5 September 2021
Midlife: A Philosophical Guide – Kieran Setiya
They are questions of loss and regret, success and failure, the lives you wanted and the life you have. They are questions of mortality and finitude, of emptiness in the pursuit of projects, whatever they are. Ultimately, they are questions about the temporal structure of human life and the activities that occupy it.
Chapter 1. A Brief History of the Midlife Crisis.
You have lived long enough to ask “Is that all there is?” Enough to have made some serious mistakes, to look back on triumphs and failures with pride and regret, to look sideways at lost alternatives, lives you did not choose and cannot live, and to look ahead to the end of life, not imminent but not so far off, its distance measured in units you now comprehend: another forty years, with luck.
“All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?” Adjusting for income, marital status, and employment, Blanchflower and Oswald found that the level of reported happiness by age had the shape of a gently curving U, starting high in young adulthood and ending higher in old age, with an average nadir at forty-six. The pattern showed up in seventy-two countries around the world. It was similar in men and women and regression analysis ruled out an explanation in terms of the stress of parenthood.
Chapter 2. Is That All There Is?
Call it the first rule for preventing a midlife crisis: you have to care about something other than yourself. If nothing matters to you but your own well-being, if you are utterly self-obsessed, not much will make you happy. (...) The irony is that you need to do the opposite: you need to care about other things. This is not advice you can follow directly, since you cannot choose to love what leaves you cold. But it is not useless. You can choose to immerse yourself in things you might come to care about and so begin to change your life.
Quip attributed to W. H. Auden: “The poet is capable of every conceit but that of the social worker: ‘We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for, I don’t know.’” (Auden got the joke from comedian John Foster Hall, “the Vicar of Mirth,” who had been telling it since the 1920s.)
Hence the second rule: in your job, your relationships, your spare time, you must make room for activities with existential value. (...) What these activities have in common is their non-ameliorative worth. (...) Examples range from philosophy and high art to telling funny stories, listening to pop music, swimming or sailing, playing games with family or friends. These activities may respond to difficulties in life; they may distract you from suffering or merely pass the time. But each can be “a source of inward joy” unconnected with struggle and imperfection. (...) Work can have existential value. The same is true of friendship.
It does not mean that existential value matters more than anything else, that it should always come first. (...) When the demands of life are pressing, too urgent to be ignored, it would be a mistake to devote all day to contemplation, reading Wordsworth, or playing golf. (...) Yet if you lose touch with existential value, if you find no place in your life for the activities of the gods — ones that make life worth living to begin with — you risk a midlife crisis not unlike John Stuart Mill’s. If you have the opportunity, you should make yourself immortal, some of the time.
Chapter 3. Missing Out.
Pleasures are often incommensurable. Forced to choose between watching the sunset and hearing a symphony, you may decide to listen; but it makes sense to be conflicted. The desire to see the colors of the setting sun will not be satisfied by the sound of music. What we want are particular pleasures, not a homogenous hedonic buzz.
There is consolation in the fact that missing out is an inexorable side effect of the richness of human life. It reflects something wonderful: that there is so much to love and that it is so various that one history could not encompass it all.
Embrace your losses as fair payment for the surplus of being alive.
There are limits to this result. For one thing, it does not help us to avoid the problem of missing out, only to accept it. As cognitive therapy, it aims to change how we think and thus how we feel about a circumstance, not to change the circumstance itself. Nor does it address the sort of regret that is not inevitable: regret about mistakes, misfortunes, failures, in which life turns out worse than it could have done.
Unlike wrinkles and middle age spread, the rotting of teeth is the visible disintegration of the body, the overt mark of cumulative, irreversible decay. Teeth do not repair themselves, like bones, but steadily erode, as though part of one’s skull were exposed to view, already dead or dying.
It seems natural to want one’s future open, one’s opportunities intact. But on reflection, it is hard to explain why. If all goes well, the options you take are no worse than those you reject. (We are setting aside mistakes, misfortunes, failures, just for now.)
It is silly to think that having options could make up for reaching outcomes you would not prefer, considered alone. Think twice before you wreck your home. Is it the space inside you hate, or the fact that it has walls?
