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Midlife unclenching

Middle age has been on people’s mind lately. As I’ll hit 40 in a couple of weeks I am well within the demographic, but haven’t given the matter much thought. Oliver Burkman’s newsletter from today nicely encapsulates my view on the matter, which doesn’t lend itself to crises of the midlife sort once you have it, though obtaining it may possible constitute a crisis.

He writes about “clenching”: trying to preserve meaningful moments in formaldehyde, or wasting your life away on optimizing it for those meaningful moments while they fly by you. In contrast, you can acknowledge the moments for what they are — ephemeral:

Sure, you can have a hundred tea ceremonies. You can ever have them all with the same people. But you can only have that ceremony, that cup of tea, once. Then the moment evaporates forever.

On the days I let myself move through life in this unclenched way, things tend to feel much more naturally enjoyable. Not because I’m trying to make myself appreciate them, or self-consciously “feel grateful” for them – but simply because I’ve (temporarily) suspended the other agenda that was getting in the way.

This way of looking at life does not come naturally to everyone. Certainly not to me; as a 12-year-old reading Around the World in 80 Days, I thought Phileas Fogg’s optimal ways of doing everything were the bees knees. Then I started workin in health care and I saw that:

  1. We are optimizing ourselves to death.
  2. People can get terribly sick, or injuured, or both, and be bed-bound, or debilitated, or die, at any moment and for any reason, and quite often for no reason at all.

And I started thinking about life the way Burkman described, more or less. Which I did around the time we had our firstborn, a bit over a decade ago — too early for that event to qualify as a midlife crisis, but maybe I was ahead of the curve. But if you are going to have a crisis of your own, I suggest it being of the sort that turns your life away from clenching.

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