On Midlife: Crises and Pleasures

Bristol Festival of Ideas teamed up with Marina Benjamin and Miranda Lawyer to jointly reflect on midlife in today’s capitalist world preoccupied by ideas of youth, rejuvenation and self-improvement. In The Middlepause and Out of Time respectively, Benjamin and Sawyer discuss this unmapped second half of life with all the losses it brings and unexpected newfound pleasures it secretly uncovers.

In their book-memoirs, Benjamin and Sawyer intimately recall what middle age meant for them, explore how others have confronted this ‘crisis’, and talk about what has worked for them.

The event drew a mostly female attendance, which only confirmed what Sawyer mentioned later in the talk – ‘midlife crisis’ being essentially a male term coined in the 60s to explain the widespread dip in happiness for men, while female midlife still remains publicly unacknowledged.

Benjamin and Sawyer were joined in conversation led by Jenny Hayes, and she started by enquiring after the ‘moment of realization’ that midlife has knocked on the door. Both recalled their exact moments of being struck at how half-life had passed by and the panic that came along with it – doing ‘death maths’ as Miranda called it, or ‘the realism of the restricted nature of your life’ as Marina poignantly described.

Marina recounted her experience of growing up in a Middle Eastern family, but having being born and raised in England she wanted nothing more than to grow up in the British tradition. Later in life, however, she was led to think about the antagonism between the Middle Eastern clan tendency, with all its duties and expectations, and the British notion of individualism with its freedoms and consequent loneliness.

Both avoiding to be prescriptive in their narratives, Marina and Miranda’s books serve as personal stories interwoven with unique intricacies that escape the patronising tones of self-improvement and ‘taking control’ that pervades the already scarce literature on the subject.

Their stories – though graphic in depicting the ageing of the body and killing off youthful dreams with its ensuing sadness from this loss – close on a positive note through details of pristine enjoyment in life. No more male harassment, no more concerns about what others think, no more saying ‘yes’ to inconvenient demands in order to please, no more wasting time. The lack of a cultural template to map this second half of life is liberating, and it allows the freedom to create one’s own.

Marina described ageing as ‘a form of an embodied knowledge’, whereas Miranda talked about ‘feeling all ages at once’, and these personal insights allow for true acceptance and hope without tripping into the particulars of laying down ‘tips’, ‘tricks’, ‘how-to’s’ for ‘women’s empowerment’. Taking control, as conventional wisdom nowadays has it, is not about trying to stay young or pretending to be young at heart; it’s about not taking control at all, and accepting what is gone and looking forward to what is left.