In the 2004 Alexander Payne film Sideways, two forty-something men take a roadtrip through the Napa Valley, getting sauced and wallowing in disappointment. Miles (Paul Giamatti), in one of his particularly self-loathing moments, shares his view of midlife with Jack (Thomas Hayden Church): “Half of my life is over and I have nothing to show for it. Nothing...I’m a smudge of excrement on a tissue surging out to sea with a million tons of raw sewage.” Jack, trying to be supportive, responds: “See? Right there. Just what you said...that is beautiful. ‘A smudge of excrement, surging out to sea.’”
Is this what midlife is destined to feel like? I recently turned thirty-five, and I will confess I find Miles and Jack outrageous. Sideways outrages me. They are blind to the value all around them: Jack has his fiancée, Miles his transcendent Burgundies. They are unsympathetic: their problems exacerbated by their poor decisions and stubbornness. Still...perhaps this is just the reaction of someone too young, too naïve, and too moralistic to properly understand the gravity of the midlife crisis.
In Midlife: A Philosophical Guide, MIT philosopher Kieran Setiya urges us to take the midlife crisis seriously as a special kind of crisis of value. Setiya is sensitive to how indulgent midlife crises can seem from the outside. He offers both a diagnosis of the problem and argues for a therapy for those caught in its nihilist grip. Along the way, he describes his own existential struggles in witty and deeply humane asides.
Setiya’s ambitions are philosophical rather than clinical. What is it about how we think of value and time that makes the midpoint of life so hard? Here (in brief) is his answer: At midlife, you are in a position to look back on major life decisions you have made or life paths you have fallen into. For instance, Setiya ended up a philosopher, but as an adolescent he could have been a poet or a doctor. You may try to compare your alternatives at midlife, to reassure yourself you’ve chosen well. But these different lives are not really comparable, so you have little justification at midlife for believing you’ve ended up on the best path. And you have fewer choices ahead of you now. So one source of distress in midlife is realizing that some of the options for your life projects have permanently expired and there is no way to tell if you’ve ended up on the best path.
Another source of distress is regret for some of the choices you’ve made in the first half of life that have committed you to your current path—choices you now realize were wrong. For instance, your midlife might be shadowed by a failed marriage or an unfulfilling career.
Finally, at midlife you are reminded of your finitude. The inevitability of death raises questions about whether your life is pointless, since every project you pour yourself into will ultimately end. Middles bring ends into view.
A philosophical diagnosis calls out for a philosophical treatment. And to his credit, Setiya offers a lot of specific and rich guidance. First, you should realize that the single-minded pursuit of your own happiness is likely to be self-defeating. Second, you should distinguish between telic value (the kind of value you get from advancing toward a goal or accomplishment) and atelic value (the kind of value you get from simply being immersed in an activity). Setiya argues that atelic value is a safer bet as a pursuit in midlife, when you are most likely to grow bored by past accomplishments but feel too trapped to set out toward radically new ones. You must remind yourself at midlife that “you are not (only) what you plan to get done.” Third, you should focus on the present value that your past choices (even ones you now regret) have wrought. For instance, that failed marriage might be a precondition for having children that you deeply love. A failed career might have been a necessary condition for living in a city that feels like home. At the end of the book, Setiya also pitches mindfulness meditation as a way of learning to appreciate atelic value.
Midlife is an erudite and charming addition to the genre of “philosophical self-help.” (And if there were an award for Best 2017 Philosophy Book Cover, Setiya’s cartoon of a half-empty water glass would surely win. Not that there is much competition.) Still, as an admittedly judgy borderline early-lifer, I found the book left some of my most pressing questions about midlife unanswered.