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The Crisis of Ennui

I could hear the frustration in her voice.

A while back, a student called to discuss a problem she had. It was obvious that her stress level was running high and the pitch of her voice climbed with her desperation. I was quiet, just letting her get it all out. Then she said something I’ll never forget.

“I think I’m having a mid-life crisis,” she said.

I told her that since she’s a few years under 30, she’s not yet eligible for such a crisis.

Fast forward to lunch with my friend (who is more than a few years over 30). “I’m having a mid-life crisis,” she said.

Indeed, she seemed to be battling challenges on all fronts: in her marriage, her office, her extended family, and even within her own body.

Not to diminish her issues, but, for me, it’s easy to confuse crisis with boredom. Often the very absence of drama can seem like a calamity. Once we’ve learned our jobs, the daily grind becomes just that. Surprises are few and challenges minimal. One workday bends toward another. It’s true in marriage, also. Once you’ve heard all your partner’s stories, once you know how to finish their sentences, it can be tough to find something to say. And your children: it seems we go from longing for sticky fingers to stop touching us all day to desperately wanting to impart a nugget of wisdom—or at least be asked for such. It’s as if once life’s daily vicissitudes—diaper rash, multiplication tables, sports injuries, mortgage payments, teenage heartbreaks, career angst—grind to a halt, we are somehow diminished. Sometimes I even long to cuddle a little body who is sobbing from an earache. Somehow that snot on my shoulder made me feel more alive, and I miss that feeing.

I remember attending a board meeting years ago on a day when I had logged only two hours of sleep. My oldest child had an ear infection; I was six months pregnant and convinced I would never sleep again. I said as much to a colleague, about ten years my senior, and immediately her countenance turned wistful as she said, “Oh, I remember those days.” (What she didn’t reveal at that time was that her teenaged son was battling drugs). At that time of my life, I felt in crisis mode 24/7. Perspective was not in my vocabulary.

But once the last child’s car pulls out of the driveway, our lives quieten, and eight hours of sleep is possible on a nightly basis—assuming, of course, we aren’t yet cursed with insomnia. Suddenly we are forced to reclaim who we are and discern who we want to be absent a toddler’s grip or workplace routine or spouse on the next pillow. We can finally hear the deafening ticks of a clock; we are forced to sit in the silence and plan for tomorrow. We need to grant ourselves the grace, the latitude, to do just that.

Children leaving home, spouses and parents passing away, careers ending—each of these bears its own degree of grief. To each of these milestones we must adapt, recalibrate. But once the adjustment period has passed, I believe we are left with a crisis of ennui, and I wonder if happiness comes from learning how to transition languid middle years into dynamic golden ones.

It’s all about perspective—of leaning in to our new pace, taking delight in the parts of life that we once were too crazed to appreciate. Surely it’s this perspective that makes the elderly smile with childlike wonder at simple pleasures like homemade ice cream or the smell of a baby’s fuzzy head. Perhaps they know what we cannot—that the essence of life is not about the frantic jog on life’s treadmill but rather about that first cool sip of water you take when hot and sweaty.

Recently I remarked from afar at the loveliness of a floral arrangement; its simple elegance took my breath away. Upon closer inspection I saw that the principal portion of the arrangement was Annabelle hydrangea, dried and faded from its spectacular white to a mossy green. In and of itself, that hydrangea had aged beyond its prime beauty, but what a complement it was to the bright snapdragons around it. While some might call it boring, that overly ripe hydrangea’s ability to cushion, to project the colors around it, make it an essential component of life’s garden.

I have no wisdom for the 20-something student who was so stressed. She won’t appreciate that youthful phase of her life until it’s behind her. As for my friend, I understand all too well. I believe she has hit that inertia that comes to all of us in the middle years. We stand still, listening to the treadmill whir down, and wonder what’s next. As Leo Tolstoy noted, “Boredom is the desire of desire.”

And so the question is, what do we desire? Not time. We have that. Corporate ladders? Nah. Material possessions? I have a hard time making a Christmas list. I don’t know how to conquer the inherent ennui of middle age, but I do think the answer comes when our heartbeats drown out the ticking clocks. When we truly focus on the desires of our hearts, the mature hydrangeas that are our lives can effect the most marvelous bouquets.

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