Our team is certainly blessed, in that just as we set out on our study of midlife, a joyous and profound book is published on exactly this subject: Reflections on Midlife: A philosophical Guide by the philosopher Kieran Setiya. I can’t imagine a better treatment by a philosopher of topics ranging from whether there is a mid-life crisis, how to be reconciled to the lives we haven’t and won’t live, the fear of death, or the issues of regret, missing out and retrospection. It’s a clear read and acts a collection point for some of the `best bits’ on this topic from sources ranging from Aristotle, through Schopenhauer to Simone de Beauvoir. It is also a kind of practice guide for the actually middle-aged (such as myself) on how to live in the present, how to value activities in their own right and not just as projects, and why the path to happiness is always through others. As it happens there were also substantial sections whose aspirations I do not share, such as his concluding sections on Buddhism and mindfulness, which to me still speaks to an orientation to the self and the body. I would prefer to watch paint dry than to contemplate my own breathing, and generally I prefer a more social and ethical orientation to resolving these dilemmas.
This book takes nothing away from our task as anthropologists. Setiya’s volume is an exercise in thinking about how other people might think about midlife, and much of it is about contemplation. But as I note in my own recent book The Comfort of People, the hospice patients I worked with don’t do much of this contemplation about the meaning and purpose of life. They valorise the life they have actually lived through continuities of practice, such as watching TV and keeping up with family relationships. We have a perhaps harder task in extrapolating our insights on how people relate to midlife from our interrogation and interpretation of such embedded practices within everyday life. And in our case, we will do this comparatively, considering the difference in such practices around the world. Anthropology is not a handmaiden to philosophy – it is trying to achieve rather different goals, but I feel equally important ones. Still I suspect there are going to be quite a few of my informants to whom I might end up recommending Setiya’s book, simply for the good I think it can do in understanding one’s life and in the pleasure of just reading a well crafted book.