Midlife, decline or peak experience? Your choice
“The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you really are” – Carl Jung
There is this couple I know. Twenty year ago, they met, fell in love and during those first heady, honeymoon years realised their dream of buying a restaurant in the country. Running a restaurant turned out to be much harder than they had imagined and despite working extremely hard, they almost lost everything in the first year. Might not have been the best time for her to have two babies in quick succession, but babies come at their own time. Soon their life was a waking nightmare. Small babies and flirting with bankruptcy left them no time or money to do anything other than work and worry.
They were deeply in love however and even though they were not exactly smiling through their misfortunes, they did support each other and they kept going. In between restaurant shifts, she found the time to take the kids do football, painting and swimming classes. She was a good mom, and a diligent wife, but the hardness of their lives made her tired and sometimes bitter.
After a decade, things stated improving and finally at 50 they managed to sell the restaurant that had been a millstone during their late 30s and all of their 40s. They even made a bit of money to support a modest retirement. With the money in the bank and time in their hands, surely it was time to enjoy themselves. Not a year went by before he started noticing all the little things that bothered him about her and he started questioning his commitment to the marriage. The world was beckoning for him to enjoy while there was still time and he started plotting his escape.
When I hear stories like this, and there are many to choose from, I wonder about these men and how empty they must feel. Of course, everybody examines their life at this middle stage but for some this examination reaches flawed conclusions with devastating consequences for them and their dearest. These men should be growing spiritually and deepening their emotional and creative life. Instead, they shrink to a childlike state of wanting the new shiny toy in the form of a new woman, a new car, a new job or a new adventure. They use this second part of their lives to chase the same external trappings that have already proven unable to provide the inner satisfaction that we all crave.
This is not an anti-divorce post. There are many cases were a partner is a serious obstacle to an individual’s inner growth and parting ways is the only way forward. In most cases however, at the root of middle age divorce is boredom and a desire to “go younger”. A deep fear of death and decay drives these men out of their marriages, as if cutting ties with the past can give them eternal youth. Looking at their ageing wife they see their own ageing face and body instead of a lifetime of love and companionship. Under that spell they sever a bond that cannot be easily replaced.
As we mature, it should become obvious that what matters in life is the deep connections we have with those closest to us, our partner, our family and our friends. Taking a sledgehammer and demolishing all these connections that were laboriously built over a lifetime is to say the least unwise and often regretted.
For many people, the middle years of life can come to feel like an endless process of coping with chaos and life can come to seem endlessly tiring and often pointless. From this place, many people ask the obvious question: “Is this really all that there is to my life? Is this all that I get?” They reflect back and see goals unattained and risks not taken. They feel confused , bored and angry with a fervent desire to go back and do life over again.
There are two ways to approach this. One is to go back to the external rat race and have another bite at the apple; a new girlfriend, a new job and new car. A few years later, this path leads right back to the same unhappy spot.
The other path leads to the most fulfilling part of life, a stage of transition and an opportunity to achieve wholeness, maturity and long-term fulfilment. It is a time to come to terms with what you are likely to achieve in this lifetime and a full understanding of your true self including those parts that you hid from prying eyes. It is in middle age that the endless struggle to climb the ladder to nowhere should end and you can see the beauty of meal with friends and family. A time to drop the defences and laugh at the pretences of your younger self. The most important inner need people have is to be seen for who they are. If that's what's happening at midlife, there's no crisis.
The psychoanalyst Carl Jung divided life into halves—the first devoted to forming the ego and getting established in the world, the second to finding a larger meaning for all that effort. Middle age is life's peak experience and it is indeed a very sad to miss because you are chasing after the ghost of a younger self.
“Middle age is not the beginning of decline, but a time to reach for the highest in our selves. Middle age is a pause to re-examine what we have done and what we will do in the future. This is the time to give birth to our power.”
― Frank Natale, The Wisdom of Midlife: Reclaim Your Passion, Power and Purpose