The Crisis of Identity at Rest
The phenomenon popularly known as a ‘mid-life crisis’ (henceforth, MLC) can, in fact, occur at any age, place, or time. Mine began the day after college graduation, sitting on my small, familiar collegiate porch, watching the rising sun carry a new day, as it’s prone to doing.
MLC’s arise from an undermining of identity’s bedrock. The ground giving way, the narratives of our lives collapse into limbo; they no longer contain us. We’re ejected, as a pilot from her cockpit, far above the largest stories we have of our lives, and barrel down through dark space with flimsy parachutes.
What makes an identity crumble? What insidious, slithering realization excommunicates us from former stability? My own identity was compromised while I sat, suspended above my life as a jobless college graduate, clutching a half-empty bottle of Andre champagne while my housemates packed up their lives in view of impending jobs.
Unlike most of my fellow graduates, I didn’t have a mere month to ‘kill’ (and what a tragedy to kill time) before the onset of employment. An entire lifetime sprawled out before me, with the eager, subservient eyes of a well-mannered dog, and yet I had no commands. We simply stared into each other. It was so large I didn’t know where to look.
Never before had I existed on this planet without some type of future engagement to contain the enormity of life before me. Our first 18 years are bound within structures of schooling (often containing very little ‘education’), the final year of which we’re to secure admission for the next 4 years, and again during that fourth and final year we’re to secure employment for the indefinite future, thereby ensuring no gaps in the existential scheduling. In my case, by no means unique, I stumbled off the wagon. This was my first taste of unbounded ‘freedom’, and I felt the weight of Sartre’s insight: “Man is condemned to be free.”
I sat, submerged in the unfamiliar climate of life unconfined, time unfurling from its linear captivity. Sound traveled differently in that atmosphere, thoughts were heavier. The zipping suitcases and dragging bags from inside reached my ears as vague and warped echoes. Looking back, I think of that sunken place, that sunken moment, as my first plunge into a pocket of atelic stillness. Through that pocket’s translucent membrane, I glimpsed what I will later describe as the telic deficit.
Yes, I know. Haughty words. But perhaps our general unfamiliarity with them is symptomatic, or antecedent, of America’s proliferating MLC’s.
Telic: Derived from Greek “telos”, root of “teleology” — directed or tending to a definite end. Telic activities imply their own completion as the objective. Example: walking home.
Atelic: atelic activities imply no objective but the process itself — they do not terminate. Example: walking.
Telic activity implies future payoffs, while atelic activity satisfies itself in the present. To illustrate, today’s genus of millennial self-improvers are often criticized by purist yogis, accusing them of meditating for something (relaxation, productivity, enlightenment), thereby missing the point of meditating as a mode of being completely in the present, referencing no future attainments (the present author would argue that meditation is both a practice for things and an atelic mode of being present).
The rarity of these pockets of atelic stillness — when we exist outside our existential scheduling, buoyed against the telic current — may be largely attributed to the momentum of the telic wagon. You try jumping off a speeding status-quo wagon. Jumping at that speed is intimidating; landing on your feet is laughable.
In this curious moment of purposelessness, I could no longer define myself by what I ‘do’, as I wasn’t doing much of anything. I was among the lucky few with a family home to which I could return, rent-free, to continue brooding over my halted life. I was no longer a student. No longer writing a thesis. No longer on any clearly defined track at all. Aspects of my former identity fell away as dried leaves do, revealing a barren, naked tree.
What was I to become? Who was I, anyway? Two decades of identity building crumpled up, decayed, as I returned to my mother’s dinner table. The harrowing insight arose that I’d never developed an identity apart from what I ‘did’. Thus, if I was doing nothing, I became nothing.
I was arrested by how tenuous an identity founded upon the telic orientation is. ‘I’ did not exist in stillness. The only ‘I’ available was in relation to incessant projects, all in cahoots to keep my attention from their underlying void. As Henry Thoreau bellows, “What an infinite bustle! … I think that there is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to life itself, than this incessant business.”
