Wrestling with What Won’t Be. The Meaning of Midlife Melancholy

What’s the point of it all? The inquiry does not relent. Resist it for a time — fill your days with noise, stare hard at the patch of life before you — but you cannot always avoid the silence, cannot always avoid looking up.

The question catches up to most of us halfway to the grave. What else is a midlife crisis? When nests begin to empty, the chirping quiets and memories take their place, her interrogation loudens. Contemplation stares from the corner of the room. We can hurry off to a new distraction, or stare back.

Midlife. Halfway to somewhere, but to where? Away. To death — and to more — to whatever lies beyond, to that “undiscovered country” that

puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of. (Hamlet, 3.1.87–90)

Half of your life (at best) is gone. You map where you have been, where you are now, and the limits you can yet travel. You begin to feel the gravity of time. You look back. The distance behind is greater than the distance left ahead, and the rapids seem to quicken toward the falls. But to what end? Anxieties paw within, looking for an escape.

Young dreams have grown up. Some hopes, along with some friends, have died. Ideals have given way to reality. What ifs have cocooned into What was and What actually is. The butterfly, so perfect in the mind’s eye, is not as beautiful as expected. Regrets mingle with misplaced joys. The questions that youthful optimism brushed off will no longer be dismissed: What was the point of it all?

Unhappy Wisdom

Many today would call midlife reflections of this kind cynical, jaded. Some interpret their intrusion as signs that they haven’t found the spouse, the adventure, the career that they were truly made for. They try another. But the wisest man ever born of men, a man who touched the ends of the earth’s delights, called such contemplations wisdom. Wisdom that agitates our joy. A frustration at the futility we face in this fallen world.

In much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow. (Ecclesiastes 1:18)

We might imagine a hypothetical alternative: one where Adam and Eve waited to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in God’s timing upon God’s invitation. But the unlawful bites into forbidden knowledge demanded God thrust futility and curse upon the world. We have knowledge of good and evil, but mostly evil.

So, from the ruins, we pluck the rose of wisdom, and feel her thorns and thistles. We enjoy wisdom, when we enjoy her, wincing. While she must be preferred above all alternatives (Proverbs 3:13–15), she casts a shadow for those inhabiting a world under the sun. She will not flatter us. She lives near reality — too near — and she is too honest. She clarifies and she saddens. She guides and she wounds. She points out many perplexities this side of eternity.

Perennial Pointlessness

What did wisdom reveal to turn the king into the unhappy philosopher we find in the book of Ecclesiastes? She shows him a world full of vanity. A world that cannot bear our deepest hopes, or satisfy our inmost longings, or gratify our great exertions.

A sampling from the first chapter.

Wisdom shows him a meaningless shore where generations come, and generations go, washing back and forth. Wisdom lifts his chin — the sun rises, falls, and hastens to rise again — for what? He begins to notice how the wind can’t make up its mind, blowing north then south only to return to the same place it started (Ecclesiastes 1:4–6). And for man, the hamster wheel spins until the hamster dies, and another scurries in his place. Perennial pointlessness.

He looks out at the calm waters and savors no peace:

All streams run to the sea,
      but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
      there they flow again. (Ecclesiastes 1:7)

Where will his soul find fullness? His eyes have seen great things. His ears have heard marvels. He tested his heart with all manner of delight (Ecclesiastes 2:1). He found pleasure in them for a season, yet in the end, he discovered his blisses were not loadbearing.

All things are full of weariness;
      a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
      nor the ear filled with hearing. (Ecclesiastes 1:8)

What, then, is the point?

Sad Soliloquy

Through the spectacles of wisdom, he beholds a good world (with beauty and laughter and love), but a cursed world still. He longs for fruit from Eden, and cannot find the like below. As the richest king of Israel, he feasts on the delights we still chase today, yet without finding a way past the fiery sword guarding the tree of life now denied us (Genesis 3:24).

Days begin to blend; routine squeezes the zest from life; wisdom points past the momentary pleasure out into the fog, wondering where this is all going. The sad conclusions begin to mount.