What I envy about myself at seventeen is not that I had all this ahead of me, but the time before I had to choose, before I knew what my losses would be. In philosophers’ terms, the shift in perspective is not temporal, but “epistemic”: it has to do with knowledge. Emotionally, there is a fundamental difference between knowing that I will miss out on something good and knowing what, knowing that I won’t achieve all of my ambitions and knowing which.
There is empirical evidence that we struggle with choices that involve uncompensated loss.
Chapter 4. Retrospection.
Mistakes, misfortunes, failures: choices you should not have made, hardships you should not have faced, plans that did not turn out as they should. No one makes it to midlife without acquiring some of each. The question now is what to do with them. How to feel about the ways in which life is not what you hoped it would be?
A simple way not to regret your mistakes is to have things turn out better than you hoped. There was no way I could have known, in advance, the epiphany to come. But now that I have had it, I am glad of the mistakes that made it possible.
“There is no denying that the work is dull: there are jobs that I’d prefer. But if I hadn’t gone to law school, I would not have met my husband, Al, and if I hadn’t met him, my daughter, Sam, would not have been conceived. If I had stuck with piano, she would not exist. Loving her as I do, I cannot wish for a second chance. I don’t deny that there is loss involved in living this way — though a wise man told me loss is inevitable — but I don’t regret it overall, and I don’t think I should.”
One way to shield mistakes, misfortunes, failures from regret is to have things turn out better than expected. But even when they don’t, regret is not compulsory.
How effective is this cure? It has definite limitations.
If past events were sufficiently awful, attachment is at most a partial counterweight to regret, enough to complicate but not to overturn it. Another limitation: the tactic we’ve discovered only works for past events on which the conception of a child depends. How much of an impediment is that? The good news: as chaos theorists tell us — citing the so-called butter-fly effect — even quite minor alterations in the past would produce quite different futures.
the greatest drawback of appealing to new life as a remedy for regret. In ordinary circumstances, it is a ploy available only to biological parents and then only for a number of years. To take the most direct exception: it gives us nothing at all to say when the object of potential regret is the decision not to have kids.
Can attachment to activities, like writing, or artifacts, like Orlando, play the role that children play as medicines for regret?
attachment to activities, artifacts, relationships, can justify retrospective affirmation of events we should have not have welcomed at the time.
If it is rational to be risk averse, to prefer good things you know to the uncertain prospect of better ones, it can be rational to prefer in retrospect decisions you should not have made. In order to use this procedure in cognitive therapy, you will have to ask yourself how risk averse you ought to be. That is a personal question. But we can formulate rules of thumb. First, when you reflect on past mistakes or on events you did not welcome at the time, asking, “Do I wish it hadn’t happened?”, do not fantasize about the best-case scenario. (...) Remind yourself that the consequences were uncertain and that a second chance could turn out better or worse. Second, focus on the bird in hand. You know, more or less, how things worked out, and it is this specific past you are now comparing with a roll of the dice. So long as your actual life is good enough, and you are sufficiently risk averse, it is perfectly rational to be content with how things are, even though they could have been much better, and even though you still believe that they went wrong. (...) But it only goes so far. For one thing, it is silent when the missed alternative does not involve much risk or when its floor is very high. Even in retrospect, the gamble may look better than what you have. For another, appeal to risk is dismayingly negative, a source of resignation not delight. Can we make a more positive case for the affirmation of life? I think we can.
But I did not know what I would be missing. This made the fact of loss much easier to bear. It is when I make the decision, when I know not just that there are deficits to come, but what those deficits are, that I am forced to confront what I will not do. And that is when it hurts. The explanation of this shift is epistemic: it has to do with knowledge. There is an emotional barrier between knowing that I will miss out on activities I value and knowing which ones. (...) Not only can ignorance protect us from the emotional impact of what is bad, knowledge can amplify the impact of what is good. (...) Just as it is rational to respond less strongly to the abstract knowledge that your life will have deficiencies than to learning which ones, so it is rational to respond more strongly to the definite ways in which a life is good than to the nebulous fact that another life is better.