Sure, this could all be dismissed as an angsty, unemployed college grad blowing off steam at the society in which he failed to ‘make it’. But I think you might know what I mean. And it’s not just those of my ilk. MIT Philosophy professor, Kieran Setiya, who’s in most conventional senses of the term, ‘made it’, documents his own MLC:
In principle, anyone could sense the emptiness at the heart of the telic orientation…But it is around midlife that one’s dependence on telic activities is most liable to emerge…Now it becomes clear. You can feel, perhaps obscurely, the self-destructive tenor of your soul.” (Setiya, Midlife: a Philosophical Guide)
A telic identity is always in search of finishing the very projects that give it life. It can exist in one of two states: not yet having achieved its purpose, a displeased state in which we have not met our mark, or, perhaps worse, purpose achieved, thereby concluding the very project that contextualized identity and meaning.
This is what dangled before me as I contemplated, from my concrete porch, why I did not envy my fellow graduates entering the rat race: The American Dream is fundamentally telic, work now for happiness later. But acquiring the happiness terminates the dream. This is the heart of the telic deficit: a dream predicated upon its own demise. And are we any different — animals whose lives are predicated upon our deaths?
To stave off the demise, we must be quick on the uptake of new projects. This might be why there are no gaps in the existential procession from schooling through to working. Generally, sequentially recurring projects seem to reveal their transiency when one looks back upon a couple decades of them. I, through whatever cosmic contortion of happenstance, found myself looking ahead, catching a rare glimpse of their underbelly. Right down the barrel of nihilism. I finished that bottle of champagne.
Though I consider nihilism a premature conclusion on the nature of reality, it proved an excellent introduction. This chilling morning ignited in me a flame for true education: self-directed reading, writing, meditating, traveling, conversing, and reflecting. I rehashed the 60’s countercultural pilgrimage to India (only to discover the indifference of place to consciousness). These flares cremate former ‘I’s’, making way for a more visceral sense of what it is to be alive — searching for an ‘I’ who abides in stillness.
Don’t mistake me as fully recovered; I still live at home, work in a restaurant, and spend most of my day perplexed. But this confusion tastes better than any certainty I’ve ever known. It strikes me as disingenuous to be anything other than puzzled, and perhaps the trick is to be so, jovially, generously.
Setiya also cast out the “self-destructive tenor” of his soul. He found that telic activities carry atelic counterparts, such as the (interminable) process of thinking about philosophy and writing embedded within his project of creating a book. Intellectually considering the atelic counterparts to our telic lives, of course, is not enough. He turns to meditation as the practice of situating identity in the atelic:
Meditation fosters an intuitive, not merely intellective grasp of the meaning and value of atelic activities…One thing we learn from the practice of meditation is how to attend to the present: to appreciate the value of the atelic amidst the glittering attraction of achievable goals. This is mindfulness at work.”
This morning, I admire the maze of tracks in the snow from my bedroom window, now drinking Red Rose black tea. I haven’t fully settled into a new narrative, at least not one that follows the usual arcs of storytelling. I wonder if each moment can be its own ending, jettisoning the need for the more traditional, it’ll-make-sense-in-the-end style. Perhaps moments need not be strung together, need not build towards anything more than what they are. Their splendor is now or never, ultimatums in infinite succession. And yet, life demands planning and forethought if one intends on remaining in the physical condition that allows for this kind of meditation. Further, maybe, this is just a rationalization for inertia — an uninteresting story.
I still drink champagne in revolt against the absurdity of it all. I still sometimes feel nihilism’s weighty crosshairs upon my back. But I do not dodge. I turn and look. Maybe it’s from studying this sensation, rather than the numbness of incessant, evasive motion, that I may slip the sniper’s scope. It remains to be seen.
This is the first in a three-part essay series
These essays slightly differ from my usual. They aren’t reporting on someone else’s text or ideas. Rather, the main text in use is my own life. Quotes are still woven in, but there’s also a little more of myself, my lived experience in there: