No matter what stage of life you’re at, you’re supposed to be in the throes of some crisis or the other – quarter-life, mid-life, later-life. But that’s a myth. So forget the crises, let’s discuss the oldest story in the world: life.
Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.
Life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about.
Everything has been figured out, except how to live.
We could dole out proverbs by the dozen. We could superimpose them on photographs of a sunset/sunrise/bench/ dogs/children and post them on Facebook for you to Like and Share. We could talk in metaphor – of lemons and lemonade, Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates – and you might spend all Sunday contemplating the mystery that is life.
But chances are, you’ll be going out and living it instead, and talking about it. Mostly about how difficult it is. Judging by the amount of drama being devoted to the simple act of living, you’d think life has become a constant crisis.
Any teenager will tell you that “Lyf sux”. It’s partly because they’re angsty and angry, and they hate everything. (Put it down to the fact that their bodies are changing and their hormones pumping.)
Twenty-somethings can’t stop wondering about life. The real world, bleak career prospects, rocky relationships, fear of making the wrong choice amongst an overwhelming number of options. “What if it never gets any better?” they wonder. They’re going through what we’re now calling a quarter-life crisis.
In their 30s are the ‘adultescents’, an expanding group that is living out an extended period of adolescence. They’re irresponsible and reckless, refusing to settle down. “Life is party,” they say, spending their money on merrymaking, holidaymaking and pretty things. They can’t afford to buy a house and it’s affecting their self-esteem. Call it a prolonged quarter-life crisis or an early mid-life crisis.
And usually, a mid-life crisis is more like a fortieth birthday present. Women go through menopause, men go through andropause. They question their achievements, “Have I done anything worthwhile/important/fun in life?” Popular culture stereotypes depict an obsession with red sports cars and illicit affairs.
Those with children suffer from the Empty Nest Syndrome after their children leave home. And some time after 60 (studies differ on exactly when), exhaustion and age catch up. The death of a colleague, news of old classmates suffering from serious ailments may trigger a later-life crisis. It comes with a sense of bereavement. Life is a now a lonely and depressing thing.
When did life become so difficult, so overwhelming that we had to make up names to identify each situation?
Is life really that hard?
Is it a real crisis?
So what is this exactly?
It’s just life.
And, apparently, this is exactly what it’s supposed to be like. And unless it’s some sort of trippy reincarnation, you’re in without any experience, just like the rest of us. "Every stage of life has unique challenges. And because you have never experienced them before, there are obvious concerns and anxieties," says Mumbai clinical psychologist Chetna Duggal. "Transitioning from one stage of life to another isn’t supposed to be a smooth process."
In 1950, the development psychologist (and a friend of Freud’s) Erik Erikson came up with the idea of the Stages of Psychosocial Development. He said that every person passed through eight stages of life. Each stage brought on a psychosocial "crisis", but the crisis didn’t mean some sort of traumatic chaos. It was simply a turning point of life – an obstacle, which also came with some opportunity. So each stage presented new challenges, which one had to negotiate. And in doing so, you acquired skills or resources to develop into (and tackle) the next stage.
So a life crisis doesn’t kill you. It only makes you stronger. Are these terrible times?
"But what does anyone from the ’50s know? Life is so much difficult now than it was 60 years ago…"
We’re somehow convinced that this is the worst time to be living. These are "stressful times", it’s all too "fast-paced", there’s so much violence and we’re always at work, goddamnit! For some reason, we tend to assume that the generations before us lived in sleepy towns, in a sweet stupor, a proper cabbagehood of existence. It’s a convenient sort of amnesia, considering that the generations before us faced the threat of war, large-scale unemployment, drought, riots, post-Independence blues, colonialism and poverty – and that’s just the last 100 years. In India alone.
Life’s always been hard. Just ask actor Anupam Kher. When he came to Mumbai in the ’80s, he was in debt, half-balding and looking to become an actor. It was hardly a walk in the park. "Now, baldness is seen as a dignified and sexy thing. But then, I was told, ‘tum writer ban jao, director ban jao’," says Kher who has also written The Best Thing About You Is You!, a self-help book based on his experiences. He says the reason it didn’t get to him then was because he didn’t let it. "I run an acting school and just today I was talking to the teachers… there are two things I never say: ‘Overworked’ and ‘Not in the mood’. These words are so overused now!" he says.