We live in details, not abstractions. If it is rational to respond more strongly to the facts that make something good, in all their specificity, than to the featureless, generic fact that something else is better, it is rational to be glad that I made a choice — to be a philosopher, not a physician — that I still believe is worse. What saves me from regret is not aversion to risk, the birth of a child, or an underestimation of philosophy. It is the amplitude of life, its unfathomable particularity, like the fastidious excess of a peasant scene by Bruegel.
Mistakes, misfortunes, failures: no one makes it to midlife without acquiring some of each. (...) Some have been redeemed by risk aversion, kids, or luck. Others not so much. You may be tempted to take stock, to wrestle with the past. There is nothing wrong with that. But do not make a further mistake, the mistake of stepping back, abstracting from the details of your life, to ask what you should want. In abstracting, you discard a vital source of rational affirmation: not the bare existence of activities, artifacts relationships, but their impossibly verdant depths. Do not weigh alternatives theoretically, but zoom in: let the specifics count against the grand cartoon of lives unlived. In doing so, you may find you cannot regret what you should have resisted at the time. (...) Not every wound can heal. In the face of “terrible, searing regret,” you may be lucidly unconsoled. If so, I am sorry. It is easier to embrace the details as a kind of recompense when your mistakes hurt only you; much harder when they hurt someone else.
Chapter 5. Something to Look Forward To.
Beauvoir connects her dismay at non-being with the prospect of inevitable death: “I think with sadness of all the books I’ve read, all the places I’ve seen, all the knowledge I’ve amassed and that will be no more. All the music, all the paintings, all the culture, so many places: and suddenly nothing.”
Vladimir Nabokov depicts human life as “a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness” in the opening lines of Speak, Memory.
Many of us are plagued by a longing for indefinite extension of life into the future, for life without end. The desire for indefinite extension of life into the past, for life without origin, is at best eccentric, an amusing quirk, at worst pathological: Nabokov’s chronophobia.
For the advocate of symmetry, it is not explained, or justified, by anything. Prenatal nonexistence may be a terrible deprivation, much worse than infinite life, but it is not reasonable to react to it with more than mild dismay. Unless we can argue otherwise, that should also be our attitude to death. Postmortem nonexistence: a terrible deprivation, much worse than infinite life, but the object of only mild dismay. In principle, one could achieve parity by going the other way, inflating one’s aversion to prenatal nonexistence, adding chrono-phobia to chronic fear of death. In practice, there is little threat of that.
We are, as Parfit argues, “biased towards the future”: more concerned about pain we have yet to suffer than pain we have suffered in the past.19 The same is true, in reverse, for pleasure. If you have been looking forward to a fun experience — going to a party, say — and you are unsure whether it happened yesterday or is scheduled for tonight, most likely you are hoping for the latter. Future pleasures count for more than pleasures in the past. (...) If you are biased toward the future, you will not be impressed by the “symmetry” of prenatal and postmortem nonexistence.20 You will refuse the consolation offered above. While future finitude robs you of future pleasures, which you deeply desire, past finitude robs you of past ones, a matter of comparative indifference. No wonder death inspires dread, unlike the bygone ages of eternity. (...) the rationality of future bias is an unsolved problem in philosophy.
Even if being immortal is a very great good, it is like the ability to fly: a magical quality whose absence it is perverse to mourn. We may resent the threat of dying at forty-five. But if death comes at the end of the human span, at eighty-five or ninety, should it provoke our rage? We have had our allotment of years, and while we may want more, to insist on them looks like avarice: a shameless, pathological lust for life.
It is in middle age, more often than not, that death becomes less abstract, not a crest on the horizon but a wave that crashes through your life, swallowing people you love. (...) some of the most profound confrontations with death begin with the death of a friend. (...) For many, it is the death of a parent that brings mortality close to home.
Separate two things: wanting the best for those you love and wanting them to stay alive.
Why you are averse to death, what troubles you about it: the deprivation of benefits or the bare cessation of life?
