For me, approaching 40 was a time of stereotypical crisis. Having jumped the hurdles of the academic career track, I knew I was lucky to be a tenured professor of philosophy. Yet stepping back from the busyness of life, the rush of things to do, I found myself wondering, what now? I felt a sense of repetition and futility, of projects completed just to be replaced by more. I would finish this article, teach this class, and then I would do it all again. It was not that everything seemed worthless. Even at my lowest ebb, I didn’t feel there was no point in what I was doing. Yet somehow the succession of activities, each one rational in itself, fell short.

I am not alone. Perhaps you have felt, too, an emptiness in the pursuit of worthy goals. This is one form of midlife crisis, at once familiar and philosophically puzzling. The paradox is that success can seem like failure. Like any paradox, it calls for philosophical treatment. What is the emptiness of the midlife crisis if not the unqualified emptiness in which one sees no value in anything? What was wrong with my life?

In search of an answer, I turned to the 19th-century pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer is notorious for preaching the futility of desire. That getting what you want could fail to make you happy would not have surprised him at all. On the other hand, not having it is just as bad. For Schopenhauer, you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. In staving off the void by finding things to do, you have condemned yourself to misery. Life ‘swings like a pendulum to and fro between pain and boredom, and these two are in fact its ultimate constituents’.

I think there is something right in Schopenhauer's dismal conception of our relationship with our ends, and that it can illuminate the darkness of midlife. Taking up new projects, after all, simply obscures the problem. When you aim at a future goal, satisfaction is deferred: success has yet to come. But the moment you succeed, your achievement is in the past. Meanwhile, your engagement with projects subverts itself. In pursuing a goal, you either fail or, in succeeding, end its power to guide your life.

Hence one common figure of the midlife crisis: the striving high-achiever, obsessed with getting things done, who is haunted by the hollowness of everyday life. When you are obsessed with projects, ceaselessly replacing old with new, satisfaction is always in the future. Or the past. It is mortgaged, then archived, but never possessed. In pursuing goals, you aim at outcomes that preclude the possibility of that pursuit, extinguishing the sparks of meaning in your life.

If the crisis diagnosed by Schopenhauer turns on excessive investment in projects, then the solution is to invest more fully in the process, giving meaning to your life through activities that have no terminal point: since they cannot be completed, your engagement with them is not exhaustive. It will not subvert itself. Nor does it invite the sense of frustration that Schopenhauer scorns in unsatisfied desire – the sense of being at a distance from one’s goal, so that fulfillment is always in the future or the past.

illuminate [ɪ'luːmɪneɪt] v. 阐明;解释

to make sth clearer or easier to understand

The report illuminated the difficult issues at the heart of science policy.

stereotypical [.steriə'tɪpɪk(ə)l] adj. 典型的;带有成见的

exactly like the stereotype of a particular person or thing

This trip left me with a lasting impression of the natural and cultural scenes so stereotypical of Switzerland.

hurdle ['hɜː(r)d(ə)l] n. 障碍;困难;跨栏

a problem or difficulty that must be solved or dealt with before you can achieve sth

Finding enough money for the project was the first hurdle.

tenured ['tenjə(r)d] adj. 终身的;长期保有的

having the right to keep their job permanently

So far my tenured colleagues have been supportive; a few are even jealous that I'm free  to do something so unconventional.

step back from 从...中暂时抽身

We need to step back from narrow national interest and engage in frank and constructive discussion in a spirit of global common cause.

futility [fjuː'tɪləti] n. 徒劳无益;无效;徒劳无功

    You don't seem to understand the futility of trying to prepare for such a difficult examination in only three months.

at one's low ebb 处于低潮

to be in a bad state or condition

succession[sək'seʃ(ə)n] n. 交替;更迭

the regular pattern of one thing following another thing

The surprise was that succession plans were not immediately triggered. A board meeting was said to be a matter of days away, not hours.

rational ['ræʃ(ə)nəl] adj. 合理的;理性的

based on reason rather than emotions

Parents need to be fully informed so they can make a rational decision.

