Coffee Shop Sermon (Midlife Crisis edition)
Recommended Listening: The Specials "A Message to You Rudy"
Life is punctuated with different goals and achievements as we move from the cradle to the grave -it helps us force time into a generally accepted linear model. I've reached that landmark period nebulously referred to as 'midlife crisis' which, as well as containing the expected urge to become an organ donor by learning to ride a motorbike, has also come with a surprising amount of reflection and realisation - let's have an unreasonable discussion...
As I write this, I am two weeks into growing a beard. I am telling everyone it is because I have never had one in my life, I want to see if I can be Santa Claus for Christmas for any future grandchildren, and that it's just a new hobby. A pet, if you will. Life is too short! Who knows, I might suddenly find myself needing hospital care and having a beard might hide a crucial skin-rash that will lead some maverick, genius doctor to diagnose a rare condition based on its appearance! 'Bit of a stretch' is an understatement there but, it's my midlife crisis, and I'll justify it how I bloody-well want.
The growth is going better than expected, and I seem to have got past the violent objections of wife and kid, who are subjected to my daily hugs. It's become my 'strokey beard' contemplation tool in an oh-so stereotypical manner - I'm getting worryingly attached already, and my promise to shave it off for New Year already feels like a betrayal. But it will be removed, before my better half comes to the conclusion that the head it is attached to is the actual issue and reaches for the garden shears...
'Mid life crisis' was always a term that I, like many I'm sure, regarded as a jokey and mythical time of life that didn't really exist outside a stand-up comedy routine or paparazzi reports of some ageing rock star divorcing their long-suffering life partner for someone a third their age. As someone born with male dangly bits, my awareness of the 'midlife crisis' phenomenon has hit me in three ways - firstly: reaching my late forties and being, statistically, over halfway to the end of level monster. Secondly: managing an exclusively female team and being thrown head first into a crash-course on the menopause. Thirdly (and this was the most surprising): a sudden clarity around self-awareness and reflection. That last one is the most interesting to me, so we'll obviously discuss the second one first.
The menopause is a stage of life that anyone who menstruates will experience in some form or another, with such a wide-ranging list of possible symptoms and severity as to make your head spin. I am fortunate to work for an employer that recognises that this is a fact of life to be managed sensitively as an employer on a case by case basis with compassion, flexibility and assistance wherever possible - whether that is the norm or not, I am not sure, and I suspect in wider society that awareness is still not as high as it should be. When dealing with anything caused by a decline in hormones, there is of course a male version often referred to as the andropause but, as with anything hormonal, those who are male tend to get off a lot lighter. The old meme my kids used to taunt me with of 'emotional crying dad' has been proven partly true - the gentle decrease in testosterone levels as I age brings tears to the eye more readily but, when you look at other suspected causes of the andropause including lack of sleep, a poor diet, lack of exercise, drinking too much alcohol, smoking and low self-esteem it's easy to see hormones weren't really the issue and that most of the male western population are cruising into very messy and emotional forties. It's a good time to be a pharmaceutical company or a therapist. So cynical!
The phrase, often attributed to George Bernard Shaw that 'youth is wasted on the young' feels startlingly true to me and probably many other white, male 'bohemian-lite'
writers ever since. As the ravages of drink, excess calories and lack of sleep start to manifest themselves as joint aches, flare-ups and a myriad other discomforts, it's accompanied by a sudden new ability to reflect and become more self-aware. For me, this was triggered by my own very minor bouts of ill-health and witnessing those I know and love passing away or developing chronic illness. My born-again like dedication to walking has brought me more in touch with the changing seasons and those who live locally, contrasting with the decades I have spent on an internet-fuelled quest to learn about the world. Being lucky enough to travel to The Philippines and see life from a starkly different angle has also encouraged me to pay more attention to the world around me. It's not always a pleasant exercise - I find it tremendously depressing to see the stark contrast in poverty on my doorstep - but the difference is that the context is more real now, rather than being diluted by the information rich world of global statistics. I've never been naïve about poverty and how humanity always strives for a pecking order, but realising the internet and social media, as the new 'opiate of the masses', has numbed me to the state of where I actually live took a while to get to.