At the same time, something is gained by seeing one’s death reflected in that of others, in picturing mortality as bereavement. We are reminded to proportion our demands on life to human scale, and to acknowledge that, however painful it may be, there is a process of accepting death, even the death of those you love, even when the loved one is you.
Chapter 6. Living in the Present.
These accomplishments matter to me, but each one is bittersweet: longed for, pursued, and ultimately, disappointingly, complete. That’s over with. What now? The sense of repetition and futility, the emptiness of satisfied desire: I am not alone in feeling them.
“Hence it swings like a pendulum to and fro between pain and boredom, and these two are in fact its ultimate constituents.” This is Schopenhauer’s dilemma. Either your will has objects or it doesn’t: you want things or you don’t. If you don’t, you are aimless, and your life is empty. This is the abyss of boredom. Yet if you do have desires, they must be for outcomes so far unattained. These are the targets of your pursuit and thus of the activities that occupy your life. But it is painful to want what you do not have. In staving off boredom by finding things to do, you have condemned yourself to misery. (...) To call this “suffering” is to give an exaggerated sense of the emotional impact of unsatisfied desire. Dilemma solved! But Schopenhauer was on to something. There is insight in his cynical account of our relationship with desire. (...) The problem is not the risk of running out, the aimless nightmare of Schopenhauer’s boredom. It is that your engagement with value is self-destructive. The way in which you relate to the activities that matter most to you is by trying to complete them and so expel them from your life. Your days are devoted to ending, one by one, the activities that give them meaning.
In pursuing a goal, you are trying to exhaust your interaction with something good, as if you were to make friends for the sake of saying goodbye. It is this structural absurdity that we learn from Schopenhauer, even if he is wrong about the agony of desire.
Some activities are “telic”: they aim at terminal states, at which they are finished and thus exhausted. (“Telic” comes from the Greek “telos” or end, the root of “teleology.”) Driving home is telic: it is done when you get home. So are projects like getting married or writing a book. (...) Other activities are “atelic”: they do not aim at a point of termination or exhaustion, a final state in which they have been achieved. As well as walking from A to B, you can go for a walk with no particular destination. That is an atelic activity. So is listening to music, hanging out with friends or family, or thinking about midlife. You can stop doing these things, and you eventually will. But you cannot complete them.
This is what Schopenhauer got right: if you focus on telic activities, your efforts work against you. Your motivation “springs from lack, from deficiency,” if not from pain: the deficiency that consists in being at a distance from the terminal state at which you aim.10 Yet in achieving that aim, you end an activity that made your life worthwhile. It is this engine of self-destruction that powers my midlife crisis and perhaps a part of yours. I have spent four decades acquiring a taste and aptitude for the telic, for achievement and the next big thing, for personal and professional success — only to feel the void within. Fulfillment lies always in the future or the past. That is no way to live.
The activities you love need not be projects. Atelic activities, ones that do not aim at terminal states, have value, too. There is pleasure in going for a walk, just wandering or hiking, not to get anywhere, but for the sake of walking itself. Walking is atelic: unlike walking home, it does not aim at its own completion, a point at which there is no more to do.
You can’t build your life around walking, as you might build it around the narrative of your career, your relationships, your children. But atelic activities correspond to each of the projects that structure your life.
If my problem is an excessive investment in telic activities, the solution is to love their atelic counterparts, to find meaning in the process, not the project.
Because they do not aim at terminal states, atelic activities are not exhaustible. Your involvement with them does not destroy them: it does not threaten their existence, as engaging with a project does; they are not self-annihilating.
Atelic activities are fully realized in the present, not directed to a future in which they are archived in the past. If you want to walk home and you are not yet there, your action is incomplete, its fulfillment still to come. When you get there, it is all over. If you value going for a walk, by contrast, then in wandering through the park, you have exactly what you want.
When you cook dinner for your kids, help them finish their homework, and put them to bed—telic activities through and through—you engage in the atelic activity of parenting. Unlike dinner and homework, parenting is complete at every instant; it is a process, not a project. (...) In general, where a project gives meaning to your life, it is possible to find meaning in the process. That meaning is not used up or consumed; it is not invested in the future but redeemed in the present.
