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?
En español l Sixty seconds after takeoff, Dave Sanderson heard the explosion.
"I had never heard anything like that on a plane before," he recalls. "I was sitting four rows behind the left wing. I looked out and saw fire."
Sanderson, 53, flew often for his work as a software sales manager for Oracle, and he didn't panic. "My first thought was that we had lost an engine," he says. "I thought we'd just circle back to LaGuardia and land."
Here's what Sanderson didn't know: US Airways Flight 1549 had collided with a flock of geese, disabling both engines. What happened next that January day in 2009 was soon dubbed the "Miracle on the Hudson" — the flight's captain, Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III, managed to guide his crippled airliner to the frigid Hudson River and execute an extraordinary emergency landing.
When the jet hit the river, the impact broke Sanderson's seat and water poured into the cabin. But his first instinct was to stay aboard to help make sure others got out: "I remembered my mom saying to me when I was a kid, 'If you do the right thing, God will take care of you.' "
By the time Sanderson made it to an exit, the plane's wings were partially submerged. He jumped into the icy water and began swimming to a rescue boat. "Two people on a ferryboat reached down and pulled me up. I was so cold, I couldn't feel a thing," he says. "When we reached the shore, three people greeted me — two emergency medical technicians and a guy with an American Red Cross blanket."
Sanderson was unhurt, but he was not unchanged. He began speaking about his experience at Red Cross fundraisers. Last year, he resigned from Oracle to devote himself to fundraising and speaking. He's helped raise more than $7 million for the Red Cross; a book is in the works, too. "The crash changed my perspective," he says. "I started scheduling around my family instead of my job."
Sanderson experienced a particularly dramatic life event — the kind of high-voltage bolt out of the blue that strikes many of us eventually. Midlife is prime time for such jolts: It's the season for sudden job loss, divorce, the deaths of loved ones, and all manner of health scares, disasters and near misses. Hollywood may love a good story about the stereotypical life-changing "midlife crisis" that's brought on by the anxiety of getting older, but research shows that most such crises instead are triggered by external events.
Midlife jolts can derail us — or they can propel us into reclaiming and remaking our lives. "They make people go higher and deeper, asking themselves questions about what is going on and how to get their arms around it," says Richard Leider, career counselor and coauthor of the new AARP book Life Reimagined: Discovering Your New Life Possibilities.
Leider says jolts can sometimes prompt risk taking: "People want to be more authentic the second time around. They want a voice in things and to live their own life, not the one that was prescribed for them by parents or society. They want their lives to matter."
In 1995, Lawrence Calhoun, professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, helped coin the term "post-traumatic growth" (PTG) for this phenomenon. "It's not just about being resilient," he says. "Resilience is when you get punched, stagger and then jump right back up. Post-traumatic growth is different — when you stand back up, you are transformed."
Like its more well-known sibling condition, post-traumatic stress disorder, PTG doesn't develop in everyone who experiences a life-changing shock, Calhoun says. "One consistent finding for people who do experience post-traumatic growth is a set of circumstances that 'rock your world.' It causes you to confront questions you hadn't confronted before, or see that understandings you had of the world no longer apply. People think, 'This must have happened for some reason — it doesn't make any damn sense to me, but I need to try to wrestle with it to find some meaning.' "
That struggle can inspire profound and lasting personal growth: After their jolts, some people become more compassionate toward the plight of others, move into new careers, and remake their worldviews and personalities. Their relationships with others grow deeper, and they may seek a stronger spiritual dimension in their lives. The question is, why do some of us crumple in the face of trauma, while others emerge stronger than ever?
From revelation to remarkable change
Not all jolts arrive with the drama of a crashing airliner. For Eva Leivas-Andino, the jolt came one night in 1997 while at the theater with her son, Paolo. As the curtain came down on Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, a play about the writer's imprisonment for homosexuality, Paolo began sobbing uncontrollably. "Paolo got up and disappeared, so I went out to the lobby," says Leivas-Andino, now 70. "When he came back about 10 minutes later, I could tell he'd been crying. He said to me, 'One hundred years and nothing has changed.' "
Leivas-Andino already knew that Paolo, then 28, was gay. He'd revealed that eight years earlier, but it didn't have the effect he'd hoped for. "I wanted it to be out in the open and a point of discussion," he says today. "Instead, it became the elephant in the room."
At the time, Leivas-Andino recalls, "all I could think about was, what will I do with this? What are people going to think of me? I was so horrified and afraid. It was all about me."
But that night the dam burst open. Mother and son went to a restaurant and ordered a bottle of wine; Paolo confessed how desperate and lonely he'd been growing up in the closet in their conservative-minded Cuban American home in Miami. For Leivas-Andino, Paolo's distress revealed something terrible about herself. "I left this child totally alone and abandoned while he was going through this," she says. "I realized that day that I had failed my son."
That painful truth set Leivas-Andino on a new life path. She opened up about Paolo to friends and heard from a neighbor about the YES Institute — a Miami nonprofit that provides education on sexual orientation and youth suicide prevention. Leivas-Andino took a two-day communications course, then volunteered for the group. That led to a full-time job at YES; 15 years later, she's the organization's CFO. Today she marvels at the changes she's gone through. "If none of this had happened," she says, "I'd probably be playing bridge."
