Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Theory 21 - the Mid-life crisis

According to wikipaedia, "Midlife crisis is a term coined in 1965 by Elliott Jaques and used in Western societies to describe a period of dramatic self-doubt that is felt by some individuals in the "middle years" or middle age of life, as a result of sensing the passing of their own youth and the imminence of their old age [...] The result may be a desire to make significant changes in core aspects of day-to-day life or situation, such as in career, work-life balance, marriage, romantic relationships, big-ticket expenditures, or physical appearance." The article goes on to suggest that it is less common than it may seem, and that it may be typically western, as there is "little evidence that it occur in Japanese or Indian cultures."

The article also records the existing question marks as to whether there really is such a thing as a mid-life crisis, because many of the possible causes listed occur throughout life, not just in the timespan between 40 and 60, and because many (even most) people seem to get by without crisis. To me, that is like saying that mad cow disease does not exist, because most cows do not get it.

I think it does exist, and I have a theory about it. I call it theory 21 in honour of Douglas Adams, whose answer to the big question about "Life, the Universe and Everything" is 42. The mid-life crisis only covers half of that, hence theory 21. My theory is that mid-life is the time when people reach a "boiling point" regarding their hopes and expectations. Whether this is traumatic or not depends, among other things, on how realistic your expectations are/have been and how easily you accept that things will not always go your way. And I think this is where we are going wrong, in western society: many of us have been brought up to believe that it is perfectly reasonable to expect not only that you will get the things you want (enough money, a good job, a nice family, etc), but also that you will be able to avoid the things you don't want (illness, a lousy job, poverty, loneliness etc).

But contrary to what you might think, many of us are perfectly capable of accepting adversity in the big things mentioned above. Often, it is the constant drip-drip-drip of small irritations (traffic jams, husbands who don't put up the toilet seat when they urinate, condescending waiters in fancy restaurants, etc. etc) that we have difficulty with. And the reason for this is exactly because they are so small that we believe we should be able to do something about them, even though often, we can't. Often, the only thing we can do is try to change our own reaction to them, because they are not going to go away.

Imagine a whole series of little buttons (the number is different for each of us), one for each irritation, each one with a different sound and a different volume (depending on your own sensitity to this specific irritation). Every time we come up against something unpleasant, the corresponding button is pushed. In some cases, the sound is outside our hearing range, so we are not bothered in the least. In other cases, the sound may be irritating at first, but you get used to it with time, and learn to ignore it (the same way people who work in a slaughterhouse stop noticing the smell). In other cases, you do not get used to it, and it becomes increasingly irritating with time. Still, you may still "accept" it, like old couples that are in each other's hair constantly, but wouldn't dream of splitting up. And then there are the ones that drive you completely bonkers every single time.

Mid-life crisis is when you start to see that life is too short to disconnect all the buttons.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A thought on thinking

In 1984 (the book, not the year), George Orwell gave us the idea of "doublethink", which I will define here as maintaining two different (and often opposing) beliefs at the same time. When I first read 1984, back in the seventies, I thought it was completely novel. Now, many years later, I am not so sure, because we do something similar all the time, in some cases voluntarily.

The lightest possible variant of this is maintaining several different viewpoints or perspectives of the same subject at the same time, such as when we try to see the forest and the trees at the same time, or when we define energy as waves and particles at the same time, or when we see a number (1984) and think of it as a date and a book simultaneously. And this can even be useful, even if it may be somewhat of a brainstrain. Somewhere in the same general area, I suspect, is when children try to "believe" in Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, etc. in spite of very clear evidence to the contrary.

Next, in terms of mindstress, come things like trying to consider the possible impact of a specific individual action on both the group and the individual at the same time. This combination is a bit more difficult to grasp than the previous ones, because (unlike the previous examples) the individual and the group interact. A similar idea is that of the "light touch" which is achieving almost total control with only very little pressure.

Not dizzy yet? Then try this one on for size: last in the list is the "does not compute - robot brain overload" category is when you try to accept both a literal reading of Genesis and modern science, including evolution. And this is where you might get the sort of mental burn-out that Big Brother uses to exert total mind control.

But there is of course one big difference, namely the fact that in 1984, conflicting beliefs are imposed on the citizens, and cemented in place by the worst possible negative reinforcement possible. Which makes me very happy to be where I am today, with the freedom to think what I want, and even think out loud once in a while, such as in this blog.