Living in the present is not a suspension of ordinary life but a way of being immersed in it. Atelic activities do not occupy some rarefied peak to which we seldom ascend. If you look for them, you can find them, and find meaning in them, all around.
This is what Schopenhauer got wrong. Even if we are bound to pursue telic ends, even if they are objects of desire, they are not the only things that matter; other activities can give meaning to our lives. We can escape the self-destructive cycle of pursuit, resolution, and renewal, of attainments archived or unachieved. The way out is to find sufficient value in atelic activities, activities that have no point of conclusion or limit, ones whose fulfillment lies in the moment of action itself.
Absorption in projects threatens to obscure the beauty of the process.
We can strive to be mindful of what we are doing in order to break the chains of habit, the automaticity that prevents us from living life to the full. Attention to the present may rejuvenate us. (...) We can meditate on breathing, on ambient noise, on our present sensations, in order to reduce our heart rates, our blood pressure, and our levels of anxiety and stress. Mindfulness-based stress reduction is now a popular tool of clinical psychology.
It is not sufficient for meaning in life that one attend to the present, to the atelic activities in which you are engaged. It matters what you are doing, not just that you are doing it in the Now. Meditating on your breath, your body, the sounds in your environment is a way to train your appreciation of simple atelic activities: breathing, sitting, listening. There is value in these activities, though not enough for a meaningful life. Attending to their presence is not an end in itself. It is a way to develop your capacity to be in the moment, so as to appreciate the atelic activities that matter to you. In order to do this, you must overcome the magnetic pull of the telic orientation. You must prevent your attention from being absorbed by projects.
If you are at all like me, midlife means your memory is not what it was. Time for a brief refresher. Six chapters, eleven and a half ideas for managing middle age.
In the hollow of the U-curve, life can seem oppressive, arduous, bleak. Chapter 2 proposed two rules of midlife crisis prevention. First, as we learned from the paradox of egoism: you mustn’t be too self-involved. The obsessive pursuit of happiness interferes with its own achievement: “Those only are happy,” Mill wrote, “who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.”1 Second, you should make room in your life for existential as well as ameliorative value, for activities that do not answer needs we would be better off without, but make life positively good. These range from the trivial — playing games with friends — to the profundities of art and science.
Even if things go well, midlife is missing out. You recognize the paths you will never walk, the lives you will never lead, and look back with nostalgia at the liberty of youth. Some words of advice, set out in chapter 3. First, while the feeling of loss around midlife is real, ask yourself what the alternative would be. Missing out is a consequence of the plurality of values: only a drastic impoverishment in the world, or your response to it, could shield you from dismay. Second, do not over-estimate the value of having options. Options matter, but not enough to compensate for outcomes you would not prefer, considered alone. Don’t be fooled by the allure of choice, like Paul O’Rourke and the Underground Man. Third, while it makes sense to envy your younger self, free from the pain of missing out, do not forget the cost. Not knowing what you will not do entails not knowing what you will, a vertiginous loss of identity.
This advice falls flat when you regret what you have done or what has happened to you, when you wish you had a second chance. But as we learned in chapter 4, there are ways to reconcile yourself, without illusion, to the failings of the past. First, there is new life. Where those you love would not exist except for your mistakes, you have reason to be glad that those mistakes were made. Second, there is risk aversion. When you imagine starting over, keep in mind the many ways things could have gone, the vast uncertainty, weighed against the history you know. Is it worth the counterfactual risk? Third, there is attachment to particulars: the intricate fabric of what matters in your life. It is this plenitude you should place beside the abstract verdict that things could have gone better.
If midlife is a time to reckon with the past, it is also time to face the limits of the future. You have reached “the crest of the hill, and there stretching ahead is the downward slope with the end of the road in sight.”2 Chapter 5 took on the finitude of human life with philosophical tools. First, there is the attitude of temporal neutrality: giving equal weight to past and future gains. If you adopt this view, the deprivations of being dead are no worse than those of being as yet unconceived. Second, to want the benefits of immortality is to want what lies beyond the human condition. It is like wanting the ability to fly: a power it makes sense to envy but whose absence you should not mourn. What is left is attachment to yourself: a recognition of worth and the wish that it be preserved. Thus, half a notion for approaching middle age. Can you separate attachment from concern, grieving your own mortality in advance, giving up the need to persist forever, while saving the desire for a better life?
