Okay… so they weren’t exactly mid-life crises.
But let me explain.
My good friend likes to rib me (and for good reason). Here’s why. For years at the beginning of my medical practice, I repeatedly had a “quarterly-life crisis.”
A “quarterly-life crisis”?
Yes. A “quarterly-life crisis”.
A “quarterly-life crisis” is a mid-life crisis one has quarterly, or roughly every three months. Oh, sure, I was in my late twenties/early thirties when I was experiencing these, so technically it wasn’t quite mid-life, but – hey – a crisis is a crisis.
Every three to four months, I found myself becoming anxious about my direction in life. Married for only three years once residency was done, I began wondering when we should have children? Where should we live? Where should we travel and what should we accomplish before our kids arrive? Yes, I told myself, I am a practicing internal medicine physician, but what else should I be? A Lutheran at the time, I entertained the notion of pursuing a Master’s Degree in Divinity. I considered get an advanced degree in history so that I could teach part-time high school or college courses on Western Civilization. Should I get involved in mission work? Volunteer my medical services at a homeless shelter? Write various columns for our local newspaper? Get a law degree and work on the legal side of medicine? Consider running for political office? Sing in the church choir? Learn to play the guitar? Perhaps the bagpipes?
And there were plenty of dabblings that ended with me scrambling to get out of some ill-considered commitment. That singing quartet at church that always wanted to practice? That ill-fated agreement to chair the caucus of the local political party? That hospital committee that spun its wheels more than achieved results? That failed commitment to serve an underserved population as a winsome local “Dr. Oz”. Yeah, there have been some doozies.
And the list goes on.
But I kept looking and looking and looking.
But nothing fit.
As a matter of fact, the harder I searched, the more I committed to near-misses, the emptier I felt. In the search for clarity, my life became a bundle of distractions. And so began my “quarterly-life crises.”
But, in retrospect, there was one question that dominated each crisis. It was a question that, I now believe, imprisoned me.
I kept asking, What should I do?
The question was emblematic of the life I had been leading. In a life thus far defined by accomplishment and accolade, accomplishment and accolade, my identity clung perilously close to my achievements.
And so I kept asking, What should I do?
When I should have been asking, Who am I called to be?
As I reflected on my “quarterly-life crises” and my earnest, but misbegotten efforts to manage them, three great Catholic thinkers instantly came to mind. After all, they too wrote of such trouble. First, you may recognize,
Midway on our life’s journey, I found myselfIn dark woods, the right road lost.
That is how Dante Alighieri begins his masterpiece, The Divine Comedy. Midway on life’s journey, the right road lost. In reflecting on how he became lost, Dante simply muttered,
I’ll tell what I saw, though how I came to enterI cannot well say, being so full of sleepWhatever moment it was I began to blunderOff the true path.
Full of sleep and blundering, the true path is lost. Dante would encounter the poet Virgil who would explain that the path backwards is guarded by ravenous beasts (old bad habits, worries?) that will tear a person apart. There is a way forward – a better way, a way even to paradise – but it requires a trip through Hell and Purgatory. To find oneself and one’s true calling may require painful self-examination, tenacious faith and purification.
Next, came Hilaire Belloc in his winsome tale, The Four Men. Drinking port and staring wistfully into the English pub’s roaring hearth, the brooding Belloc began to consider how he too found himself midway on life’s journey in the dark woods, the right road lost. Overly busy and unhappy, he grimly reflected,
What are you doing? You are upon some business that takes you far, not even for ambition or for adventure, but only to earn. And you will cross the sea and earn your money, and you will come back and spend more than you have earned. But all the while your life runs past you like a river, and the things that are of moment to men you do not heed at all…Consider how many years it is since you saw your home, and for how short a time, perhaps its perfection will remain. Get up and go back to your own place if only for one day…As I said these things to myself I felt as a man felt of whom everybody has read in Homer with an answering heart: that ‘he longed as he journeyed to see once more the smoke going up from his own land, and after that to die.’
Belloc would take that journey and along it meet three other companions of wildly different character. And in drinking and teasing, praying and telling local legends, Belloc would not only find himself home…he would find himself.
Finally, came G.K. Chesterton reflecting on a story he never found the time to write. In the beginning of his masterpiece, Orthodoxy, he describes the ridiculous and quite humorous circumstance of an English yachtsman boldly setting sail intent on finding a new island in the South Sea. However, upon landing and peering curiously at the civilization before him, he is shocked to realize that a navigational blunder actually brought him right back to England. Chesterton wrote,
His mistake was the most enviable mistake; and he knew it…What could be more delightful than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane security of coming home again?
Dante, Belloc and Chesterton all tell tales of men whose plans have gone awry. The plague of bad habits, the tragedy of misplaced ambitions or the simple dream miscalculated are stories with no small amount of woe. These are sad tales. All the maps they had relied on, the pride that had impelled them forward, the hollow crowns ambitiously pursued were as nothing. Because each was lost and homesick.
But these tales have happy endings.
For once they surrendered their distractions, once they opened themselves to the healthy discomfort of reform and once they set eyes on the longed-for Truth (amidst of sea of untruths), they found peace. They found peace.
I no longer have “quarterly-life crises” (at least not as often). And this is because I too am beginning to find peace in who I am rather than what I do. I am a Catholic. I am a husband and father, a physician and writer. I am a sinner and a child of God.
That’s what I learned from my many mid-life crises.
Lord, have mercy.
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