BARRY D. CYTRON
From Understanding to Wisdom
"I can't define it, but I know it when I see it."
That was the well-crafted phrase offered by Justice Potter Stewart when the U.S. Supreme Court was deliberating the meaning of obscenity.1 With slight modification, those words could easily apply to the way many feel about midlife. Perhaps it is the difficulty in anticipating and defining this phase of life that accounts for the potent emotional language frequently used to describe its onset. Americans regularly speak of a midlife "crisis," while the French call it, with equal passion, l'après-midi, "afternoon."
Those who study midlife, such as developmental psychologists, tend to avoid loaded emotional descriptions, preferring to speak of a midlife "transition" or "passage." But no matter what word is chosen to describe them, these years are frequently marked by a profound, potentially life-transforming set of challenges.2
Many circumstances, such as an individual's profession, marital status, and socioeconomic background, shape the timing and texture of the midlife years. Moreover, because no specific age inaugurates midlife, and