Midlife: A Rebirth in Disguise
“Midway in life’s journey, I found myself in a dark wood, having lost the way.”
~ Dante, The Divine Comedy
Dante’s introductory words to his epic work depict the experience of many transitioning into midlife – a time often marked by turmoil and uncertainty regarding the meaning of life and the paths one should tread. As cliché as the term “midlife crisis” has become in modern times, its nature remains widely misunderstood. While many deny it exists, others presume that taking a more hedonistic path - taking a vacation, engaging in multiple affairs or buying an expensive toy – can cure it! In contrast, Carl Jung, the father of analytical psychology, believed that this period marks the beginning of a critical transition when our psyche undergoes an instinctive metamorphosis. In the midst of this turbulent period, Jung maintained the only way forward is to keep pace with the natural maturation of our psyche, and to undergo a cathartic transformation. Unfortunately, most people pass through the second half of life with little awareness, wholly unprepared.
Jung compared the phases of life with the rising and setting of the sun. In his essays on The Stages of Life, Jung explains, “…there is something sun-like within us…and to speak of the morning and spring, of the evening and autumn of life is not mere sentimental jargon. We thus give expression to psychological truths and, even more, to physiological facts.” As with the sun’s movement across the sky, the main stages of life can be divided into four quadrants: The first quadrant of the sun’s arc, the rising in the east, is the stage of childhood. The following quadrant, the morning of life, is the “first adulthood” – the stage beginning in adolescence and ending in midlife. The sun at its noonday peak is midlife, which generally occurs between the ages of 35 and 40. The “second adulthood” corresponds to the afternoon of life, while old age, the setting of the sun.
In the green stage of childhood, our self-awareness is at minimum and our existence is enmeshed with our parents/caregivers. The first seven-to-nine years of life, or the formative years, chart the path that we embark on later in life. This is when we develop an adaptive persona that protects us from the disappointments of the Edenic myths of relationship with the world and with others - when we begin to see the world through the eyes of others.
The morning of life stage is the time at which our self-awareness blooms and the necessity of assuming responsibility for our life first arises. In this stage we are instinctively attracted to certain goals that are perceived to affirm our place in the world – through the attainment of career or vocation, and/or the cultivation of a social and familial life.The achievement of these tasks is no easy matter. It requires we sever our dependence on our parents, cultivate our personality, and put in the time and effort needed to develop our talents and skills so as to attain some measure of worldly success. This is the time “…to win for oneself a place in society and to transform one’s nature so that it is more or less fitted to this kind of existence is in all cases a considerable achievement.” wrote Jung. “It is a fight waged within oneself as well as outside” (Carl Jung, The Stages of Life). In the morning of life, as we strive to secure a place in society, our physical vitality also peaks, and our thirst to drink from the cup of life – exploring and experimenting – strengthens.
As the morning wanes, the
stage sneaks in, signifying the end of the morning of life and the beginning of an often-dramatic conflict. It is at this stage that, Jung writes, heralds “the birth of death”. The birth of death in midlife instinctively thrusts us into a new realm of reassessing values. Under the specter of death what proved attractive in the morning of life tends to lose its appeal, and with nothing meaningful to engage our energy, it is in midlife that the dark night of the soul can descend upon us. The dawning awareness of mortality at midlife renders this period especially turbulent for many. Jung asserted that this conflict should be welcomed, not rejected, for it represents an opportunity to expand our consciousness, renew our personality, adopt a new set of values more conducive to our well-being, and become who we really are. With this comes the realization and the knowing that within us is space for a second, larger, and timeless life. As we transition from morning to afternoon, Jung cautioned that “… we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the programme of life’s morning; for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie” (Carl Jung, The Stages of Life).
Symptoms of midlife crises are in fact blessings, for they represent a powerful imperative for renewal. We are psychically summoned to die unto the old self so that the new self might emerge. In the second part of life we begin to question ourselves - or rather, something within us pushes the questions to the surface. This is the voice that many of us do not like to hear: “What is the goal?” “Where are you going now?” Unlike the first half of life, the goals become blurred, and may seem insignificant. In the first half of life, the trajectory is linear: study, work, succeed, acquire money and power, marry, procreate, and build a solid future. The goals seem to be quite visible. Once reached, then comes the next set of questions: “And now what?”…Then, the conflict arises. The fear of facing the finite sets in. Then the cracks appear and with them the potential to let in the light or to succumb to the pressure.
Circumventing despair from the growing awareness of our approaching mortality necessitates that we find new goals for the second half of life to replace the worn out ones that consumed us in the first half. However, to keep our newly emerged self engaged, these goals need to be authentic expressions of our self, imbued with purpose and intention. New goals demand new eyes to see them with and a new heart that opens up to their desires.
Midlife transformation requires us to direct our attention away from the outside and to focus this energy inward. This stage pushes us to release the part in us that others think we should be, and to accept and open up to who we really are. During the first half of life, most of us adopt a personality that is not an authentic reflection of our individuality, but rather one that is shaped by the pressure to conform. It is largely constructed of values, beliefs, attitudes, and styles of living we have learned from our family, peers, the school system, entertainment industry, and society at large. In the first half of life this acquired personality can serve a practical purpose. For young adulthood is the stage of life at which it is important to forge a place in society and cultivate a suitable vocation or career. To achieve all this, we are often compelled to sacrifice our individuality in order to fit in and succeed as “creatures of the herd”. But as we approach the second half of life, our body provides a continual reminder of mortality, and this is when it becomes imperative to fight against the trappings of conformity, and to realize our own authenticity.
One way we can re-ignite the embers of our personality is to tap into the child within us. If we are to remain awake in mind and spirit to welcome the advent of the second half of life, we should rediscover how to play and to devote more time to hobbies and interests which serve no end other than to provide joy and meaning in the present, without the need for an adulating audience. It is an essential remembrance of the joy and excitement that is all too often lacking in the lives of adults.
But play is not the entire solution to the midlife crisis. Accompanying our increasing awareness of death and mortality, we are presented with a series of existential dilemmas: Should we merge with others or seek autonomy; embrace meaninglessness or fight against it? Existential dilemmas such as these have no definitive answers. Yet in midlife and beyond, contemplating these dilemmas is essential for avoiding the preeminent danger of a “psychological death” - getting stuck in our habitual and worn out ways, with a narrow lens and a fleeting horizon. Pondering the mysteries of the human condition mitigates this danger by expanding our perspectives and consciousness.
If we use the midlife crisis as a stimulus to discover our authentic personality, become more childlike, and contemplate the mysteries of life, we will improve our ability to render the afternoon of our life more meaningful than the morning. And although midlife may represent the peak of our physical strength and the beginning of our descent towards the inevitable end, it can also bring with it the start of an authentic life. As we move into the second half of life, we should make it our aim to live fully so that when death does decide to beckon us, we will be able to say that we truly lived… Or as the 20th century Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis wrote: “For this was my greatest ambition: to leave nothing for death to take – nothing but a few bones.”
Adapted from: The Academy Of Ideas (April 17, 2019)