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The clear sight of middle-age

20 February 2008

The words ‘midlife’ and ‘crisis’ are not necessarily linked, says Tom Frame

I am on the verge of a crisis. Why? Later this year I will be 46. Notwithstanding the psalmist’s observation that we will live to 70 “if we have strength”, I reside in a country where male life expectancy is nearly 80. Statistically, my life is half over. This means I am middle-aged and, if the cliché is correct, about to enter a period of upheaval. The fact that I am writing about this subject might suggest it has already started. I must confess that I do not feel in the middle of a crisis, but the thought of turning 50 and then 60 (no longer remote eventualities) has made me view life differently.

I have absolutely no interest in changing my job, my car, my house, my leisure pursuits, or my wife. Perhaps this marks me out as an unadventurous person who prefers the predictability of routines. But, for me, this appears to be the period in life where the remnants of physical stamina are coupled with the gradual invasion of wisdom. To put it crudely, the young have the body but not the brain, while the old complain of having the brain but not the body. At the moment, I have a bit of both.

Three things characterise my experience of middle age: candour, clarity, and conviction. Looking back over four decades, I can see what I have become, and candour is unavoidable. There is no point in striving to be anyone else. I know my fears, frailties, and strengths. There are some things I cannot change. Worst of all are those besetting sins that I must confess over and over again. Denials are no longer comforting. In facing who I am, I am better placed to accept from God what I might yet become through grace.

I also see middle age as a time of clarity. I no longer devise plans about what I will do when I grow up. There is obvious work to be done, and in looking around I am apparently the one called to do it. Having identified my abilities through trial and error, I am thankfully without ambition of institutional advancement. The patronage already extended to me has revealed that position does not always bring fulfilment. There are not endless tomorrows; so I want to focus on what is important, not just urgent, and to apply my gifts to those things that will bring nearer the Kingdom of God.

At this time of life, the strength of my convictions is being challenged in unexpected ways. It is now easier to determine, with accumulated experience, what is necessary for human fulfilment and community flourishing. This influences the significance I attach to some biblical principles and theological perspectives, such as the essence of true humility and the spiritual nature of divine healing. In finding that prayerful discernment is more productive than public debate, I am able to face my doubts. It is vital that I am fully convinced of my own beliefs before seeking to persuade others. It is not my beliefs that have changed, but my attitude towards them.

Of course, there are many things in life that remain sources of anxiety. But much can be said for the vantage point that middle age confers. For some, it might lead to the realisation that life lacks direction. For others, there could be recognition that cherished ambitions will not be realised.

A despondent middle-aged person needs to be discouraged from pursuing a different life. Rearranging externals will not banish despair. The most pressing work is internal. This makes the psalmist’s plea so prescient: “Make me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” Such a petition will not make life different, but it will transform the person living it. A midlife crisis could be the source of a life-giving conversion as reactive, fearful human beings focus on an active, loving God.

The Rt Revd Professor Tom Frame is Director of St Mark’s National Theological Centre in Canberra, Australia.

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