How to dodge the mid-life crisis, and save your marriage

There was once a rich dad who had two sons. The younger son always seemed discontent and perhaps a bit spoiled. One day, this son decided he wanted to take all the money his parents had saved him for college, leave the house, and set out on his own. He had a wild few years, with drugs and prostitutes and rock and roll … but finally he exhausted all his resources and energy, hit rock bottom, and decided to come home. His father, while welcoming him back, remarked that his son had been dead, but now was alive — lost, but now found.

Interesting story. Perhaps useful in a dozen ways.

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Today, I’m curious: did the prodigal son need to take his journey in order to come to his senses? Did he need to go off alone, see the world on his own terms, and make a lot of mistakes, before it was possible for him to wake up and come to life?

I think that he did.

In a parallel way … you and I can remember that we have counseled people, helped them to see their addictions, depression, unhealed wounds, and finally advised them not to do the stupid thing they’re about to do. And in perhaps sixty out of a hundred cases, they choose to go ahead and do it anyway.

And I think, most of the time, we have to do that. There’s no other way.

There is something that gets stuck in our minds at these times, and we cannot listen to counsel or reason. At that point we can’t stand to color inside the lines any longer. We are left with no choice but to take a risk — smash it to the ground, use splatter paint, bicycle through south america, dive head first into a gritty underworld … and maybe hit rock bottom. We have to make the mistakes on our own, sometimes, in order to really learn anything useful.

From the outside it seems we could say “What a waste!”

But in truth there is something at work here that’s more valuable than avoiding making a mess.

When we emerge from rock bottom, somehow something is different. The air is a little clearer, and the discontent is gone, replaced somehow with humility, and gratitude. In the grandest of these cases, what’s happened in the process of this mess-making is that our identities have somehow been established, outside the expectations of our peers, our older brothers, or our parents.

The value of that is greater than the negative cost of all the mess. At least I think that’s the case.

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It appears from the parable that the prodigal son is young, single, and perhaps not entrusted with much. That is good. That is a good time to take a journey and subject yourself to some turbulence in order to find out what you’re made of.

A bad time to introduce turbulence is when you’ve been married for 17 years, have two kids, a mortgage, and a wife who hopes you’ll maintain your sanity.

That is called a mid-life crisis.

My suspicion that we need to take these kinds of journeys is confirmed when we look at the phenomenon of the mid-life crisis. Particularly among men, there is something that burns within us when we realize we’re getting too old to have adventures anymore. The voice says “You haven’t experienced the grit, the fire, the risk, the unbounded freedom of manhood … and you’re going to be stuck here until you die.”

And that’s usually true.

In this civilized world, there is no more rite of passage, no more coming-of-age experience, no more adolescence spent pastoring sheep up in the mountains. There are few places left where men can genuinely cut their teeth, or be challenged in their latent energy. There’s not  much place left to experience real physical suffering, risk, and adventure. It doesn’t happen anymore, and our culture instructs us to do something more responsible anyway.

So instead of that, we stay adolescent for longer, and chase women as our great adventure, and sometimes we don’t stop chasing women even after we’re married. And then later, at 50 years old, a man realized he never took that motorcycle trip across the western USA, or never got around to having that pee off the top of Mount McKinley, or never actually spent a few years as a traveling musician amongst the villages of the Andes.

He never got to establish himself through the crucible of suffering and risk, and now, he realizes years later, he is bored, and dangerously aware of his impending mortality. And who pays the price for his overdue adventure? His coworkers that have invested with him, his marriage, his sons and daughers.

So … instead of doing that

… He should have had an adventure or two, and nipped that thing in the bud. If you’re young and healthy, and without a mortgage or a wife, you’re probably in a good position to do the same. It takes cajones, and it will make people raise their eyebrows at you.

I’m going to the mountains for 10 days by myself. What are you doing?

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