The most elusive challenge of midlife is not to cope with the past or the future, but with the emptiness of the present, the sense that satisfaction is deferred or left behind, that one’s relentless striving is self-destructive. Our final chapter traced this malady to a structural flaw in the pursuit of projects. Projects are telic: they aim at terminal states. To engage with them successfully is to complete them and so to eliminate meaning from your life. The solution framed in chapter 6 is to invest more fully in atelic activities, ones that have no point of termination or exhaustion — activities like going for a walk, spending time with friends, appreciating art or nature, parenting, or working hard. There may not be a change in what you do from day to day. It is enough to adjust your attitude, what you love: to value not just projects but the process of raising kids, maintaining friendships, doing your job. From the outside, things might look the same; but they are profoundly different. If you value the process, you have what you want right now; and your engagement does not drain its worth. One thing we learn from the practice of meditation is how to attend to the present: to appreciate the value of the atelic amidst the glittering attraction of achievable goals. This is mindfulness at work.
It is an irony in a self-help book that its first rule is to care about things other than yourself. By all means read the book, but do it out of interest in the temporality of life, not to improve your own! According to the paradox of egoism, this irony afflicts the very enterprise of self-help, which exploits a motive that obstructs its goal. It is easy to mistrust the self-obsession and self-interest that inform the whole affair. At times, I feel that way about this book. How self-indulgent is the midlife crisis, a hardship it is a luxury to live through?
Less than we might fear. The issues I have addressed apply to almost anyone, not just a privileged few. We all face loss and limitation, roads not taken, chances missed; we make mistakes, survive misfortunes, see our efforts fail; and in the end, we die. Meanwhile, the activities that mean most to us are telic or atelic, whether we live from hand to mouth, endure oppression, or teach at MIT. In each case, your mindset can be more or less telic, goal-directed. You can focus on project after project, task after task, or value, too, the process of pursuit, whatever the projects are. Living in the present is as integral for those whose lives are tenuous or troubled as it is for anyone else.
Our quest began with Mill’s impetuous dream: his plan for social reform, his vision of success, and his despair. To eradicate useless suffering is a noble aim, but it speaks to needs we would be better off without. Its value is ameliorative, not existential. There must be more to life. It is also unremittingly telic. When Mill asked how he would feel if his ambitions came to pass, he imagined a final state, a permanent utopia in which he had nothing to do. The purpose of his life had been erased.
When we strive for justice and a better world, we need the power of now as much as anywhere. To focus on the telic is to focus, all too often, on the distance and precariousness of our goals: to eradicate poverty, famine, war; to thwart the worst effects of global warming. In Bento’s Sketchbook, his unclassifiable illustrated essay, art critic John Berger reflects on the social activism of Arundhati Roy:
[Every] profound political protest is an appeal to a justice that is absent, and is accompanied by a hope that in the future this justice will be established; this hope, however, is not the first reason the protest is being made. One protests because not to protest would be too humiliating, too diminishing, too deadly. One protests (by building a barricade, taking up arms, going on a hunger strike, linking arms, shouting, writing) in order to save the present moment, whatever the future holds. . . . A protest is not principally a sacrifice made for some alternative, more just future; it is an inconsequential redemption of the present. The problem is how to live time and again with the adjective inconsequential.
There is no perfect answer to that question: consequences matter. But so do actions that abstract from them. Corresponding to a more just future, an end of telic activity, is the atelic process of protesting its absence. There is meaning in the protest.
I am still working on my midlife crisis, though I think I see the way through. I need to escape the telic mindset, to cultivate a more atelic orientation. I need to learn how to be in the moment. It’s an outlook you can put to selfish use. But as it fills the emptiness of everyday life, it refuses, too, the anxiety of inconsequence in utopian schemes. It is a source of energy, focus, fullness, striving for whatever is worth striving for, to know and prize the fact that you are striving for it now.