“Quarter-life crisis” is a convenient term for glossing over a more subtle problem. I'm 27, about to move to Chicago from a city of some 50,000 people. I've got an MA and good deal of teaching and non-profit experience under my belt—and not a clue what I'll be doing when my wife and I get to Chicago. I'm married too, I should mention—and happily, I can honestly say. My point is, I've got all these markers of adulthood about me—education, a “real” job, the legally binding state of matrimony (I think entering into contracts is a pretty grown-up thing, right?). Despite all of these good things, I would definitely say what I'm experiencing is my quarter-life crisis.
Crisis is normally used to mean the decisive point in a situation. Usually a negative situation. Like feeling aimless and anxious and worried about how in the hell you're going to land on your feet and why you aren't way more successful than you actually are. For a lot of guys, perhaps what's missing, what causes these crises, is not being sure we're doing anything that men do correctly. This is that more urgent problem I see. We've taken the ritual out of growing up.
Rituals are fascinating things. They can be the most completely superficial things, and still they carry a weight of significance that impresses something deep and subconscious in us. By superficial, I mean that the motions can be simple, and time-worn, and repetitive—like actually walking across a stage to receive your diploma. We wear funny clothes, and worse hats (which have their own special part to play), we listen to some version of the same speech, and whoa Black Betty! You're one step closer to being an adult. The problem is that we've taken out the important parts of our rituals, or we've stopped viewing the ritual as important in itself. Most schools don't actually give you your diploma at commencement—it' s an empty leather folder or a rolled up piece of paper with a ribbon.
These things are about coming of age. They're supposed to clue you into what is expected of you, what you're supposed to be doing. More importantly, rituals like these assure us that we're done with one stage of life, and on to the next. I mean simple stuff, too. Tying your shoes by yourself. Learning how to shave. Your first date. Your first part-time job and that first pitiful paycheck that's all yours. Without the substance of rites of passage, and without the assurance of elders who've been there, we end up stuck as children playing at being adults, and we end up simply trying to recreate the feeling of grown-up-ness these sort of events had the first time around. You get to participate simply by virtue of the passage of time, and not because you've proven that you're ready.
A lot of the writing on this site is about capturing or re-capturing a powerful sense of manhood. As young men we do a lot of the things we think we're supposed to—work, get married, shape wood and metal, procreate, or what have you—without being able to really internalize why. This is why we get into a lot of the problems we do with gender roles. This is why it's often so easy to categorize guys by behavior; frat boy, jock, hippie, upwardly-mobile no-bullshit indie business guy. All of these guys think they've figured out what a man is supposed to do and to be like.
I'm saying, I have no friggin' idea what I'm supposed to be like. I'm in the process of shifting my entire career focus. I'm wrestling with the fact that I've committed myself to a career which promises to make me barely a living wage for most of my life. Thankfully, my wife recently had a panic moment and decided she isn't ready for kids, so that's one off my plate. But what does she think of me, of my choices, of my commitment to making our life together better? Men provide, right? They protect and bring security and take care of their families? By what possible stretch of the imagination is a man working adjunct for less than minimum wage at two colleges any woman's ideal relationship? Boys in the Satere-Mawe tribe in Brazil wear gloves stuffed with gigantic neuro-toxic bullet ants and dance around for ten minutes without passing out in order to become a warrior. They do this up to twenty times over a period months before it's official. Where is my torrid glove of agony and manliness to show that I'm ready to take my place as a man in society?
Somewhere between a semi-traumatic undergraduate graduation and now, about five years later, I can't help but feel like I'm still just playing around. Things haven't been serious. That is, I haven't been serious enough for this really to be adulthood. I also haven't failed. That's a rite of passage, too. As a society we suck at coping with failure and coming out on the other side, and we've done everything we can to make sure our kids never experience failure. My crisis now is, what if I'm doing this all wrong? What if I fail and can't move on?