It could be that our problems seem magnified because misery loves company and we have so much more opportunity to revel in it. We don’t leave our tale of struggle to the bards – we’re all one big Greek chorus. When something bothers us, we talk about it, we blog about it. Swati Joneja, 23, who blogs about her quarter-life crisis, agrees that we tend to make a bigger deal out of things than is necessary. "My parents definitely had a tougher life,’ she admits. "But we were taught that we can have the world if we want it. So yes, it’s an existential crisis and we whine about it… but frankly, if this is the only thing we have to be bitter about, I wouldn’t change anything!" So are we whining because life is easier?
Or are we lazier? Stand-up comedian Rajneesh Kapoor, who claims to have avoided any sort of crisis in his life says that each generation looks back and says the previous one had it easier. "When I was young, college wasn’t easier – nothing was easier," he says. "All my friends are going through a mid-life crisis. They have so much money but they hate their lives! The music, bikes and cars don’t make any difference. They say they don’t have the time. But they all have time to watch stupid serials, they’re all up to date with Bigg Boss. People are stupid, they’re spending their spare time playing on their iPads. It’s a choice."
The idea of the mid-life crisis has been around since 1965 when Canadian psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques coined the term – except his idea had more to do with the death of genius. By the ’70s, the idea had creept into American vocabulary. And the media went crazy. "ARE YOU SUFFERING FROM A MID-LIFE CRISIS?" newspapers and magazines screamed. Forty years later, the headlines are still asking the same thing.
When a decade ago, Alexandra Robbins and Abby Wilner published Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties, young people across the globe found a new scripture. "Yes, yes, yes," they said unanimously, "We’re overworked, overqualified, underpaid – we’ve got the toughest deal!" Some of the most interesting and self-indulgent writing on the Internet is from this age group (just look at Thought Catalog).
What is bothering us?
Perhaps we’ve just started taking everything too seriously. Relationship columnist and author of Losing My Virginity And Other Dumb Ideas, Madhuri Banerjee, has noticed that people spend way too much time thinking about relationships whether they are in, out or in-between them. “Relationships seem to define people. It all affects their daily activities. We lay so much emphasis on love and sex!” she says.
For Bangalore-based life coach Satish Rao, most people are simply not able to handle life because of changes in lifestyle and lack of physical activity. When we asked him if things were really so bad that we needed people to coach our lives, he answered in the affirmative but was quick to add that “as long as you can maintain a healthy lifestyle – even meditating 10 minutes a day can make a lot of difference, we’d be fine on our own. But how many of us follow that?” he lets the question hang in the air.
Kher believes it sounds fashionable to say you’re going through a life crisis. That not being able to grapple with what life’s throwing your way is suddenly cool. Of course, this doesn’t mean that all of this isn’t real. Yes, you could be in trouble. But the odds of it being something serious aren’t very high.
“These are self-perceived turning points,” says Dr JD Mukherjee, head neurologist at Max Super Speciality Hospital, Saket. “Everybody goes through this, but not all of them realise it. And only 10 per cent actually experience turmoil,” he says. When trouble brews, doctors mainly look for signs of depression.
That’s clinical depression, not garden-variety sadness.
As we’re getting more and more psychologically sophisticated, the tendency to self-diagnose (and believe your problems are bigger than they actually are) is greater. Psychiatrist Nimesh Desai, director of the Institute Of Human Behaviour And Allied Sciences, says that it’s a double-edged sword. “As mental health awareness increases (as it should because most people still don’t recognise psychiatric problems), people also tend to overthink and over-psychiatricise too.”
If it is incapacitating you in some way, if you’re feeling too overwhelmed for longer than two weeks – then it’s a problem. But otherwise, relax.
So on this beautiful Sunday morning, are we trying to tell you to calm down and let it be?
Are we telling you to love yourself, your family and friends?
