a culture that not only is youth oriented but people are acting it out in a variety of ways. Whether it’s spiritual vitality, jumping out of planes at 90 or running marathons way into their dotage we seem to be defying gravity. What’s wrong with that? I also notice the summer/winter liaisons/romances. It’s fodder for salacious jokes and pithy put downs but who really has the last laugh? To those folks who are in it, they feel as if they are in a really cool time machine that psychologically insulates them from old age and impending doom. Is this an example of a vapid emotional wasteland, a deep seeded fear of death or is it that with longer lives youth is extended to the point where age differences no longer matter? Or is it an attempt to overcome a dreaded form of male menopause with the attendant loss of testosterone? The truth is that it no longer matters, we can simply replace the loss of testosterone and pop a Viagra and vavoom we are 19 again.
Scientists do not agree that there is such a thing as male menopause. But we certainly see the psychological manifestations of a cultural revolution that defies the fear of death and organizes psychological thought toward pleasure and activity that this new longevity has created. We see men and women leaving their families behind for a much younger person and we scoff and deride this endeavor as being childish and without depth. Is this simply the urge to mate with younger versions of ourselves to maintain the species and to pass on the genetic duplicate? Or is it a new psychological state of mind that has created the need to live as if we are younger versions of ourselves?
As we are just now able to map the human genome we can only postulate as to the nature of this seemingly regressive state. Many of us have worked our whole lives, made babies, sacrificed for our children, just to see our lives slipping away. In this mad dash for lost youth do we spring for a younger version of ourselves to play out some secret need to be young again? Or do we stay the course and live out what we promised to do low those many years ago? Can we be blamed for our indiscretions if we don’t know they are happening the way they are? Of course we can. Society takes a rather dim view of this kind of behavior and rightly so. If we all did this what would our society become? The end of the Roman Empire was made of such things.
How can we make it out of the rat race without destroying everything in the process, including our self-respect? For those people who have attained financial success we find some extra testosterone swimming around in their systems. After years of marriage the energy and intensity softens. We may then long for those intense pheromone infatuations and coupled with a jolt of sexual attraction takes us back to our early 20’s. Is it possible to regain our love interest in our partner while still keeping what is sacred intact? Or do we jump out of our system and go for it, leaving all that we have built behind? Beaudelaire once said that he would experience an “Eternity of damnation for an instant of eternal bliss.” Does our inner menopause/midlife crisis drive us toward the life force as our own is draining out of us? Does our system in its need to survive sustain us by ramping up our sex drive?
How do we withstand the normal turmoil in our lives, keep what we have and still find something fresh and new? Sometimes what we have is not what we once did. Can a relationship survive for 30 years without a face lift of some kind? The answer is a definitive no. To create youth and vigor we will need to remake our lives. Sometimes it takes bold steps to break down the walls that make us old before our time. We may need to try things, make mistakes and go off on a wild goose chase to create change. Sometimes everything has to break. The value of conflict, a reckoning, smashing the old ways can be healthy. We liken it to breaking a vase. When we glue it together it’s stronger but the cracks are there too, maybe that’s a good thing. We should never just assume that our partner will always be with us. We may need that edge of knowing that our life partner will walk if we don’t treat them right.
Sandra Tsing Loh, who is known for her work on NPR with The Loh Down on Science and her new book The Madwoman in the Volvo speaks of her brush with menopause in a recent LA Times interview. She talks about how therapy does and doesn’t work. She says that therapists have to give advice that is healthy and sensible but what may be needed is to “Divorce your husband, have an affair, or date a younger man, or go on a cruise, or move to Africa.” What she means here is that we have to break the frame. We have to shake things up and come up with something new that creates energy when things start to slow down and threaten to become a form of soul death. Of course drastic things are always dangerous on many levels but there is a point here. Sometimes everything has to fall apart so that everything old can become new again. Even if it’s just that we come clean with our wishes and fantasies.
Herein lies our dilemma. Do we quit the rat race, join a monastery or buy a boat and cruise the world? Does this save us, give us life and force our hand or is it like Jon Kabat-Zinn tells us in his book Everywhere You Go There You Are that there is no escape from ourselves because we take all our inner stuff with us wherever we go. In our work the word is that there are no geographical cures, only internal ones. Happiness, as it turns out is an inside job. We take our cures from our inner world as we listen for signs of life. The key then in all our menopausal/midlife crisis worlds is to take note, listen to the stirrings, make sense, find some healthy outlets and go for something new and interesting, not necessarily the cute cheeky chick at the local dive.
Menopause or mid-life crisis it appears is actually the result of not taking good care of ourselves. It’s really about emotional isolation, fear of death and the phenomenal importance that advertising and living longer have created in us. Whether it’s biological or psychological is in the final analysis moot. It’s about how we want to live our lives and what quality we want in them. As for relationships and menopause, the only way to make it work over the long haul is to first, work out a way to have a safe relationship and second, open up to your mate, the good the bad and the ugly. If you truly want to stay forever young then open your heart, knowing that it might not go well in the beginning but there really are no viable alternatives. Find some time, sit down and throw down the gauntlet, it’s where life and passion meet. Diane Akerman writes eloquently about the subject in her book The Natural History of Love that “So it is with love. Values, customs, and protocols may vary from ancient days to the present, but not the majesty of love. People are unique in the way they walk, dress, and gesture, yet we’re able to look at two people–one wearing a business suit, the other a sarong–and recognize that both of them are clothed. Love also has many fashions, some bizarre and (to our taste) shocking,
others more familiar, but all are part of a phantasmagoria we know. In the Serengeti of the heart, time and nation are irrelevant. On that plain all fires are the same fire.” Everything that is old can become new in this process.
The classic film Harold and Maude exemplifies the central issue regarding age. Ruth Gordon plays the part of an 80is woman who is full of life and befriends this young man in his twenties who is suicidal and decidedly 40 years her junior. He is actually the older one and she is so full of youthful fancy and fun. She shows him how to live and in that process they save one another. She is full of life and opens his eyes to what a life can be like if one but has the right attitude and with this film it’s all about attitude. The solution then to mid-life crisis is to find new pathways. Finding new friends, trying innovative things, developing interests, passions and soul satisfying activities can boost our zest for life and in that sense remain forever young. The worst thing we can do is to stop growing. Refusing to open ourselves up to new ideas is a form of death. Being alone in this kind of pain is the worst of it. Finding a tribe, a therapist, a muse and hopefully our partner is the best of it. So fling back the flood gates and make a new path, one where you can find your own peace and happiness and feel the life force coursing through you. Your well-being is your job and in the end it’s all that matters. Menopause and midlife crisis are just another way your body is telling you to get busy and make your life matter before it’s too late.