fall short 缺乏;不足

to be less than the amount or standard that is needed or that you want

The results fell far short of our expectations.

worthy ['wɜː(r)ði] adj. 值得的

having good qualities but not very interesting or exciting

The money will go to a worthy cause.

paradox ['pærədɒks] n. 悖论

a statement containing two opposite ideas that make it seem impossible or unlikely, although it is probably true

It’s a paradox that in such a rich country there can be so much poverty.

unqualified [ʌn'kwɒlɪfaɪd] adj. 不合格的;没资格的

not having the right knowledge, experience or qualifications to do sth

I feel unqualified to advise you

notorious [nəʊ'tɔːriəs] adj. 声名狼藉的;臭名昭著的

well known for being bad

The crash happened at a notorious accident blackspot.

preach [priːtʃ] v. 宣扬;说教

to tell people about a particular religion, way of life, system, etc. in order to persuade them to accept it

You're always preaching honesty, and then you lie to me.

stave off 暂时挡住(坏事);延缓

to keep someone or something from reaching you or affecting you for a period of time

She brought some fruit on the journey to stave off hunger.

void [vɔɪd] n. 空白;空虚

a feeling of great sadness that you have when someone you love dies or when something is taken from you

Running the business helped to fill the void after his wife died.

condemn [kən'dem] v. 迫使…接受困境(或不愉快的状况)

to force sb to accept a difficult or unpleasant situation

His occupation condemned him to spend long periods of time away from his family.

misery ['mɪzəri] n. 痛苦

great suffering of the mind or body

What we are witnessing here is human misery on a vast scale.

pendulum ['pendjʊləm] n. 钟摆

a long straight part with a weight at the end that moves regularly from side to side to control the movement of a clock

Now the pendulum is beginning to swing back as local governments attempt to minimise job losses in their own back yards.

constituent [kən'stɪtjʊənt] n. 成分;构成要素

one of the parts of sth that combine to form the whole

Scientists have to break the compound down into its constituents in order to analyze it.

dismal ['dɪzm(ə)l] adj. 忧郁的;阴沉的

causing or showing sadness

The future looks pretty dismal right now.

obscure [əb'skjʊə(r)] v. 使模糊

to prevent something from being seen or heard clearly

The view was obscured by mist.

defer [dɪ'fɜː(r)] v. 推迟;延缓

to delay sth until a later time

Further discussion on the proposal will be deferred until April.

engagement [ɪn'ɡeɪdʒmənt] n. (与…的)密切联系

being involved with sb/sth in an attempt to understand them/it

Many students pass without any real engagement in learning.

subvert [səb'vɜː(r)t] v. 颠覆

to try to destroy the authority of a political, religious, etc. system by attacking it secretly or indirectly

Too much control and predictability might eventually subvert the organizational goals.

be obsessed with 沉迷于

Why should Chinese film critics be obsessed with box-office revenue?

mortgage ['mɔː(r)ɡɪdʒ] v. 抵押(房产)

to borrow money or do something that is likely to cause problems in the future, that other people will have to deal with

The report explains how governments are mortgaging their nations’ futures.

archive ['ɑː(r)kaɪv] v. 把…存档;把…归档

to put documents, books, information etc in an archive

NOAA will analyze and archive data from satellites.

preclude [prɪ'kluːd] v. 排除

to prevent sth from happening or sb from doing sth; to make sth impossible

Lack of evidence may preclude a trial.

extinguish [ɪk'stɪŋɡwɪʃ] v. 熄灭

to make a fire stop burning or a light stop shining

All hope was almost extinguished.

turn on 取决于

if a situation, event, argument etc turns on a particular thing or idea, it depends on that thing

As usual, everything turned on how much money was available.

exhaustive [ɪɡ'zɔːstɪv] adj. 详尽无遗的;彻底全面的

extremely thorough and complete

The rescue team made an exhaustive search of the area.

scorn [skɔːn] v. 嘲笑

a strong feeling that sb/sth is stupid or not good enough, usually shown by the way you speak

Many women scorn the use of make-up.

亚瑟·叔本华(Arthur Schopenhauer)


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