My sister is a funny woman. She has many talents and gifts and among them are an excellent sense of humour, turn of phrase and comic timing. Once, when were were both young, she introduced me to the concept of the mid-teen crisis. I heard the phrase first from my sister and she was ha-ha, only serious kind of funny.
It’s a real thing. All the pressures of being a teenage girl in a world of teenage boys combined with all the pressures of school life – it was a wild time back then and I can only imagine it’s become worse since I won’t tell you when. I will say I’m a lot older than she is. I have friends now who are parents to teenagers and all I can say is, good luck, cling on.
Can we talk about the male mid-life crisis? Just for a bit? The classic one – the sports car, the stupid affair, the ill-advised clothing, all the cliches. That one. It’s a gendered thing, I think. I seldom hear about women having one. It seems to be one more thing the Patriarchy arranges for its favoured sons, another indulgence, another affront.
Getting old happens for most of us gently; a slow boat to the islands on a calm summer evening. I remember coming back from Stornoway to Ullapool after a stormy week on Lewis, past the Summer Isles, past Rhue and up Loch Broom, the calm water only disturbed by the slapping bow wave of the Cal-Mac ferry. The ferry terminal came into view so slowly that it hardly seemed to move at all. I thought I would spend the rest of my life rumbling gently and quietly into port. That’s what I thought life would be like.
It’s not. There’s an old man in the mirror every morning, face crumpled like packaging on the floor of a neglected goods room. It’s all creases on the face in the glass, wrinkles and lumps and wild, wild hair. Yesterday, or it feels like yesterday anyway, yesterday the face in the mirror was smooth, almost as smooth as the water on Loch Broom was thirty years and more ago. And that’s the thing. Thirty years is a long time to be getting older.
I am definitely in the second half of my life. Another few years and I don’t think any but the most charitable would call me middle-aged. I’m still at that awkward age. I think I’ve always been at an awkward age but let me talk this one through. Were I to die next week they’d say – you’d say if you knew me – “He was still so young.” I’m too old to be a young man and granted the innocence of the young. I’m too young yet to be granted the status of elder. In other words, I’m ripe for a mid-life crisis.
The thing is that mid-life crises are a massive expression of privilege. Even taking for granted that I should somehow, some day have the status of an elder anything is a statement of privilege. I am still a middle-aged, middle-class white man. I don’t need to worry all that much about my personal safety when I’m out and about. I’ve had a very good education at the expense mostly of the state and my parents. I didn’t have to work very hard to achieve the little I have achieved. I take for granted that people will help me when I’m in trouble and by and large that is what has always happened. It’s an accident of birth. I was born at a certain time in a certain place. I’ve done nothing myself to merit special treatment. To act as if I have or to fail to acknowledge the reality of my circumstances would be an expression of privilege.
I haven’t woken up disappointed in what I have failed to achieve. I don’t think that I deserve more just because of who I am. The crisis some men go through is the realisation that they have reached forty- or fifty-something and that they will never be the man they should have been, or wanted to be, or someone else wanted them to be. They deserved more, somehow, than what they have. More money, more recognition, more success, more sex. Different sex.
That’s the root of the mid-life crisis. The old man in the mirror where the young man once was. Maybe he wants the return of the whole, huge, meandering, senseless possibilities he once could almost taste even if he never really had full possession of them. Maybe people have stopped noticing him so much. Fewer opportunities at work. Fewer sexual encounters. Falling fertility, failing potency. Aches and pains and hints of mortality. Less feeling great, more feeling just meh. Meh-ddle age.
Mid-life crises are expensive too. You need a certain income to indulge one thoroughly. You have to believe that your needs and desires are more important than those of the people around you and that is difficult to sustain when more than a thousand people are dying with or from Covid19 every single day. Staying at home, washing your hands, covering that aging face when you do venture out all militate strongly against the full expression of the middle-aged man in crisis. It’s all privilege.
I don’t think I’m immune. I have a very silly, bright orange bicycle, not a sports car. I still harbour athletic ambitions. I squeeze myself into Lycra and try to ignore the belly that wasn’t there five minutes or five years ago, depending on my state of mind. However, my wife and I made promises to one another and I’m not going to break them just because I’m feeling unreasonably mortal. Promises matter. That’s one of the things I’ve found out.
I have a sample size here of one. I know I’ve been lucky in lots of different ways. I think I am going some way to recognising my own privilege in all of this and that makes a destructive mid-life crisis less likely. I can only hope so, anyway.