In praise of the middle
Some thoughts on approaching 40
“In the middle of the journey of our life I found myself within a dark woods where the straight way was lost.”
— Dante Alighieri, Inferno
In the middle of a holiday, in the middle of a year I foolishly believed would be easier, in the middle of a bed, exhausted, on the middle of an island, in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, I found myself pondering the middle. I was in the middle of a convalescence period longer and less linear than I’d hoped it would be; in the middle of my lifetime, or at least approaching what the world assumes will be the middle of it.
The middle gets a bad rap—lost in the middle of nowhere, their middle-of-the-road album, being stuck in the middle, giving the middle finger. But the middle is where life happens. It’s where you make the decision, consciously or not, on the type of parent you’ll be, and how your kids will remember you when they’re approaching a middle of their own. When was the last time you lost your shit at your kids? Were you “JUST IN THE MIDDLE OF SOMETHING!?” You’re always in the middle of something. We all are. There’s never the right time. There’s just the middle.
“Mid” has become a term of derision for Gen Z, a quick three-letter slam, the insult du jour on TikTok, with over 2.1 billion views on the #mid hashtag and no signs of slowing. “Meet me in the middle” we’ve learned to ask to those who hold their opinions tightly. We offer it as an olive branch, suggesting we’ll head there too, whilst holding steadfast in the same place we’ve always been.
But there’s joy in the middle. It provides a chance to take stock of where you are on your journey, and make any changes necessary. Are you still heading in the right direction? Is a course correction required? Or is another endpoint more interesting, fulfilling or desirable? It’s free from the heavy weight of expectation that encumbers beginnings; unlike dreaded endings, the middle is light on regret, and remains pregnant with possibility. The middle is a place to breathe, to think, to live and do. Stopping in the middle is a radical act—to forcibly career onto an immediate off-ramp, finish line be damned; a fearless leap off the treadmill, trusting the emergency cord to deal with the repercussions. When you stop at the end, it’s too late. You’re already there. Ceasing in the middle unlocks magic.
The middle way is a concept central to the teachings of the Buddha, who lived a life avoiding extremes, to, as Jack Kornfield one wrote, “deeply rest between the play of opposites.” Taoism sees the middle way as the line separating yin and yang, its curves remaining in contact with the world’s opposing forces, holding steady, never wavering. In Pema Chödrön’s “When Things Fall Apart” (not the first time I’ve talked about it, certainly not the last) she explores how “everybody's middle way is a different middle way,” and how this path “encourages us to awaken the bravery that exists in everyone, without exception.”
If it wasn’t clear from these ramblings, the middle has been on my mind. I’ve been dipping in and out of Henry David Thoreau’s Journals, as recommended by Maria Popova during her OnBeing interview from back in 2016. The bulk of this mercifully abridged retelling (the full version is 14 books long) covers a decade of Thoreau’s life, as he works his way towards 40 and beyond, the mental changing of the guard, a newfound awareness of what unites us, and how nature can accelerate this movement. "All men are children, and of one family,” he writes. “The same tale sends them all to bed, and wakes them in the morning.”
I’m knocking on the door of 40, unsure of who might answer and what lies on the other side. Covid has left me feeling old before my time: a battered iPhone from generations past; overused, scuffed, but still loved; the last of the Jobs era, desperately calling out for an upgrade; a battery that only charges halfway, no matter how long it’s been plugged in, becoming easily exhausted after a few hours of activity. What does it mean to raise young children as an older parent? When my father turned 40 I was 17, one foot out of the door of the familial home, unsure of where I was heading, but proceeding forward nonetheless. I’m heading into my own middle, just as my eldest child is approaching hers—8 years old, the remnants of the toddler she was undetectable, the signs of the woman she’ll become beginning to take the stage as she heads into double digits and beyond. Where will we find ourselves as we exit our middles? We can only wait to find out.
“When we discover the middle path, we neither remove ourselves from the world nor get lost in it. Instead of seeking resolution, waiting for the chord at the end of a song, we let ourselves open and relax. In the middle we discover that the world is workable.”
