The Quarter-Life Crisis and Sports: While We’re Waiting…


Happy Thursday, Cleveland. The Indians added another bat to the lineup, the Cavaliers’ offseason continues to have me drinking Maalox straight from the bottle, and the Browns are mere hours from playing a real live-action football game on Thursday night. But while we’re waiting…

Everyone is well-aware of the “midlife crisis.” The midlife crisis is a persistent presence in American culture as a plot device and a recognized psychological phenomenon. One doesn’t need to see American Beauty, Office Space, or any Wes Anderson movie to be familiar with the more contagious cliches: the torrid extramarital love affair with the poolboy/yoga instructor, the frivolous sportscar purchase, the explosive professional meltdown, the self-destructive bender. The midlife crisis is so prevalent that it’s less an affliction than a celebrated rite of passage and voyage to self-discovery: rebirth at midlife.

Although my propensity for outright stupidity has me skeptical that I’ll reach 50, I still think I’m ineligible for a midlife crisis at 28 years old. A term I hadn’t heard but assumed existed (it does) was the “quarter-life crisis.” I didn’t invent the periodic episode of reflection, doubt, restlessness, apathy or yearning. Nor am I the first 28-year-old to ask “big questions” or sit outside and think how the stars are profound or briefly turn into a vegetable during “staff meetings.”

My quarter-life crisis has primarily been a twofold plight of identity and time. For students, time is short yet feels slow because you’re postponing “real life” and want it to end. Later in one’s 20s, the days can still feel long but the weeks, months, and years rapidly speed up without relent. There’s no way to stop it. You get a job, you get a second job, you try to jam some hobbies and a social life in there, and the time disappears like the space in a suitcase. Trying to add kickboxing or painting to your life is like trying to fit that last shirt in your luggage just in case you drip mustard on your shirt or you’re just “not feeling that color” of your other shirts.1

We’re defined by the things we do, but there’s not enough time to do all the things we want — eventually we start to lose control over our own identity. The more I learn about the world, the more I want to experience it. But there’s never enough time. I don’t read enough, exercise enough, cook enough, clean enough, write enough, travel enough, sleep enough, socialize enough, listen enough, explore enough, tweet enough, “engage” enough, practice guitar enough, talk to my family enough, go to enough concerts, fix my bike enough, work enough, or play enough.

When am I going to learn how to surf, catch up on Game of Thrones, or read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? When am I going to learn how to solve a Rubik’s cube? I want to own a dog, learn Python, buy a photography book, and visit all the national parks. When? There are movies on the AFI 100 I haven’t seen, and highly touted burritos I haven’t eaten. I haven’t played video games in years, and I love video games.

And as much as I’d like it to, a quarter-life crisis can’t be solved by sabotaging a relationship, moving cross country, taking a trip to Europe, reading Infinite Jest, developing a drinking problem, or getting a gig writing for a sports blog.

This isn’t meant to be depressing. But there is an anxiety associated with being unable to slow the roll of time. It’s like we spend so many years biking uphill, so desperate to get to the top, only to find that just over the crest of the hill is a steep decline and there are no brakes on the bike — we’re just rapidly accelerating toward the bottom

This is a good problem to have. It’s like I’m at an all-you-can eat buffet, with my biggest regret is that my stomach isn’t big enough to eat everything. Sure, I had soup, salad, steak, potatoes, broccoli, garlic bread, and that Nilla wafer banana dessert pudding that they have at every mediocre buffet. But … I want lobster too. It’s a small price to pay for curiosity with a strong appetite.

And my life is spectacularly easy and wonderful, all things considered. I’m guessing all my problems of a time deficit are compounded times ten for people with children. (Which I can’t even comprehend.)2 Maybe it’s a uniquely American impulse to always feel torn between working too hard and not working hard enough. Maybe I should feel so lucky to live in a time in a place to have the luxury of being discontented.

