INTO the DARK FOREST:
SPIRITUALITY and MIDLIFE CRISIS
by Richard B. Patterson
Midlife crisis has unfortunately become the stuff of made-for-television
movies. The weekly crisis of a middle-aged man leaving his wife of twenty
years for a woman half his age has become almost a cultural stereotype. Sadly,
the profound quality and significance of midlife crisis becomes lost in the
process such that men and women in the midst of this upheaval minimize its
Midlife crisis is a fundamentally spiritual event of great power which
can lead to either tremendous spiritual growth or can generate more chaos. To
emerge from the dark forest of midlife crisis, we need to understand the
substance of the crisis and we also need to be aware that the healthy
resolution of midlife crisis brings with it a newly discovered gift.
What provokes a midlife crisis? First of all, there is age. Midlife tends
to be viewed as stretching from ages 35 to 50, sometimes beyond 50, given the
increasing chances of longevity. It tends also to be precipitated by loss of
some sort -- a health problem, a missed promotion, and especially the
departure of adult children. Suddenly our life seems frighteningly devoid of
meaning, empty, without direction. Everything that we felt was important seems
insignificant. We believe we have missed out on something. To relieve the fear
and turmoil, we begin searching for what we think is missing. It is at this
point that we can get in trouble. If we fail to recognize the spiritual
quality of midlife crisis, we opt for quick solutions which end up
fostering even more chaos.
There are three aspects to midlife crisis, three themes around which the
turmoil revolves. The first of these is vitality. By vitality, we mean energy
and passion. At midlife, we notice that our bodies slow down. Perhaps we
begin to deal with health problems or simply bodily changes due to aging.
We also can find ourselves devoid of passion. Sexual passion may be an infrequent
event. Our passionate juices simply seem to have dried up. Thus, the
misguided attempt to resolve the crisis of vitality at a strictly sexual
The second facet of midlife crisis is intimacy. At midlife, we may have
been in a relationship for some length of time. We may have experienced the
dissolution of relationships. Or we may simply become aware of spending a
great deal of time alone. In any case, at midlife, we tend to take stock of the
quality of intimacy in our relationships. We may conclude that the
relationships come up lacking. We long for a level of closeness. We long
for romance. We may simply long for friendship. Thus we have the image of a
man or woman of forty paging through his/her high school yearbook.
The third theme of midlife is legacy. Perhaps a parent or friend has
died. Perhaps something such as the Oklahoma City bombing forces us to
recognize how vulnerable we are. In any event, it finally dawns on us that we
are not going to live forever. We may then find ourselves quite fearful that
nothing of value will live on after us. We may take some comfort if we have
children but then again if we have successfully parented we have already made
peace with the fact that our children's lives are theirs to unfold and cannot
be manipulated to be a testimony to our own worth.
To work with midlife crisis in a positive manner, we must first
understand it to be a search, a quest if you will, in which we are looking for
new sources of vitality, intimacy, and legacy. We need to be willing to look
directly at that which we have put off and be prepared for the possible need
of grieving. We need to see if we have lost the capacity to dream about the
future. We need to assess whether there is any element of the spiritual active
in our daily lives.
In addressing issues of vitality, we need to nurture our creative side,
perhaps even get to know it for the first time. We need to allow ourselves
enthusiasms which may not necessarily be "productive." We need to assess how
responsible we are in maintaining a lifestyle which is kind to our bodies. And
we need to assess how mechanical and habit-bound we have become as far as
the sexual aspect of our lives is concerned.
In exploring the theme of intimacy, we must confront the many walls we
may have built to keep others out. We need to examine the many ways we may
have been taking significant others in our lives for granted. We need to reach
In working with the theme of legacy, we need to honestly consider that
which we have put off because of assuming we have many tomorrows. We need to
assess that which is going unspoken. (There is nothing worse than having
someone in your life die and to realize that you never said certain things to
that person, even simple things such as "I love you.") We need to honestly
evaluate whether our work is in any way satisfying.
The resolution of midlife crisis includes a gift. It may be the
acquisition of a previously unknown creative ability. It may be a new
friendship or a deepened marriage. It may involve a return to school to pursue
a long-delayed career goal. It may be a deeply enriched relationship with the
God of one's understanding.
In his journey into the forest, Dante had the benefit of guides. We can
do well to follow his example. Such guides can include a therapist, a rabbi or
pastor, or simply a friend.
I have experienced two clear instances of midlife crisis. The first at
age 35 resulted in sobriety. The second at age 40 resulted in publication of
my first book. They were both terrifying times when I thought I was going
insane. While I am grateful for the gifts, I am not anxious to reenter the
Richard B. Patterson is a clinical psychologist
in private practice in El Paso, TX. He is the author of three books on psychology