— Jack Kornfield, The Wise Heart
3 things to read this week
“The Heaviest Pain in the World” by Rob Delaney in The Times. Rob Delaney, Twitter funnyman and co-writer of Catastrophe, shares this deeply personal book excerpt on living with his son Henry’s brain tumour, and going on without him. “You sit there like a decaying disused train station while freight train after freight train overloaded with pain roars through you. Maybe one will derail and explode, destroying the station and killing you, and you can go and be with your child. Would that be so bad?”
“The Dads Who Got Woke After Roe Fell” by Angela Chapin in The Cut. A look inside the world of right-leaning dads experiencing a shift in political allegiances in the wake of Republicans overturning women’s rights. “Fox News polling showed that between May and August, months consumed by fallout over the Dobbs v. Jackson decision, there was a 28-point shift in the number of fathers with children under 18 who said they’d vote for a Democratic candidate. That swing is significant compared to men in general, who moved only four points left.”
“How We Can Help Children Grow in the Wake of a Crisis” by Anya Kamenetz in The New York Times. It’s still far too early to tell what the lasting social repercussions of the pandemic will be. But that doesn’t mean we can’t take measures to mitigate problematic outcomes. This article outlines five strategies that parents can use to foster growth amid the fallout and is a great place to start.
"When we adults think of children there is a simple truth that we ignore: childhood is not preparation for life; childhood is life. A child isn't getting ready to live; a child is living. No child will miss the zest and joy of living unless these are denied by adults who have convinced themselves that childhood is a period of preparation.
How much heartache we would save ourselves if we would recognize children as partners with adults in the process of living, rather than always viewing them as apprentices. How much we could teach each other; we have the experience and they have the freshness. How full both our lives could be."
— John A. Taylor, Notes on an Unhurried Journey
Hey! Listen to this!
I’ve fallen into a Gabor Mate rabbit hole over the last few weeks. If you’re interested in coming along for the ride, this interview with Russell Brand is a good place to start, covering our evolving understanding of addiction, inherited generational trauma, and conscious parenting. (A video version is available here, if that’s more your scene.)
An update on TNF Therapy Fund
I was bowled over by the response to last week’s newsletter, with a flurry of donations coming in from many of you across the world. We now have enough to cover the cost of five dads to get five sessions of therapy—a phenomenal achievement.
We’ve found two of them. So now we need to find more dads who need help. If you are reading this and feel like you’d benefit from a course of therapy, please get in touch. Maybe you know someone who has been talking about it, skirting around the edges of it, but the cost has been a block—send them my way.
Here’s one note from the many I received last week:
Thank you so much for talking about this. The gulf between what we're "supposed" to feel (pride, joy, etc) and the actual, complicated, meteor-to-the-face upheaval of becoming a parent is jarring for almost everyone I think. It definitely took its toll on me, and I'm thankful to have a great therapist who's helped me through it.
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Thanks to Ivor who shared this in the community.
Late to the discussion and may be repeating myself, but Bruce Feiler's "Life Is in the Transitions" is a perfect fit for this post. A great deal of how well people navigate major life transitions is whether they have strategies for the "messy middle." He also debunks the notion of an actual middle, which I think you're doing here to some extent. There is no single mid-life crisis. There are many disruptions, ups and downs, and some of them are lifequakes. It's not as if figuring out 40 makes 50 or 60 that much easier. In many ways age 23 and 46 were the times when I felt the most unmoored in my life. The number matters less than the foundation built under it.
"Halfway along the road we have to go, / I found myself obscured in a great forest, / Bewildered, and I knew I had lost the way." (Sisson's translation—there are so many!)
I knew what this was all about as soon as I read the opening lines. This hit hard. I've spent a lot of time with Dante, and I find myself (obscured) at the age he was when he was exiled from Florence and began his poetic journey. So this is my Dante year. It sucks when those kinds of things about being a certain age are right.
The beginning of the middle makes life feel like such a long time. Oy, it's a long time. But having been here (or rather "been here") before, I do know two things: "The way upward and the way downward are one and the same" and "When you're going through Hell, keep going." So I keep going.