Nothing is new; only hand-me-downs passed down the generations. What came before, came and went; what we know as the momentary now will pass, soon to be forgotten. The historic present falls with the consequence of a snowflake — dazzling, glittering, melting. Death comes for the wise and the foolish alike (Ecclesiastes 1:9–11). The walls were closing in.

“I hated life. . . . I hated all my labor,” the wise man sighs (see Ecclesiastes 2:17–18). His was a sad soliloquy. He turns to us, the audience of his one-man play,

A bird within a shallow cage,
Ink written on a burning page,
Calloused hands without a wage,
The musing of a dying sage.

With eyes not to be satisfied,
I saw all is absurdity.
My heart was never gratified,
For what could fill eternity?

Banquets of laughter, food, and drink,
Feasts of different women’s thrills,
Life caressing Canaan’s brink,
Streams to seas that never fill.

At midlife (for some before, some after), we taste a piece of the Preacher’s grief. Vanity of vanities! An unhappy business. A striving after the wind. Life under the curse.

Recalculating Midlife

Demons hatch when good is god,
When life is sought in tombs of men.
When Joy is taught as a facade.
And death is thought to be the end.

Midlife crisis, for anyone feeling its stress, is not really midlife at all. It lands us (should the Lord provide another half) mid-page in the mere preface of life. The first chapter of eternity has not yet begun. We are all immortal beings, babies even on our deathbeds.

Yet life after this life, in answer to the question of futility, does not render earth’s life span of little consequence. This life ripples into forever, and this truth returns to our Preacher some clarity, some sanity. He concludes,

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:13–14)

Life extends beyond the grave, as the ocean extends beyond the shore. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die” — and a time to rise again and face our God (Ecclesiastes 3:1–2).

Fly away to God

To the next world we go. To God we go. To Jesus Christ — a Savior, a Lord, a Judge. A God whose justice will publish our story’s destiny — eternal life or eternal death. Our whole duty in this life is to fear him, obey him, and if we may add his greatest command, love him.

I wonder if the Preacher’s hundred perplexities would have been assuaged by testing his heart one more time with one true glimpse of Jesus Christ on the cross. Would the eternity in his heart not burst with praise? It did for Charles Spurgeon as he quotes:

The cords that bound my heart to earth
Are broken by his hand;
Before his cross I find myself,
A stranger in the land.

My heart is with him on his throne,
And ill can brook delay;
Each moment listening for the voice,
“Make haste, and come away.”
(cited in “Alas for Us, If Thou Wert All”)

The Point of it All, our Wisdom, took on human flesh and dwelt with us under the sun — to live, to teach, and (beyond belief) to die, that he might redeem us from the curse by becoming a curse for us (Galatians 3:13). Labor, life, wisdom, death — the rising and setting of the sun — find their purpose in him. Where streams empty into our insatiable seas, he cries out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink” (John 7:37).

Passing Shadows and Forever Beauty

While Christ is our all in all, our Bread of Life, our Joy eternal, we are still perplexed in seasons, even as believers (2 Corinthians 4:8). We “who have the firstfruits of the Spirit” still groan inwardly — but not nihilistically — since we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons. And creation still pants “in the pains of childbirth,” having been subjected to vanity, not willingly, but in hope by its Creator. We know that the bondage of corruption shall yet be finally broken when all becomes new, when the sons and daughters of God are revealed (Romans 8:18–25).

For those in Christ, all futility, all senseless wonder, all burdensome enigmas in a fallen world will be finally, utterly “swallowed up by life” in the resurrection and the coming of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 5:4). Until then, we may become distressed in our waiting, yet acknowledge with Samwise that “in the end the shadow was just a small and passing thing. There is light and high beauty forever beyond its reach” (The Return of the King, 186). Midlife is midway home.

by Greg Morse / Wrestling with What Won’t Be: The Meaning of Midlife Melancholy | Desiring God

Greg Morse is a staff writer for desiringGod.org and graduate of Bethlehem College & Seminary. He and his wife, Abigail, live in St. Paul with their son and two daughters.

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