Mid-Life Melancholy

The good news is: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the suicide rate for teens has increased only 2 percent, and the rate has decreased for people 65 or older. The bad news is: The suicide rate among 45-54 year-old men has increased nearly 20 percent — and among women in the same age category, 31 percent. This gives a new meaning to “midlife crisis.”

Experts are baffled! We have more, more, more of everything, yet feel less, less, less satisfied. Some lean toward the use and abuse of prescription drugs as a possible cause for the suicide increase, since the CDC also reports more Americans now die from misuse of prescription drugs — including antidepressants, painkillers, and sleeping pills — than from heroin and cocaine.

As a self-medicated society, there seems to be a pill to accommodate every mood or disorder. We have pills to keep us awake and others to put us to sleep. We have pills for pain or just mild discomfort. Even sadness is treated as a mental disorder. According to the official diagnostic manual used by mental-health professionals, depression is defined as two consecutive weeks of despondency, diminished pleasure in life, and/or difficulties in sleeping or eating. It matters not that you may have a reason to feel sad, such as the death of a loved one, a job loss, or a life-threatening illness. If you can’t cope with a major setback in two weeks or less, you are labeled depressed and offered a pill.

This type of quick-fix diagnosis does a disservice to psychologists trying to help the genuinely depressed who may actually need medication. Is it any wonder that if we aren’t happy all the time, we feel like something is wrong? Add to this a media montage telling us we aren’t thin enough, pretty enough, rich enough, smart enough, talented enough, or young enough, and it’s no wonder that mid-lifers are dissatisfied.

The midlife years have always been a time of reflection. With one’s life supposedly half over, we try to reevaluate who we are and what we want to do with the rest of our lives. Factor in anxiety about growing older and comparisons to others or unattainable standards set by advertising, and it is easy to see how this period of time segued from what was once called the “midlife transition” into a “midlife crisis,” a term introduced in 1965 by psychoanalyst and social scientist Elliot Jaques. How do we cope with all of this midlife melancholy without becoming suicidal?

The roots of these feelings run deeper than emotional dissatisfaction with life. We all want to feel significant in some way—to leave a positive mark on society and those around us. When the midyears hit, we realize many of our youthful dreams will never come true. It can be deeply disappointing. Even if those dreams did come true, it can leave us unfulfilled and wanting more. We are dissatisfied. So either way, almost any path looks better than the one we’ve taken.

Mid-lifers search in all the wrong places to fill the void of lost youth, unrealized dreams, or discontentment. Some have an extramarital affair, get plastic surgery, buy a new convertible, or switch jobs — finding out too late that these outward appearances cannot replace the emptiness inside. Perhaps that’s when suicide looks appealing.

Society has made it easy to bail out. Just a handful of pills, an endless sleep and all feelings of inadequacy are over.

But is midlife suicide a solution or a symptom of our modern society? Society tells us we must be happy all the time. Yet society tells us ever so subtly that we will never measure up: We are not young enough, pretty enough, thin enough, rich enough or smart enough. Even religion often makes us feel that we are not good enough and that we do not do enough. This “not enough” syndrome leaves people feeling helpless and hopeless, making the void in their lives seem even bigger.

But feelings and truth are not the same thing. The truth is that our lives do have great value — and we are never alone. God is always with us. Even when our backs are turned on God and we are blind to his presence, he loves and holds us and will never let us go. God is not some far away entity, separating himself from us until we are worthy of his presence. He is here!

And we don’t have to do anything to earn his approval, respect or love. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). The apostle Paul explains this further in Ephesians 2:4-5: “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions — it is by grace you have been saved.”

God has always loved us and always will, regardless of our appearance, how much money we have, how successful we are, what kind of car we drive, how much we do, how bad or good we are — whether we are young, old, or middle aged. All we have to do is open our eyes to this reality by believing in Jesus Christ. As we embrace him, we become aware of his embrace of us, an embrace that has been there all along and will never go away.

Society makes us feel worthless, then supplies an easy means for our demise. God never promised a life without pain. His purpose is not to shield us from all hurt, stop us from aging or make us rich and beautiful. His purpose is to draw us into eternal loving fellowship with him through Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:4-5).

Whether we know it or not, God walks with us through every crisis we face — even in midlife. His presence in our lives has made us significant and valuable from the moment we drew our first breath, for he is the “enough” we need (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Society provides ways for us to keep our eyes closed to who we really are in Jesus Christ. But when we turn to God, our eyes open to his light, and we see things the way they really are.

We are never alone; Jesus is in the Father, we are in Jesus, and Jesus is in us (John 14:20). Our lives always have value and meaning; God works in us and through us continually in ways we do not even know. We are God’s beloved children and he will never let us go.

When we realize how much God loves us, midlife can be a time to look forward with anticipation, not back with regret.

Barbara Dahlgren is a former newspaper columnist and currently a humorist/freelance writer. She has been a pastor's wife for 39 years. She lives in San Jose, CA.

Barbara Dahlgren
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