Getting Inked, Middle Age, and Surviving Crises

I got a tattoo a few weeks ago to celebrate my mid-life crisis.

Okay, that’s not exactly true. My crisis has been in full swing for awhile now, and the tattoo was—at least ostensibly—a way to celebrate my amazing sister and the wonderful friendship we share. (And to experience a little pain together, though she told me it wasn’t going to hurt. Pshhh: It did hurt. A lot.)

The tattoo was a Reiki symbol for friendship, and is supposed to symbolize the essence of God we see in each other, and in ourselves. It also has a “S” swirled into it, which we decided denoted “sister” and “Springer,” our maiden name.

tattoosHaving a little bit of ink makes me feel somewhat bad-assed, I won’t lie. I told a few close friends that I will need to find new, inventive ways to show my tattoo off in class, so my students can see me for the hip, relevant professor I’m purporting to be. Will it seem too odd if I teach with my leg up on a desk, so everyone can view my tat?

Anyway, I convinced my husband that getting a tattoo with my sister was part of my middle-aged crisis, and probably better (Cheaper? More modest?) than buying a new sports car or splurging on surgical enhancements, the stereotypic symbols of middle-aged crises that often make us snigger at the fools who are struggling so mightily with half their lives behind them.

When I was younger—like, in my 30s—I assumed this middle age crisis thing would never catch me, that it was media-manufactured or, in the least, the provenance of vain people who couldn’t stand getting older.

Boy, was I wrong, something I discovered a few years after turning 40. And, in conversations I’ve been having with my same-aged peers of late, it seems we are all grappling with similar core concerns, no matter how we’ve spent the first part of our grown-up lives, either well entrenched in a career we loved; or staying uneasily in a job because it provided steady income; or being home with children, who are now growing up.

Our life crises look something like this: We wonder if we are doing exactly what God wishes for us, if we’ve chosen the best vocations. We wonder if we’ve made the best choices for our families—and for ourselves. We wonder if we are making a difference in our worlds. We wonder how we are supposed to spend the next part of our lives.

And also, we are beginning to see the natural entropy that accompanies being human. That damn unwanted belly fat is one thing, but we also experiencing—or witnessing—peers going through serious medical issues. We are witnessing our parents getting older, less the capable adults than they once were, when they made our teenaged lives miserable. Those people who served as mentors are also aging and dying, making us wonder who will we look up to for the next 50 years. Who will serve as our guides, our wise teachers? Will we be forced to navigate life on our own?

No wonder so many of my middle-aged friends feel in acute crisis. Because on top of all of this, we are told by the media (of course) but also by our church communities that being middle aged means we are no longer as relevant. Think about how many articles have been published in recent years, wringing hands about those millennials who are leaving the church, or how churches can appeal to millennials, or how millennials need something more than what the church offers, because they think more deeply about scripture, long for social justice ministries, have rejected the creeds and songs that older folks must like. For middle-aged women in the church, the news is even worse: according to most Titus 2 ministries, the best opportunity we have is to mentor younger women in the domestic arts, our own vocational aspirations now a thing of the past.

Turns out, being middle aged can make one despair completely, to sink into darkness, turn to addictive substances, or choose to abandon a family or career in quest of something better, a chimera promising happiness if only things were different. I know plenty of people who have taken these paths. Suddenly, just getting a little tattoo seems a fairly benign response to turning 47.

Benign, but also symbolic. At least for me, and not because I want to prove myself to still be bad-assed, still hip and relevant.

The symbol my sister and I chose suggests we see the essence of God in each other, and in ourselves, that we recognize and embrace what is holy in each other. And not only in each other, but in the people around us who reflect God to us each day. This has been the most pleasant surprise of my middle-aged life, that—now more than ever—I see clearly the ways God works through the people around me, a community of people willing to reflect the essence of God to me and to others.

If I need a touchstone, a mentor to guide me, I need only look to the folks around, peers my age whose pretenses have been burned away by youth, failure, grief, success and disappointment. More significantly, while these folks still believe deeply in Jesus, they’ve also relinquished the clichéd bullshit that sometimes counts for conversation in religious communities.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m still stuck in the middle-aged trenches with plenty of others, feeling their crises. And in moments of clarity, I’m still grateful that I have a chance to be middle aged, knowing this is in itself a gift, one that plenty of others never have opportunity to experience.

But to be honest, I’m looking forward to 50. Oprah says life gets immeasurably better when a woman turns 50, and Oprah is always right, you know. Until then, I’ll keeping seeking the essence of God in those around me, all the while feeling a little bit edgy and relevant with my tiny tattoo.