Our culture typically misunderstands the trials of midlife. It tends to file these problems in the somewhat disparaging folder labeled “midlife crises.” The often overlooked fact is that our middle years are a time of chaos and agitation, because they present us with difficult and important psychological challenges.
The notion of “midlife crisis” refers to the feelings of chaos and disequilibrium that typically accompany this stage in our lives. The turmoil of midlife usually enters into our consciousness as anxiety over who we are.
One major challenge that we face is the task of imagining and defining our life in ways that have meaning and purpose. During our middle years, forces become active in our psychology that push us into making choices about who we are and about how we will live. We must write the script for the rest of our lives or suffer the consequences of feeling the emptiness associated with just following the herd.
During midlife we encounter a natural movement from within ourselves. A movement to leave one psychological identity and move into another. This movement often meets with strong resistance from internal forces that would like to maintain the status quo. It is a like having to leave known for foreign territory. It can be a movement filled with doubt and fear. Midlife can be a time when our old maps for life do not fit the territory that we find ourselves in.
As Dante put it in his Inferno,
“Midway this way of life we’re bound upon, I woke to find myself in a dark wood, Where the right road was wholly lost and gone.”
At midlife, we find ourselves experiencing a discrepancy between who we thought we were and who we actually are now. To make matters worse, while the person we thought we were seems to be dissolving, the person we hoped we weren’t begins to show up more and more. This clash of images can leave us feeling sad, depressed, angry and very alone. We might feel a sense of profound loss that we cannot really explain to ourselves.
Midlife transformative forces can push us deeply into our fear. Then we see its real nature. Behind our fear is a sadness that is an expression of a tender heart. This tender heart is an important source of compassion and concern for others as well as of awe and wonder about the mystery of life. When we connect with our tender heart, we no longer have to be embarrassed about who we are.
There is an art and science to making a midlife transformation. First we need to recognize that the turmoil we feel represents life working on us rather than evidence that we are sick or other than we should be.
At midlife our soul makes a grab for the steering wheel, it wants to drive. Ego’s dress rehearsal is over. Death is no longer hidden on the horizon. We need to face the task writing a script for the second half of our lives, so we can live with conviction and real intent.
As we give up our concepts of who we are and what we “should” be, we can then become sensitive to a kind of internal guidance. Our psyche, at first, frightens us by shaking up our world entirely. It then stimulates us by pointing to some of life’s most interesting possibilities. Our task is listening and attending to what our soul is telling us.