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 significance.

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 level.

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 out.

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 forest.

7/11/98

Richard B. Patterson is a clinical psychologist in private practice in El Paso, TX. He is the author of three books on psychology and spirituality.

 

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