My husband is a natural-born optimist who is always content with life. But the other day when we were watching TV after putting our children to bed, he mumbled: “I am at a low point in my life.” This struck me as an unusual and uncharacteristic confession coming from him. Then I asked him back: “What was the high point in your life?” I was hoping that he’d mention our wedding day, but he just went back to watching TV. In the 16 years since I met him, that was the first time I saw self-defeat in this man. Then I remembered he had just entered the box of people aged 40 and above.
This year is when both of us have advanced into that age box. I can tell that my body is in pre-menopause mode, and I am actively managing the changes. Our children are getting lessons on puberty in school, and as parents we are in new territory with them. Although there have not been any major events in our lives, there is indeed a midlife pause when we question whether life has turned out the way we wanted.
Not everyone agrees that midlife crisis is a universal thing, but midlife awareness is certainly widely shared. It is when self-doubts come and whisper in your ears, questioning your past choices and tempting you to accept failure as the tone of your story. There can be an uncertainty about your contribution to the world or to your family. If you are not careful, these whisperings might build up to a debilitating depressive episode.
As Christians, we know that gratitude and faith should mark our everyday living. But that does not mean that we nullify the complex contours of the human experience. Every season in life does present its unique challenges. They invite us to discover more about ourselves and further reflect on our walk with God. Even Jesus himself went through all these very emotions. Sadness, exhaustion, and disappointments are what made him fully human.
I couldn’t help but wonder: Did Jesus go through a midlife crisis of some sort, despite his short 33 years on the surface of this earth? How would he have defined and evaluated the low-points and high-points in his own life? Could these “highlights” include his most vulnerable or even painful hours? Then I realize Jesus must have defined “highlight” very differently. How our human mindset centers its meaning around self-importance, success, and achievement!
Midlife is when we expect to see more fruits of our labor, including careers, children, and social influence. We do not want to see scarcity and emptiness, because that is how the world would define failure. That is why two biblical characters provide ample food for thought: the prophet Habakkuk and Naomi.
During his prime year, the prophet Habakkuk had to predict and witness the destructive power of invaders: “The law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted” (Hab. 1:1-4). The distraught prophet could not make sense of God’s plan. But it is also during this time when Habakkuk discovered the joy in God: “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior” (Hab. 3:18-19).
Naomi is a woman who experienced tremendous midlife struggles. Gone is her pleasantness and sweetness (as the meaning of her name). Her complaints were boldly directed at God himself (Ruth 1:21). Even with a caring daughter-in-law by her side, Naomi had not much hope for the future. But later events transformed her again into a woman of content and joy (Ruth 4:14).
Life in all its mysteries is so unfathomable because we are not writers of our own scripts. Not even the wisest person can be a good judge. Take Solomon for example. Despite all his wisdom, wealth, reputation, and achievements, Solomon claimed that “All is futile!” (Eccl. 1:2) in the beginning of the book of Ecclesiastes. According to the rabbinic tradition, Solomon may have written this book in this old age. That was also when he strayed away from God. Nevertheless, he presented more clarity towards the end, affirming that everything matters because God will be the judge (Eccl 12:14).
Whether in challenging or mundane midlife years, there is the temptation to be our own judge. But Scripture calls Christians to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience” (Col. 3:12). This includes practicing self-compassion, which is a manifestation of believing in oneself as a beloved child of God.