Why were you put on this earth? What are you meant to do with your life? That question comes up in various ways over the course of a lifetime. As children, we’re asked what we’d like to be when we grow up in an attempt to gauge our interests or discern possible talents we may possess. In adolescence, we’re asked in preparation for what lies beyond high school. As we approach our forties and fifties, we ask ourselves if how we are spending our time serves our happiness or our life’s purpose.
I was a teenager when I first heard about the midlife crisis. This largely-male phenomenon included a host of seemingly out-of-character behaviours. It appeared in sitcoms where the slightly-balding man with the beginnings of a beer belly would buy a shiny sports car and have an illicit affair with a younger woman. Many transgressions were forgiven under the banner of the midlife crisis.
Now that I’m technically at this midlife point (gasp!), I look around and don’t see many friends or acquaintances buying yellow lambos and parading around with partners half their age. What I do see though are divorces, major career changes, deep depressions, drug use and abuse and/or lots and lots of drinking. Times have changed and so has the look and feel of the midlife crisis. It’s as though we reach this stage of life, assess our situation and we either decide to make big changes or stay where we are and feel bad about it.
It may sound like I’m saying that no one reaches their forties or fifties and is thoroughly content with their situation in life. That’s because I am kind of saying just that. I truly hope that I’m wrong and that there are some people out there who feel as though they are exactly where they are meant to be. I would bet my last dollar though that these people, if they exist, are not the majority. The rest of us may have a bit of work to do to feel true contentment.
After all, isn’t mid-life the perch from which to look back and examine where we came from? Isn’t it also the perch from which to look ahead - toward old age and death? Now, if that didn’t just give you chills, we can no longer be friends. Really. ‘Cause that freaks me the heck out.
When we’re middle-aged and look back, we may see that our children are either grown or steadily gaining independence. Keeping the small humans alive is no longer the priority, which can lead us to wonder what is. Maybe we look at our partner and how much the relationship has morphed and changed over the years. We may worry about how that relationship may or may not adapt as parenthood no longer has centre stage. Maybe we start to feel physical aches and pains or fatigue and consider all those places we haven’t yet traveled to or activities we haven’t done. Maybe we look back at our career and wonder if it is fulfilling enough to sustain us for another 15-20 years.
Something seems to happen at this point in life and we start to consider our days as numbered. Enter the crisis. What do we do? We become desperate to make changes. We succumb to knee-jerk reactions or we push those needs and wants down and bottle them up. We attempt to distract ourselves if we can’t or won’t acknowledge or face our realities. We suffer inwardly, outwardly and spread that stuff all around us. Some start to chase leads on what might make them feel good or be their ultimate reason for being.
One need not search too far and wide to come across articles and books, online courses and workshops all claiming to help you discover your life’s purpose. What if we could know, without a shadow of doubt, what we were put here to accomplish? What if we knew what would truly make us happy? It would be grand, wouldn’t it? There are so many authors, coaches, self-help gurus and more who offer strategies to explore and discover these answers. What they seem to all have in common is that the person seeking answers needs to show up, be open to introspection and come to their own conclusions. All this exploration has value but I would caution that finding your life’s purpose isn’t a one-book or one weekend seminar type of venture. In fact, I would argue, that 1- just like love, our life’s purpose cannot be chased but will reveal itself over time; and 2- knowing one’s purpose is one thing but acting on it takes courage.
I’m a firm believer that events occur with perfect timing. I’ve often wondered why my husband had to be injured so badly in a car accident and why my younger daughter developed Type 1 Diabetes. I’ve come to the conclusion that we may never understand the reasons behind what life throws our way but the timing of those events (and their recurrence when we don’t learn the first time) is precise and can offer glimpses of what we are meant to do and learn.
In a way, my husband’s accident was what set me on the path to exploring what truly made me happy. I had worked in federal corrections for over 15 years after getting a Master’s Degree in Criminology. That represents a significant chunk of my life exploring one specific area. My last position in the federal government was in the policy sector. It was interesting and important work but it had begun to lose some of its appeal. I felt as though something was missing but couldn’t quite figure out what it was.