Are we telling you to exercise whenever you can?
Of course. It sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?
And are we pointing out that unless your problems are preventing you from living your life, they’re not really crises?
Totally. So stop whining and start living.
bonus life #1
“There are two things I never say: ‘Overworked’ and ‘Not in the mood’”
Anupam Kher, actor
bonus life #2
“People say they don’t have the time. But they all have time to watch stupid serials and play on their iPads”
Rajneesh Kapoor, Stand-up Comedian
"We lay so much emphasis on love and sex – this should be a good thing. But we worry instead"
Madhuri Banerjee, writer
Hello and welcome to life...
...Or what life is
supposed to look like according to countless studies, newspaper articles, blogs.
It’s not pretty (it’s the big stereotype)
CAUTION: ANGRY TEENAGERS AHEAD
It all begins in the teens. It’s seven uninterrupted years of your worst behaviour ever (hopefully!)
You’re rude, you slam doors. You’re moody. You hate everybody. Except your friends, they get you
You’re embarrassed by your parents. Sometimes, you like to pretend you’re not related to them
You drive without a licence. You sneak out of the house. Risky is sexy. You date the weirdo – for the heck of it
Quarter-Life has begun
Your liberal arts college degree is useless. "Have I wasted my time in college?" you wonder as everyone’s Facebook pictures appear cooler
No lasting love? The pity party begins. "There must be something wrong with me"
There is no such thing as a dream job. You’re either badly paid or overworked. Mostly, it’s both
This isn’t working. Maybe you should try something different? Quit your job on impulse, dump someone? And hope for the best
you’re in your 30s now. problems
You are either an "adultescent" – reckless and immature, still stuck at 20. Or you’re starting to burn out prematurely
You put off being in a committed relationship as long as you can.
You can either invest in a house or fly to the Caymans. You need the holiday more
You’ve spent the best part of your life keeping your nose to the grindstone. You’re fighting with your partner. You’re feeling lonely.
Wasn’t a mid-life a decade away? Doesn’t look like it
Mid-life crisis MAKES YOU MAD
You’re the only one balding at your
college reunion. Or worse, you look okay but everybody else looks great!
You can’t help but take stock of your achievements. Did you really reach your full potential?
Why didn’t you have any fun?
Your kids, they’re just so selfish
You want to do something wild – jump a few lights racing in your new sports car? An affair, perhaps?
But you spiral downwards. "It’s only going to get worse now"
LAST WORD: A LATER-LIFE CRISIS
A friend is unwell and you become
more aware of mortality. You’re not old yet but you now know you’re getting there
And now you feel old. You seem to spend every evening in front of the telly
But this isn’t your life – or anybody else’s. In REAL life, you may not even notice the crises unless you buy into the jargon
The cheat sheet
How not to feel so blue
Remind yourself that you’re not the only one – everybody goes through these stages of life.
Work on your personality.
People who are sensitive, for example, tend to feel like the whole world is crumbling. If you parents are sensitive or anxious, fight the genes and don’t emulate them in your life!
Talk to your best friends. If you try to keep up a facade of “all’s well”, it will drain you.
More than situations, deal with yourself. Eat well. When you have a crisis situation, your hormones dip. And if you’re not eating well (or eating junk), your mood swings get only worse.
CHECKLIST FOR EVERY STAGE
Exercise, cultivate hobbies, talk to your parents (it’s the time you disconnect from them). This is the best time to develop interests like reading, they’ll stay with you all your life and help you grow as a person.
Start a journal, make this time of your life a learning curve. Put down your goals, sort yourself out.
In your 30s
Find a mentor. Meet friends who are sensible and doing well at work, it works as a motivation.
Spend more time with your family, get in touch with old friends. But don’t compare yourself with other people (they may be more
successful but could have terrible personal lives).
Don’t allow yourself to get into a lonely state. Harness your creativity, meet more people, join a club, a sport. Don’t expect too much from your children, but make sure you let them know if you’re lonely.
Dr Seema Hingorrany, (Psychologist and author of Beating the Blues)
Follow @SaudaminiJain on Twitter
From HT Brunch, September 29
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