I thought the midlife crisis had an elevated place in American pop culture, perhaps because it’s more dramatically interesting to watch something unravel than something that was never raveled to begin with. But giving it more thought, I realized that’s not necessarily true. The quarter-life crisis has a place in culture and art, if less so than its more mature predecessor. There are entire genres of music based on late-20s malaise, and Clerks, Reality Bites, The Graduate, and several Noah Baumbach movies3 typify what one of Baumbach’s characters called an “emotional paralysis” of post-college life. Go even further back, and Catcher in the Rye and every John Hughes movie captured a similar identity crisis for younger people. One psychologist suggested there are eight crises humans face over the course of their psychological development. Summarily, no one has any idea what the hell they’re doing at any age.

And where do sports fit into all of this? Well, they help navigate our lives for a few reasons. 1. Most good art — including that about sports — is about this internal struggle for identity (watch a 30 for 30 doc if you don’t believe me); 2. Nearly all people participate in sports when they’re coming of age as a kind of competitive crash course for life lessons; and 3. Sports have become an international shorthand for self-identity. In many ways, the third reason is the most important. Life is hard, so watch the Indians. Talking to your dad about life is hard, so talk about the Browns. Confronting the meaninglessness of life is hard, so argue about the Cavaliers.

Much has been written about sports as a form of escapism. Which it is. But it’s also a form of realism — a powerful grounding force when reckoning with the unreality of a warped existence. Sports are an anchor in time: in the past, present, and future. Memories of 1995 and 2007 and 2016 are etched in the past, lending context to everything that happened in my life around that time. While a Tuesday at work in June 2014 is indistinguishable from a Tuesday at work in June 2016, the Cavs’ championship run in 2016 sharpens and colors what otherwise would be a blurry picture. Watching a game live is dropping an anchor in the river of time, mooring me in the present for three hours. The infinity of the future is overwhelming, and while my head hurts thinking about 2023 in the abstract, the knowledge that Jose Ramirez could still be under contract with the Indians and that the Browns will be on only their third or fourth regime change from now makes life’s possibilities more manageable.

The certainty of sports lends comfort. Even more than weather’s seasons, sports seasons are excellent for marking time and slowing its passing by orienting us and reminding us when and where we are. It’s not just some week in October, it’s Week 6 of the NFL season. It’s not just Thursday, but the day RGB posts a picture that there are 0 days remaining until the start of the preseason.

Some may find that our reliance on sports to define our identities retards development, but I disagree. Sports aren’t an excuse to abdicate self-improvement, but they fill in the blanks when that process is especially challenging. Whether it’s because you’re thousands of miles from home, or dissatisfied with your job, or can’t sustain a successful relationship — on a Saturday in fall you can find someone nearly anywhere in the world with a Buckeye jersey who’s willing to be your friend. So whether you’re 28, 17, 35, or 65, grab a seat, order a beer, split a pizza with me, and tell me again why the Browns will win the Super Bowl this year.

Your Calvin and Hobbes strip of the day. Today, the 2017 Browns have that New Year spirit. They stride forward with confidence and determination! They challenge! They imagine! They invent! They start Brock Osweiler!

And now for the random 90s song of the day. I wanted the R90sSotD to be an upbeat feel-good song, but unfortunately the song’s subject matter and its writer’s fate betray a darker truth than the peppy bassline and sunshiny chords would indicate. Nevertheless, the Gin Blossoms’ “Hey Jealousy” is a great single that could never reach popularity in the post-rock world we now inhabit. Also, the music video appears to have inspired several Instagram filters and the lyrics contain a lesson for Browns fans to avoid disappointment. I’m almost positive that the Gin Blossoms played at a Fourth of July festival in Jackson Township, Ohio, in the mid-2000s, but that seems absurd so it’s possible I fabricated that memory.

You can trust me not to think
And not to sleep around
If you don’t expect too much from me
You might not be let down

  1. Editor’s note: Those of us that had three kids while still in their 20s are turning their heads like a puzzled hound dog. []
  2. Editor’s note: See! []
  3. In particular, Frances Ha, Mistress America, and Kicking and Screaming. []