Shit - I have invoked Karl Marx. Don't panic, I am firmly of the position that no one approach has all the answers - you are safe to keep reading without becoming a Communist by association!
This all leads neatly on to the third element of my mid-life crisis which is the sudden ability to reflect along with an increased self-awareness. It's been a bit like Peter Parker being bitten by a radioactive spider and waking up the next morning inexplicably clinging to the ceiling. For me, this is something that wasn't really possible in my younger days, and my goodness - how much more would I have got done with this sort of clarity in my twenties? I have a theory that many of the young millionaire/billionaires that haven't been born with an inherited fortune are the lucky humans that have reached this level of self-awareness freakishly early in their lives. Like the kids that reach puberty before anyone else, and suddenly look thirty years old with a mortgage when everyone else is still catching Pokémon and drawing comedy penis' in the biology textbooks. If, when I was younger, I had the ability to take a step back and realise that those colleagues I perceived as better prepared, more capable and carefree were often just as riddled with self-doubt and were 'faking it till they made it' then I am sure I would have been a lot happier, if not more successful. I may have bounced confidently between jobs, enjoying new challenges and experiences rather than experiencing this new found confidence after twenty three years of bumbling along, gathering value like that corner cabinet that was bought for you, looks expensive and you are afraid to get rid of because 'it might be worth something and reminds you of how it used to be'.
Finding your way in a world that is built around the exchange of money, its accumulation and, to a lesser or greater extent depending on where you live, its necessity to live a happy life is difficult, often cruel, but mostly dull. People say 'money doesn't buy you happiness' but in my experience, if bloody well helps. It's rare to see a happy drunk, sleeping rough, whon wouldn 't feel better with the means not to be pissed on, beaten up or die of exposure. Each generations 'opiate of the masses' (Hereditary royalty, newspapers, TV, cable TV, the internet) for whatever age you find yourself in maintains a certain level of stable society, and predicated on the basic human desires for order and security. Where it gets tricky is how it treats those at the top and bottom of the pile - who's punching up and who's punching down - as humans find it very difficult to maintain any sort of strata without violence, whether that is physical or financial. As someone who has lived their life fundamentally as a cheerleader for others (I am not claiming to be devoid of selfish acts on a small scale), I've been quite late to the game in realising a certain amount of selfishness is actually ok - just so long as you are not standing on anyone else's windpipe in order to do so. While we can all be selfish in small ways - giving yourself the slightly bigger piece of cake or steadfastly applying 'first come first served' rules in the morning when there is onlhy enough bread for one round of toast - finding balance through this self awareness is probably why some say you get more right-wing as you get older. While some make take this new self-awareness too far the other way and become pin-up, Thatcherite greed-monsters, if anything, I have become more socially aware, more left wing and more considerate of those less lucky than me from my already socialist upbringing. It brings an interesting conflict to this new, self-obsessed edge.
Reflecting on where I have come from, where I find myself and the new limitations that seem to be crowding in with old age and changing health is an odd experience. If you are under the age of 30 and reading this, I would recommend taking time to reflect like this, it will do you a lot of good. Maybe go live for a week in a tent in the middle of nowhere, grow a beard, get smelly and spend a lot of time staring into the middle-distance. It's good value to quiet that mind occassionally! It helps you to rationalise what you can control, what you can influence and what you are just going to have to live with. You are at your most powerful when you have the most under your control and that feeds directly into the environment in which you live which, fundamentally, is out of your control. As my better half and I approach the end of our mortgage repayments and the kids are almost out in the world, making their own way, it's a good time for me to be planning 'what next'. If these ramblings influence even one person to take stock and take control, then that's great. When you're a millionaire, any donation will be greatly received.
All this contemplation got me thinking about 'the fierce great granny Ellen' who was single-handedly responsible for bringing my father to the UK through a combination of bloody-mindedness, matriarchal domination and being slightly unhinged. Next time I'll talk a bit to her story as I understand it.