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Finding Personal Growth After a Midlife Crisis

By midlife many of us will be tested by a traumatic life event. What makes some of us bounce back stronger than ever?

Andrew Revkin The New York Times The Dogwood Bar Beacon New York Musician

A stroke jolted Andrew Revkin into recognizing dreams and priorities in his life. — Chris Crisman

Revkin, then a 55-year-old environmental journalist and educator who writes the New York Times' Dot Earth blog, had to stop, bend over and put his hands on his knees. "My left eye had gone weird — it was like looking through a paisley curtain," he says. He wound up in the hospital with a blockage in his carotid artery; overnight he had a stroke that left him unable to use his right hand.

For a journalist who typed on a keyboard every day, it was quite a wake-up call. But the stroke also affected his other main pursuit: music. Revkin has been writing and performing on guitar, mandolin and banjo since the 1990s as a side gig to his journalism career. But he'd never pursued his music seriously. "We all have dreams of one kind or another," he says. "I always loved music, but I was lazy about recording it."

That stopped after his stroke. As Revkin worked to regain use of his hand, he started relearning the guitar by doing scales — and made plans to record his music. Last year he released his first album, a collection of 10 original songs called A Very Fine Line. Although he didn't quit his day job, he's keeping music in the mix, with a new album already in the works. "My journalism is important, but it's not a source of joy," he says. "Music for me has always been joyful. I'm not going to get rich from it, but as a creator of stuff you want to make sure it has some resonance."

Revkin says it took him about a year to connect emotionally with what had happened: "I distanced myself from my mortality by intellectualizing it. I was blogging from the morning I woke up with one hand not working. But it left me with a dark sense of running down a corridor, opening a door and seeing a monster there — and slamming the door just in time."

Become a better version of yourself

But do these jolts truly trigger transformative growth, or do they just accentuate traits that were already there? It's a matter of some debate among psychologists. "If you read some of the literature, you'd wonder if people should subject themselves to a traumatic event just so they can experience the personal growth," says Gerard Jacobs, a clinical psychologist who leads the Disaster Mental Health Institute at the University of South Dakota. "I wouldn't recommend it as a way of improving yourself."

Working with victims of aviation accidents has led Jacobs to conclude that much depends on what the person was like before the stress occurred. "That's what gets lost in the research," he says. "Who were these people who experienced growth?" He cites the case of Dave Sanderson, the software salesman turned do-gooder after the Miracle on the Hudson. Sanderson's reinvention isn't as surprising when one recalls that he was, after all, the last passenger off the plane, the one who stayed behind to help others escape. His jolt brought out an existing character trait.

Sanderson himself agrees. He's not really transformed — he's just … better.

"I live my own strengths now; I have a different level of confidence," he says. "Everyone has tough times in life. Now I have a confidence when things get tough. I say to myself, 'You know, I'm pretty resourceful. I'll figure out a way through this.' "

Journalist and author Mark Miller is a specialist in retirement and aging.

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