Throughout history, great thinkers have critically pondered about life and the process of finding and achieving meaning. The tunnel of a lifetime must end with the light of fulfilment, or at least that’s the goal. Despite 2500 years of philosophy, the greatest thinkers through history haven’t addressed the issue of middle age and the state of being in a mid-life crisis.
The average middle age of a lifetime is the late 30s and early 40s. Most people, when they’re young and full of ambition, have goals that must be achieved by that time or are in pursuit of the same goals while they near that age or on the flipside have already achieved their intended goals.
However, there is a paradox which suggests that getting what you want will leave you without purpose, while not having it is just as bad because you are left wanting.
According to German philosopher and pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer who was vociferous on the futility of desire, you’re doomed if you achieve your desire or if you don’t achieve it. As the case is with any paradox, a delve into philosophy is warranted.
If you get what you want, your pursuit is over. You’ve reached your goal and life pursuit. You are aimless, flooded with idleness and ennui (French for ‘intense boredom’).
As Schopenhauer, writes in The World as Will and Representation (1818) you are filled with ‘fearful emptiness and boredom’, once you’ve achieved the goals that you’ve embarked on conquering. On the other hand, if you still haven’t achieved your life goals, projects, desires or ambitions you find yourself trapped in the black hole of wanting that which you do not have, which is suffering.
Just as Buddhism suggests, desire is the cause of suffering.
Schopenhauer further writes, life ‘swings like a pendulum to and fro between pain and boredom, and these two are infact its ultimate constituents’.
However, Schopenhauer’s boredom and paradox can be solved. It’s not as abysmal and banal as he portrays it, so there is light at the end of the tunnel.
To explain, a rather surprising look into linguistics has the answer.
The word ‘telic’, derived from ‘telos’, the Greek word for ‘purpose’, defines an activity as having a definite end. A terminal state of exhaustion and completion. That’s a ‘telic’ activity. Which are your goals, desires, ambitions and projects. They are finite and will end either with you either achieving or failing.
Whereas there are ‘atelic’ activities which have no finite end. Such as listening to music, or meeting friends, or spending time with family, or reading, or travelling. You can stop doing them but you cannot finish or complete them. They are never ending processes. The transient and ephemeral nature of these ‘atelic’ activities ensures that they cannot be exhausted. Which means they continue regardless of the outcome of finite activities.
This does not mean that we must abandon our life goals. No, they matter.
It’s great to have goals and pursue them, with a focused and at times even relentless deameanour, but to enjoy the process of that pursuit with a series of atelic activities and events is the key to maintaining a balance in our daily lives. That enjoyment of the process, solves and separates a mid life crisis of having not achieved goals or achieving them and feeling dissatisfied.
Just like I quoted Alan Watts infamously saying, “We missed the point the whole way along. It was a musical thing — and you were supposed to sing, or dance, while the music was being played.” in my earlier post of ‘What the point of music is’, is essentially what he is saying in a nutshell.
Enjoy living in the moment with such atelic activities, just as Eckhart Tolle puts forth in ‘The Power Of Now’.
By indulging exponentially in the process of living while also accomplishing your goals, targets, projects and endeavours, in the end, leads to a much more fulfilled life.
Just like the Harvard study on longevity concludes that having healthy and long-lasting relationships leads to a longer, healthier and happy life.
To overcome a mid life crisis we must strike the right chords of balance in our daily activities and the persistent pursuit of our defined purposes.
The key is balance and flow.
The original idea for this article came from an article published on AEON by Kieran Setiya. You can read it here.