I took some time off work following my husband’s accident, to help with his recovery - during which time I became increasingly depressed. A couple years later, during a medical assessment for the insurance company, the doctor told my husband that it was time for him to grieve the person he used to be and the loss of the type of work he used to do. It may sound selfish but I immediately wondered what that meant for me and for our daughters. If this doctor was stating that my husband was no longer and would never again be the man I married, where did that leave us? I came to understand that I had some grieving to do as well.
I consulted my own therapists and family doctor and was encouraged to carve time out for me and for activities that made me feel whole. My yoga practice was the only outlet that was strictly mine and it became so important to me. It was a lifeboat in a world I couldn’t control. As my husband’s recovery progressed, I decided to pursue yoga teacher training. My goal was to deepen my practice and to learn more about the origins of yoga. I had to teach a class as part of the training requirements. I planned that first class and stressed about it in a major way. Yet, when the time came, all that nervous energy dissolved. I felt light, strong and confident. I felt completely at home teaching. The second it was over, I looked over at the teacher who was evaluating me and she flashed me the biggest smile. I burst into tears. Was it just nervous energy catching up with me? Was it relief that I’d completed it and done a good job? Perhaps. Was it my soul sending me a sign? I knew in that instant that I was meant to teach.
It was three years later that I fully acknowledged and embraced my need for connection with others and to be of service. Teaching yoga and creating jewelry pieces with healing stones offered me the opportunity to connect with others but I needed and craved more. I needed to be of service in a deeply meaningful and connected way. That’s when I explored coaching. I was partway through an intensive five-month training when, through introspection and meditation, I finally understood that I was meant to coach caregivers. I was meant to use my experience and all the challenges I faced over the last seven years to support others who are in similar situations. I came to understand that finding my life’s purpose coincided with the final step in my grieving process. I needed to accept that life throws curve balls and that my role isn’t to rail against my perceived injustice of those challenges but rather, to listen and be receptive to the lessons beneath those challenges.
Knowing something and doing something about it takes courage. I knew what made me feel alive but how can one justify leaving a stable well-paying job with a pension, dental and health benefits? Couldn’t I just teach yoga on the weekends or coach part-time?
The answer to those types of questions is a rather personal one. People have varying levels of tolerance for risk. The way we were raised, our need for security and stability, our financial situation, family dynamics, etc all play a part in what steps we opt to take or ignore when we get a glimpse of our purpose.
Some will prefer the status quo over change any and every day. Others may resign themselves to the status quo due to limiting beliefs or feeling unworthy of anything better. Others may find ways to connect to their purpose without disrupting the routine too much. For example, I have a friend who is very adept and well respected working in finance. She’s admitted to me in the past though that her passion lies in working with animals. She and her family spend every spare minute with their household pets (of which there are many) or at the barn tending to their horses. For this friend, her passion isn’t her job but rather, what her job allows her to enjoy and share outside of work. Others may fully embrace change, upend their entire lives to follow their passions. Whatever path is chosen, making a decision about said path requires courage.
One thing I know for sure is that one’s life purpose does not simply knock once and disappear if we don’t answer immediately. It is also not something that we can thoroughly understand in one weekend or between the pages of one book. It is present in all we do. Purpose makes itself known in those moments that make our soul sing. It comes back over and over again until we finally “get it”. We just need to slow down and listen for it. At some point, all the pieces fall into place and we are asked to tap into that courage. Sometimes, it takes courage to make changes and sometimes, it takes courage to accept things as they are.
For me, today, from my midlife perch, I look back and see that my husband is much more capable of introspection and adapting than I ever thought possible. Our relationship has been tested, pulled, bent and stretched but it remains strong, supportive and tender. Our daughters are growing into resilient teens who have learned to establish boundaries and value connection and growth. As for me, I know I would feel stifled in any type of work where personal connection and growth weren’t possible. I am choosing my purpose over job stability and that is something that requires a lot of courage for me.
Do I think I’ve been in a midlife crisis over the past seven years? There have definitely been a lot of changes. No, I’m not in crisis. I don’t think we should even call it a midlife crisis. Maybe it’s a midlife touchpoint? An assessment, taking stock or a read of the tea leaves? Regardless of what it’s called, I can look forward from this perch knowing that I am only human. As such, I am continually growing, greeting each new day with an open heart and a willingness to learn what I can from what life throws at me and to apply that knowledge in service of others. I can live with that.