“Midway through life’s journey, I found myself in a dark wood…”
Sadly, the midlife crisis is popularly misunderstood. We often treat crises as diseases to be cured, rather than listening to them. “Oh, don’t worry, it will pass,” we shirk, unwittingly evading the invitation to a life of rewarding purpose and unshakeable joy.
The crisis of midlife is a summons. This appointment beckons us into a more substantial and more meaningful life. At midlife, life’s unanswerable questions grip and fascinate the soul into a potential awakening, not to answers, but an enriched life — a more conscious way of being.The crisis of midlife is a summons. This appointment beckons us into a more substantial and more meaningful life.
As Dante poetically opens Inferno … midlife ushers in an opportunity for finding the self. “I found myself…” he writes. This is the crux of the matter.
The midlife crisis is about self-discovery. It’s about stretching beyond borders and boundaries of our small, ego-centric identities. This is a spiritual opening, friends, and if we listen to what’s beneath and behind what we see, we may find the treasures we have searched for our entire lives.
Here are a few opportunities that await us at midlife:
- Self-Discovery and Self-Expansion
- Life of Purpose and Meaning
- Greater Vulnerability and Openness
- More Authenticity, Awareness and Inner Presence
We’ve Missed the Obvious for Our Entire Lives, Until Now.
The gold of the inner self eluded us, dancing through our dreams, camouflaging behind metaphors and masks, and we hid from our hearts– fearing darkness. And the midlife crisis not only demands attention but presence. And I dare you– reader, to bring this peace offering of awareness and presence, to bring these gifts to your crisis with persistence and faith… and unearth what awaits you.
Our entire lives we have listened to the voices of others in our quest for fulfillment. It’s not that their advice was necessarily malicious, bad advice, or ungrounded in personal experience. But the council that guides each must fully know the inner workings of that individual.
“But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,”
— Mary Oliver
Who has been there for all of the thoughts, the feelings, and the experiences in our history that have shaped and made us who we are today? We have. Who has witnessed your nightmares, your night-dreams, your day-dreams? Who has watched the pain you’ve suffered, the betrayal, the bliss, the moments of heaven-on-earth? You have.
At midlife, the rumblings of our inner selves are amplified.
Up until now, something kept us from listening. We didn’t recognize the voice. We devalued it. It’s entirely possible and highly likely that we were simply distracted by life. The worries choked out the seed, the ground was parched with the need for social acceptance and approval, or our voice was dismissed by elders who had never tread the path of inner awareness before.Tell a wise person, or else keep silent, because the mass man will mock it right away.
My Own Personal Highlight Reel of Existential Anxiety
Honestly, I’m a specialist at ignoring the important questions of life. They have either been too terrifying, too humbling, or too unpopular for me to sit with them for long periods. But I have spent some time asking, “Why am I here? What’s the meaning of this? What IS this thing called existence? Who am I?” among other deep questions.
- When my daughter was born at 26 weeks gestation, my (now ex) wife had carried her for less than six months, and the map we held no longer matched the terrain. We felt so afraid. This event occurred while we were on vacation, displaced from our home city, and we lived (mostly) in the hospital for 100+ days of NICU trauma-inducing anxiety. Why?
- When I attended an evangelical Christian church, I sometimes felt like the only one with serious doubts. My existential dread showed up as characters in the stories I read and heard, masquerading as a wrathful god, full of anger, and I trembled in fear for years.
- When my closest personal relationships in life still consistently highlighted the gaping chasm between our hearts and the solitude of individuation hit me like an ocean typhoon.
Three Midlife “Companion Books” for Wanderers.
Today, I am recommending three books for our wonderful, dark, wandering journeys through midlife. These books may or may not help you. They will certainly not “fix you,” (you don’t need to be fixed) nor will they provide “the answers”. But I have been helped, at times, by hearing from people who have trekked the path I’m on. It helps me to feel seen and known, encouraged and validated.
If you are chest-deep in the waters of an Existential Crisis, an Identity Crisis, or a Social Role-Based Crisis, I will encourage you to thumb through these books with an open heart. If you’re navigating the dark ocean of the unconscious, or hiking through painful life events like death, divorce, betrayal, guilt, grief, loss, doubt, loneliness, depression, despair, obsessions, addictions, anger, fear, angst, and anxiety, these books were written to give dignity to your path.
These books can bring hope if you’ve been let down by a relationship that you thought would make you whole and complete. And, these three books can help you ask more questions — bigger, deeper, questions.
The Middle Passage: From Misery to Meaning in Midlife
Why do so many go through so much disruption in their middle years? Why then? Why do we consider it a crisis? The Middle Passage presents us with an opportunity to reexamine our lives and to ask: “Who am I apart from my history and the roles I have played?” It is an occasion for redefining and reorienting the personality, a necessary rite of passage between the extended adolescence of the first adulthood and our inevitable appointment with old age and mortality.
The Middle Passage addresses the following issues: How did we acquire our original sense of self? What are the changes that herald the Middle Passage? How does one revision the sense of self? What is the relationship between Jung’s concept of individuation and our commitment to others? What attitudes and behavior support individuation and help us to move from misery to meaning?
This book shows how we may travel the Middle Passage consciously, thereby rendering our lives more meaningful and the second half of life immeasurably richer.
Swamplands of the Soul: New Life in Dismal Places
Is the purpose of life to achieve happiness? Who does not long to arrive some distant day at that sunlit meadow where we may abide in pure contentment? In reality, we know life is not like that; our road is often dreary, the way unclear. Much of the time we are lost in the dismal states of guilt, grief, betrayal, doubt, depression, anger, terror and the like. Is this all we can hope for?
Perhaps not, says this author. The Jungian perspective, by encompassing both the meadow and the bog, assets that the goal of life is not happiness but meaning. And meaning, though it may not be all sunlight and blossoms, is real.
Swamplands of the Soul explores the quicksands where we have all floundered. It lights a beacon by showing what they mean regarding our individual journey and the engendering of the soul. For it is precisely where we encounter the gravitas of life that we also uncover its purpose, its dignity, and its most profound meaning.
The Eden Project: In Search of the Magical Other
A timely and thought-provoking corrective to the generalized fantasies about relationships that permeate our culture. This is not a practical guide on how to fix a relationship, but rather a challenge to greater personal responsibility in relationships, a call for individual growth as opposed to seeking rescue through others.
If you’re feeling “stuck” in a relationship, there’s a good reason. This book can help show you a bit more about how that process of projection works.
I’m interested to hear from readers– what are some of the best existential books you’ve ever read?
What tips do you have for navigating midlife crisis?
Join the conversation. Comment below.
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About the Author (James Hollis, Ph.D.)
James Hollis, Ph.D., is a graduate of the Jung Institute in Zürich. He practices in Philadelphia and Linwood, NJ, where he lives. He is the acclaimed author of The Middle Passage, Under Saturn’s Shadow, Tracking the Gods, The Eden Project, and The Middle Passage.
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