Kieran Setiya on Midlife: A Philosophical Guide

How can you reconcile yourself with the lives you will never lead, with possibilities foreclosed, and with nostalgia for lost youth? How can you accept the failings of the past, the sense of futility in the tasks that consume the present, and the prospect of death that blights the future? In Midlife, a self-help book with a difference, Kieran Setiya confronts the inevitable challenges of adulthood and middle age, showing how philosophy can help you thrive. Ranging from Aristotle, Schopenhauer, and John Stuart Mill to Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir, as well as drawing on Setiya’s own experience, Midlife combines imaginative ideas, surprising insights, and practical advice. Writing with wisdom and wit, Setiya makes a wry but passionate case for philosophy as a guide to life. Read on to learn more about the process of writing the book, the pervasiveness of the midlife crisis, and how philosophy can help.

How did you come to write this book?

You can probably guess! I think academic life is perfectly structured to induce a midlife crisis: decades of relentless striving in conditions of uncertainty, culminating either in failure or in a form of success that you leaves you wondering how you got here and what comes next. That’s how it was for me, anyway. Through a combination of luck and hard work, I had a tenured position in a good department and I found myself off-script for the first time in fifteen years. I recognized how fortunate I was, comparatively speaking: what I felt was not pointlessness, but nostalgia for lost alternatives, something like regret, a sense of emptiness in the relentless grind, and a visceral awareness of how short life is. It occurred to me that philosophy should have something to say about these challenges, which turn on the temporal structure of human life and the projects that occupy it—but that it hadn’t been said. The idea was to use my problem to solve itself: writing about the midlife crisis would be my answer to the midlife crisis. Midlife is the product.

How widespread is the midlife crisis?

That is a contentious question. The phrase comes from a 1965 essay by psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques, whose patients were experiencing their malaise in the midst of relative success. The idea caught on in the 1970s, with the publication of Gail Sheehy’s Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life. But the first serious attempts to test the prevalence of the midlife crisis were decidedly mixed. The MacArthur Network on Midlife Development conducted a huge survey in the 1990s and found that credible reports of a midlife crisis were not widespread. Social scientists rushed to declare the midlife crisis a myth. But the idea has been revived. According to influential research by economists David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald, levels of life-satisfaction around the world take the shape of a gently curving U, starting high in youth, reaching their nadir in midlife, before recovering in old age. Not a crisis, necessarily, but a predictable dip in life-satisfaction that occupies middle age. Controversy continues to rage. Every six to twelve months, newspapers report a study that claims to prove the reality of the midlife crisis or debunk it as a myth. For what it is worth, my money is on the U-curve. But even if midlife is no more difficult than childhood or old age, it brings distinctive challenges: intense demands on one’s time, the legacy of an imperfect past, a limited but substantial future, and the repetition of projects that fill one’s days. These are the problems I confront in the book.

Can philosophy really help?

I think so. The idea of moral philosophy as a literature of self-improvement or self-help has a distinguished history: it is the divorce between these aims that is the novelty. What is distinctive of my approach is that, unlike other philosophers who have written self-help books, I don’t look primarily to the past. I am not trying to revive or rediscover the lost wisdom of the Stoics, for example, but to apply philosophy to the problems of midlife in original ways. There was no guarantee that the results of doing this would be consoling, but as it happens, I believe they are. There are philosophical ideas and arguments that help to address the feelings of regret, of missing out, of finitude, of emptiness and repetition, that we associate with middle age. I want to share these insights.

What sort of guidance do you offer? Can you give us an example?

I won’t give away all my secrets here, but I will introduce one.  It comes from an unexpected source: nineteenth-century pessimist and philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer. Interpreting his argument about the futility of desire, I draw a crucial distinction between two sorts of activities: ones that aim at an end-point, projects like earning a promotion, getting married or writing a book, and ones that don’t, like going for a walk or spending time with friends. A characteristic defect of midlife – certainly, of mine – is excessive investment in projects. But projects are inherently self-subversive: to engage with them successfully is to complete them and so to expel them from your life. The solution is not to deny that projects matter but to invest more fully in the process, to value what I call “atelic” activities (from the Greek “telos” or end). For every project, there is a process of engagement: as well as finishing this book, there is the activity of reading and writing about philosophy; as well as making dinner for your kids or putting them to bed, there is the activity of parenting. Unlike projects, atelic activities do not aim at end-points at which they are completed; to engage with them is not to exhaust them; the satisfaction they provide is not deferred to the future but realized here and now. The final chapter of the book explains how to fill the void in the pursuit of projects by valuing the process, drawing comparisons with the appeal to mindfulness in Buddhism and clinical psychology. It is not an easy transition to make, but it can change your life.

What was it like to move from writing for colleagues to addressing a wider audience?

What I realized in working on Midlife is that the editorial voice in my head when I write for other philosophers is frustratingly argumentative. The nagging questions are “Do you mean X or Y?” and “What about this objection?” The result of listening to that voice is often a tiresome clarity. Not much fun to read. The voice in my head when I wrote Midlife was just as critical, but the refrain was very different. I think about an anecdote I heard from a friend whose family became impatient with stories recounted at the dinner table. When they got bored, they would chant in unison: “Faster! Funnier!” I can’t say how fast or funny I managed to be, but that is more or less the voice I had in mind. Making arguments and distinctions is unavoidable in a work of philosophy, but I tried to keep complexity to a minimum, to make things personal, and to write with my tongue ever so slightly in my cheek. There is a delicate synthesis of sincerity and irony in attempting to write a self-help book without pretending to have it all figured out. For the most part, I enjoyed the balancing act.

Is your book only for the middle-aged?

I hope not. While I had my midlife crisis right on cue at thirty-five, friends have told me that they had theirs earlier or that it is yet to come. You can face up to regret and missing out, to mortality and the tyranny of projects, at almost any age. I think these challenges are especially pressing around midlife, when you are likely to have made serious mistakes and irreversible decisions, when you have achieved success in your ambitions or must finally give them up, when you face the death of parents and loved ones, and when your own death is no longer an abstraction. But they do not go away, and you are welcome to confront them in advance! A case I dwell on in the book is that of Victorian activist and philosopher, John Stuart Mill, who had his crisis at the age of twenty. Not midlife, I know, but Mill was precocious. His attempt to philosophize his nervous breakdown was a major inspiration for my book.

 

setiyaKieran Setiya is professor of philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of Reasons without Rationalism and Knowing Right from Wrong. He lives in Brookline, Massachusetts with his wife and son.