Not a Crisis but a Crossroads

Black and white drawing by Gustave Doré of Dante's Inferno: two small figures stand in front of a black cave opening, the Gates of Hell, amidst dark rolling hills and clouds

In the middle of a cold, dull January, when the flush of the new year had faded and nothing was left but the stubborn march forward, I picked up the copy of Dante’s The Inferno I had bought years ago but never read. “Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself within a forest dark, / For the straightforward pathway had been lost.” Make what jokes you will about The Inferno as one of the most dramatic mid-life crises set to words—find yourself at that crossroads and it doesn’t seem that funny.

I always thought the mid-life crisis was a joke. A cartoon cliche illustrated by men buying sports cars and getting divorces. It appeared to be something that befell men particularly, or at least they were the ones who enacted the cliches. Women, I supposed, silently burned through their crises like hidden flames. In either case, the mid-life crisis was not anything to take seriously. A stupid joke or a smothered secret. It seemed undignified and handily avoided.

I’m not in crisis, but I am in mid-life, and coming to those crossroads changes one’s perspective. My first forty years had more than their fair share of trauma and turmoil, and, lately, as I look a few months ahead to my forty-second birthday, I’ve been feeling it a bit unfair that it has taken me half a lifetime to get to the real starting point. But even among those whose lives have sailed smoother than my own, has anyone’s life brought them just where they had originally intended to arrive? Has anyone lived decades accordingly to some plan and not only did that plan unfold as designed but also they discovered it to be just what they wanted? I assume these people exist. But I don’t know any of them. Instead, I know people like me: not unhappy, not unaccomplished, not in crisis, but still sorting out their understanding of what they really want and what forms that must take.

Maybe it’s the frozen season, but I find I would prefer the cliche crisis. Who wouldn’t? It sounds more fun to snap, to flip off the drudgery of the day-to-day, to buy sports cars, drive off into the sunset and pretend to be young again. To prioritize, with careless ease, what makes you happy in the most immediate moment.

But satisfying the crisis only distracts from the fact that what you really want is underneath the immediate moment, and that it takes years of slow, careful, thoughtful effort to get to it. That is just how it works.

Crossroads are mythic, the places where people once placed charms and buried vampires and met the Devil to trade their souls for their dearest desires. They can be dangerous places, but they don’t have to be. They can be the places where you pause, consider, and move on, even if it’s not entirely clear where you’re going, because at some point before you figured out knowing where you’re going doesn’t matter as much as you once thought it did.

/All writing