On turning 46: Midlife crisis averted, or not?

I’ve inadvertently found a way to avoid a midlife crisis; immerse myself in real crises.

About six months before I turned forty, I had delivered an uninspired, hair-splitting presentation at an academic conference. I was trying to force myself to write an academic book that felt, before it was born, like it might be dead on arrival. Involuntary moans and groans would emerge from my body when the existential weight of my life pressed hard on my lungs, heart, and aching back. I didn’t talk to anyone about my struggles; I was embarrassed to be struggling so viscerally, embarrassed that as a 40-year benefactor of white male privilege, I couldn’t stop thinking that I was a failure, even though I wasn’t. I just wasn’t the high achiever my white male privilege set me up to be.

By a stroke of luck and a little cold feet on the part of a younger man, I got invited to go to South Sudan, at the time in the early stages of recovering from a 22 year civil war. I spent two days in a refugee camp, and met a young man who faced a real existential crisis: if he couldn’t get out of the camp and pursue a college degree, he might go crazy. I could see that he was close to the edge. I spent five days in a Southern Sudanese village where life, on the surface, seemed okay–not great–and those who had completed high school abroad were looking for any opportunity they could get to continue their education. These people knew crises, but they carried on with dignity and pride.

Now, turning 46, I’m Vice President of African Soul, American Heart; we run a school for orphaned girls from South Sudan. I’m a Bush Foundation Fellow working on a project to re-establish Giving + Learning, an in-home English Language Learning program for New Americans in my community. For birthday fun, I’m going to talk to two members of the advisory board of the Carl Wilkens Fellowship about becoming an anti-genocide activist and then I am going to meet with a friend to talk about educational reform in the city and state.

I am aware that averting my first-world midlife crisis by immersing myself in the more substantial crises of the world does not necessarily reflect well upon me. I am aware that I may simply be masking some deeper personal crises and challenges that I can now avoid because I am too busy being a Global Change Agent: a title I actually picked up thanks to the overwhelming white male privilege that allowed me to attend a class on being a GCA at the Harvard Kennedy School. I felt a sting of criticism when reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s account of a suburban mom who cries every time she talks about Africa; Adiche’s middle class Nigerian character thinks to herself, "I wouldn’t have come over if I had known I would cause her such pain." Dinaw Mengestu in How to Read the Air suggests that Americans have to import crises because they don’t actually have enough pain in their lives. I’m more than partially implicated in both accounts.

But now that I have figured out that I’m something of a phony, I don’t want to quit doing this work. I got a little giddy this February as I rushed from matching a new learner with a great tutor to meeting my Somali friends of six years for conversation and tea. Instead of involuntary groans and moans, some voice in my head said "I love this work!" I go to conferences and courses where we don’t split hairs but try to solve problems; we don’t have q&a after the presentation but instead have engaged conversations for two, three or four days.

The real crisis at the heart of my long crisis was my inability to open up, to show vulnerability, to talk about my struggles. I am finally getting around to this work. I’m writing not just as self-therapy or confession, but as a warning to my friends and family members: I may want to engage you on a deeper, more personal level. I am also going to ask for help; I’m neck deep in projects I really care about, but none of them are going to come to fruition if I don’t reach out and start sharing the work. Contrary to what you might expect, the Harvard Kennedy School supports a model of leadership in which the leader acknowledges his or her vulnerability and limitations; the leader acknowledges he can’t do everything, and that collective efforts are smarter and more effective than solo runs.

Seems obvious, but I guess I had to write it down and share this duh-pithany with the world to let you all know I’ve finally figured a few things out. And I’m ready to talk.

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4 thoughts on “On turning 46: Midlife crisis averted, or not?

  1. I remember a discussion/argument I had with the professor I had for my first real literary theory class back in my MFA program way way back when in the late 1980s. This guy was brilliant and passionate, and he had also managed to more or less escape Romania– this was before the fall of the Soviets. Anyway, I don’t remember the subject of the argument/discussion, but it was one of those hair splitters, one of those “I am going to defend the chicken came before the egg and I’m going to defend that against your position of the egg first.” Shortly into this conversation, this professor said to a 20-something me “You know, none of this really matters. What we really should be doing is feeding people and helping in Africa things like that.” Word.

    So I see your point about American guilt and the potentials for colonialism. But there’s something to be said for doing something rather than not.

  2. Thanks Steve. I will carry on, and I hope this little reflection doesn’t come across as anti-academic. It has been a struggle at times to find myself in academia, but I haven’t ever wanted to turn my back on it.

  3. This is so good. However, I must check you on something. I have never, ever known you to be phony . Keep being brave, kb.

    • Thanks Laura. You might be right; hard to get all the words just right in only a couple of drafts. I did say that I am only “something of a phony,” and I was trying to get at the idea that I had fooled myself a little bit, distracted myself from a personal challenge by taking on large external challenges. But thanks for vouching for my authenticity as a human being; only a few people know me better, and you’ve seen me struggle as much as anyone! Think of what this post would have looked like if they Internet had existed when I was 23!

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