"Watching her change has been the most beautiful thing," says Paolo, 43, an actor in Los Angeles. "This has become her life's work and mission."
Researchers are now studying how some people manage to translate jolts into this kind of growth. "A tragedy can be looked at from multiple angles," says psychologist Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "The way to unearth positive emotions and emerge a better person is to be able to find those angles that allow you to see a thread of good."
Older people may be at an advantage when it comes to doing this.
"This is one of the clear places where aging has its upside," Fredrickson says. "Older people experience relatively more positive emotions compared with younger people, which positions them to be better able to bounce back. And more recently, research is showing that older people have a better ability to accept negative events: They have less emotional volatility."
But positivity doesn't necessarily translate into happiness, Calhoun notes: "Keep in mind that growth doesn't lead to a commensurate reduction in stress or suffering. Just because a bereaved parent changes careers, it doesn't mean she doesn't still miss her child and cry every night. Our best guess is that growth and distress are independent."
That's what Mark Noonan has learned, eight years after experiencing a tragic loss. Noonan was a corporate executive from Portland, Oregon, traveling on a business trip to China when he received a phone call: His wife, Carrie, had fallen off a short ladder at home and sustained a fatal head injury. She was only 50; Noonan was 52.
His wife's death "just put a huge black hole in my life," he says. But it also forced him to confront his mounting career dissatisfaction. "I had been driven by securing a retirement for my wife and myself, and what we'd do in those years. When that imploded, the question was, can I go forward or not? For me this was a rebirth moment. It left me thinking, 'Why am I doing this? What's my purpose in life?' I just lost my desire to stay in the corporate world."
When a friend mentioned a new degree program in gerontology at a Portland community college, something clicked. Noonan earned an associate degree in the program and followed that up with several internships at local nonprofits (including the state office of AARP Oregon). Eventually he accepted a position as outreach director at Elders in Action, a local nonprofit advocacy group. "Lots of tragedies happen that make people go out and reassess their lives," says Noonan, now 60. "Mine unfortunately had to do with losing my wife, which I'll never get over. But it's been a catalyst, and it helps me understand what other people are going through when they come through our door."
Post-traumatic growth turns into altruism
Alice Graham had her life's work similarly altered by a traumatic event. In her case, it was a literal disaster — Hurricane Katrina. The storm destroyed not her home, however, but her long-held conviction about the state of Mississippi.
In 2005, Graham arrived in Ocean Springs, a small city along Mississippi's Gulf Coast, with seven students from Hood Theological Seminary in Salisbury, North Carolina, where she was a professor. Graham was 62, and it was the first time she'd set foot in Mississippi, a state whose legacy of racism had long haunted her. She was 9 when 14-year-old Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi for allegedly flirting with a white woman. To an African American girl in Till's hometown of Chicago, "it was a pivotal experience in the way I related to the South," Graham says. "At that point, I made a commitment that I would never go to Mississippi."
But now Graham was troubled by what was going on in Mississippi after Katrina. She organized a course that offered students the chance to participate in a weeklong relief trip. En route to the Gulf Coast, old fears came flooding back. "We were driving down in the van, and I suddenly realized, 'I'm going to Mississippi.' I was very anxious about it, because I was bringing black and white students."
At a restaurant filled with white patrons, the hostess noticed the group's disaster-relief identification tags and asked where the visitors were from. "When we told her that we'd come down to volunteer, she announced that to the restaurant," Graham says. "And the entire place applauded. That broke the myth that I had been living with. It's a moment where you're caught, and time stops. I realized that my mind-set no longer was real."
Graham took early retirement at 64 and moved to the Gulf Coast. Today, at 68, she's executive director of Interfaith Partnerships, a nonprofit that works on disaster preparedness and poverty relief. "I certainly never would have looked at moving to Mississippi under any circumstance. That just wasn't on my radar — and neither was running a grassroots community organization," she says. "What amazes me most is that I seem to do it well, and it is profoundly satisfying."
Post-traumatic growth frequently takes altruistic forms, says Calhoun. It's one of the several factors he and his colleagues have identified among those who undergo PTG. Another such factor: recognizing new priorities in your life. That describes the jolt Andrew Revkin suffered while jogging on July Fourth weekend in 2011.
TRY THESE FOUR TIPS TO BOOST YOUR RECOVERY
1. Don't rush it. Take time after a shock, says Susan Bridges, president of William Bridges and Associates, which provides transition coaching: "We see it as a three-phase process, starting with acknowledging what has ended."
2. Consult others. Richard Leider of AARP's Life Reimagined suggests assembling a sounding board of friends as advisers. "You want a committed listener, who can just hear what you have to say without trying to fix anything," he says. "Then you want a catalyst, who offers inspiration through his or her own story. And then you want a wise elder, who helps you keep your eye on the big picture."
3. Think positive. "Whether people can access positive emotions in dire circumstances is typically a matter of what kind of sense they make of the event," says psychologist Barbara Fredrickson. "The reaction to a natural disaster could be 'I lost everything,' or it could be 'I'm still breathing.' "
4. Recognize your own strengths. "People say that they now experience themselves as a different person," says psychologist Lawrence Calhoun. "They see themselves as more vulnerable than they thought but stronger than they ever imagined."
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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