Somehow, I missed having a mid-life crisis. I don’t feel particularly deprived, but the fact is that the time of life when a lot of men seem to have a mid-life crisis – late 30s to the mid-40s – was bookended for me by two major career events.
The first was an extended period – from the time I was 37 to 45 – of almost incredible productivity and, for lack of a more humble word, achievement: speeches, national awards, game-changing programs implemented, and new technologies adopted. Looking back, I can see it was an amazing period of work.
The second bookend stretched from 45 to 48. Some of the achievement continued, but along came corporate turmoil, massive organizational and cultural change, being spun off with a separated business, and then, at the end of 1999, being laid off.
I spent the next four-and-a-half years not working within corporations. And that was by choice. I worked for myself for three-and-a-half of those years, and spent the final part of the time working for an urban school district in total crisis.
I did a lot of thinking.
I had a lot of time to think. As a consultant, I spent a lot of time in the car, traveling to and from my office to clients and meetings. One client was in north central Missouri, about a four-hour drive away from St. Louis, the last hour-and-a-half up a two-lane road. I had a lot of time to think.
“It may be,” writes David Whyte in The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America, “that midlife is essentially a time of remembering what is most essential to us. We have spent years of building and consolidating – a business, a career, a family. Or we have attempted the sama dn failed to build anything. At the cusp of midlife, irrespective of success or failure, we now want to find out who was at the center of this attempt and what we were building for.”
What we do, Whyte says, and this largely describes what I did, is to take the old road back home, and we pass our younger self almost as a stranger, and then we keep going all the way back to before we set out. We may celebrate, and we may even mourn. “No matter what we have accomplished or what we command, midlife calls on us to experience it in a new way, to birth ourselves into a new kind of usefulness.”
For me, what happened was that I met the college student who read a lot of poetry. I met the 23-year-old who wanted to write novels. And I discovered the 50-year-old who had accomplished so much that, unintentionally and unknowingly, he often threatened the people he worked with.
What I learned, and kept learning, unfolded over a period of about 10 years. Even though my novel Dancing Priest is not at all autobiographical, it is indeed that, in a more deeply subtle way. I reread it (for only the second time) last week, and I found pieces of myself in nearly all of the characters. That was not intentional, but it was likely inevitable. The idea of the book was born in the turmoil of that time.
And the birthing “into a new kind of usefulness” continues. My writing is taking on a new kind of seriousness. Those “career” things which used to seem so vital and important are, well, less so.
Whyte concludes this “Taking the Homeward Road” chapter with part of a poem by T.S. Eliot, from “East Coker” in Four Quartets:
We must be still and still moving
into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
through the dark cold and the empty
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end
is my beginning.
That’s it. That's exactly it.