As it often happens in life, once we ask a question, answers start coming from all possible directions. My journey into the basement to meet my shadow led me to often shocking discoveries of the patterns that kept surfacing in my personal life and insights as to how they were shaping my life. Some of those discoveries could have been done much earlier with the help of a professional, I suppose. Nevertheless, here I am, years and multiple sabotaged relationships later and my research on the subject (without looking for anything in particular) led me to mooching the book by Jungian analyst James Hollis “Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life“. This just a week or so before my birthday (interesting coincidence). I was saving the book for the week-end. Today, when iTunes started downloading the podcast updates, I opened it up to see who Tami Simon interviewed this time on “Insights at the Edge” and gasped in disbelief when I saw the title of the new episode: “James Hollis: Underneath the Midlife Crises”. Come on! Now I had both the book and a very skillfully done interview with the author.
So what’s the deal with the so-called “midlife” crisis and how come it seems I’ve been having one for years although I don’t have any conscious fear of aging?
Hollis posits that any crisis occurs when the maps we are carrying (conscious or unconscious ones we adopted from our culture or family of origins) do not match the terrain, when there is discrepancy between “what we sought, served, and accomplished, and what we feel in our private, honest moments”. This occurs when we experience the unavoidable conflict between the natural Self and the acquired “sense of self” (he calles it “the false self”) with “the values and strategies we have derived from internalizing the dynamics and messages of our family and our culture”*. As children, we adopt certain defense mechanisms to ensure our survival and we carry those with us into every decision we make as adults. Those unconscious mechanisms often guide our choices in directions quite different from those our soul desires. Most of us experience this identity crisis many times in the course of our lives and as any collision, it’s a painful experience.
As for “midlife” crisis, Hollis does not see it as “a momentary madness” , but an invitation from our soul to a more authentic existence, when something larger is wishing to emerge; an opportunity to radically examine one’s life. We have gathered enough internal material to actually address the critical question,
Am I living my life or somebody else’s?
I experienced a major identity crisis ten years ago when I moved to Sweden and had to redefine my relationship with my family of origins, my cultural identity, and the new society that I did not know how to relate to. Suddenly I no longer knew who I was. I saw it as something to be endured and threw my creative energy into coming up with ways to keep the nose over the surface, ignoring those calls from the soul. I learnt to silence them down with distractions: another exciting trip, an intensive work out or a course that was way over my head and justified my feeling of the ongoing struggle.
Finally I arrived to the point where I no longer was interested in trying to live a life that I had thought I wanted for myself. I kept hearing the voice saying a line from some film, “This is not what I wanted” (Could it be “Madam Bovary?”) and each time would wonder where it came from.” How could that be? Not this? What is it that I wouldn’t want to have?” Still the price for this Ok-life that somehow did not feel ok at all was too high and I felt I needed to change something. The ok-marriage of ten years went first, the scariest thing I’ve ever done in my life. As the darkness was closing up on me, I learnt to take one day at a time and see what worked. I discovered that handcrafts or making art immediately made me feel better and so did exercise but the root of that distress remained unaddressed. Some days I had to call in sick to work because I needed space to just sit down and breath, and taking a few steps up the stairs took a lot of energy. In those moments of breathing other, larger questions started popping up in my head:
How did I end up like that? What was it that was missing in my otherwise seemingly so full life? If I decided to keep living, I had to make sure it felt like it – living – but what made me feel alive? What mattered to me most?
This is when the images of wood and darkness started coming up. I loved spending time leafing through the graphic novel by Pierre Buba & Brigitte Baumié (see the image above) that had almost no words and that drew me with its powerful images of a soul in pain, on her solitary journey through the wood. At about the same time I started a few paintings, all involving a girl walking into the dark wood. None of them got to be finished, but they helped me recognise in those symbols the calling of my own soul . Deep down I felt like that girl whose worst unspoken fear was that of getting lost but who had to go through the dark wood to get to the other side of the story. The thing is nobody can ever tell us what the other side looks and feels like and if we ever will make it there.
I agree with those who don’t see aging in itself as a sign of maturity or wisdom. It’s not hard to age, you just keep living until you stop. What is much harder is to live a life of authenticity, the one that has its struggles and creative tensions, but in which we make ourselves at home by accepting the responsibility for what we make with it, by recognising that “this is our life, not somebody else’s, that after out thirtieth birthday we are responsible for how it turns out…”.*
It is not about beating ourselves up for those learned behaviours we adopted in childhood or by blaming others for letting us down but about being able to see those messages from the past and recognising where they show up in our lives at present. I see making ourselves accountable and doing the work as the only way out of the woods, towards a fuller life that feels true to us.
According to Hollis in every decisive moment of our life we choose between anxiety and depression. Taking risks in life as we move forward leads to anxiety. Not taking the next step on our journey and engaging in soul-denial results in depression. His advice is straightforward, “Faced with such choice, choose anxiety and ambiguity, for they are developmental, always, while depression is regressive. Anxiety is an elixir, and depression a sedative. The former keeps us on the edge of our life, and the latter in the sleep of childhood.” *
Asking questions like “Where does this outcome come from within me?” is potentially liberating as we acknowledge that our lives unfold from within and through becoming conscious of our inner motives can align our internal lives with what manifests externally. Poet David Whyte said in one of his talks, “There are enormous consequences to paying attention to what is going on inside us”. These “enormous consequences” remind me of the immense storm in Rilke’s poem “The Man Watching”, something that fights us so that “we would become strong too, and not need names”. When we are not paying attention, the consequences are bound to be disastrous. In my life, I want to pay attention – red pill for me please, Morphey!
PS As I was writing this post a new episode of “To The Best of Our Knowledge Podcast” landed in iTunes, called “Aging: Dying Young as Late as Possible”. Hmmmm…