“THE FIRST HALF OF LIFE IS ESSENTIALLY A MISTAKE,” says James Hollis. The genial, white-haired former literature professor makes this claim so calmly, so evenly that it takes a minute to sink in that he has just taken the world as we know it and stood it on its ear.
It would be one thing if he were merely criticizing our youth-obsessed popular culture. No argument there. But it’s quite another matter to dismiss so confid- ently the portion of our lives in which our physical powers were at their greatest, our earning power was at its highest, we bore and raised children, and soon. Hollis seems intent on wiping out the imperatives of biology, economics, But no, says Hollis, a Jungian analyst and author of Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life: How to Finally, Really Grow Up (Gotham Books, 2005). What he means is that once we reach middle age, our life’s mission necessarily changes. Sure, the first 50 or so years were well-intentioned, maybe even productive. But psycholog-ically and spiritually they missed the boat.
According to Hollis, we may believe choices made in our early years were made freely, but we were just learning to fit in, to find a place for ourselves in the world. Our roles, as children, employees, lovers, even parents, defined us. Often our true selves got lost in the process.
“From the time we were sent off to nursery school to the time we wanted to get into the right college or profession or be accepted by our partners, we had to cut off that which didn’t fit the picture of success,” explains Jean Shinoda Bolen, M.D., a fellow Jungian analyst and the author of Goddesses in Older Women (Harper- Collins, 2001) and Urgent Message From Mother: Gather the Women, Save the World (Conan Press, 2005). She compares this early-life dilemma to spending a night in the Procrustean bed of Greek mythology. “On the way to Athens, you’d have to pass Procrustes and his bed. Whatever part of you didn’t fit on the bed he’d cut off, and if you were too short for the bed, he stretched you until you fit.”
At midlife, we face an important crossroad. We can continue along pathways established for us by others, or we can really grow up, breaking free of the past, and become true individuals. “As a culture, we have really ignored the second half of life,” Hollis says. “But, if we have served the functions of nature and society in the first half, we then have the obligation to ask ourselves, Why are we still here? Who am I apart from my history, apart from the roles I have played? Who is this person really?”
Such questions may have been pointless as recently as a century ago, when the average life soan for Americans was 47. Today most of us can cxpcct to live 30 or 40, or even 50 years beyond that. To what good this can we put----- these bonus years?
In searching for answers, Hollis, Bolen and an incrcasing number of their col-leagues arc turning to the work of C. U. Jung, who in the early years of the 20th century became the first psychologist to map a comprehensive thcory of the stages of life. Unlike Freud, whose theories primarily addressed early development, Jung was chiefly interested in later life, a time he believed should be devoted to “individuation,” or becoming the person one was meant to be. Whoever fails to adapt to this new direction, Jung wrote, “must pay with damage to his soul.”
Unfortunately, there is no blueprint for this process. And, like it or not, we arc thus thrust into change by ordinary midlife disturbances. This is the period when our carefully crafted identity is gradually stripped away: children depart, a spouse divorces us or passes away, a career comes to an end.
Midlife crisis may first appear as a sense of ennui or boredom, then may escalate to interrupted sleep, troubling dreams, depression, anxiety, and even addictions and other self-destructive behaviors. In effect, the inner you is starting to ask: I have done the expected things according to my best understanding of myself and the world, so why does my life not feel right? The following principles gleaned from Hollis, Bolen, and other contemporary Jungians may help answer your questions and guide your voyage of self-discovery.
Get down to basics.
A natural aspect of aging is the desire to downsize or simplify one’s life. “We become less interested in amassing material objects and more interested in stripping down so that we can be freer for psychological and spiritual growth,” says Jacquelyn Mattfeld, Ph.D., executive director of the C. U. Jung Center in Evanston, Illinois.
In a parallel process, we may also winnow down the number of people in our lives. “We want to invest our emotional energy in a few close, important relationships and don’t really care much about doing a lot of socializing.”says Mattfield.
Become true character.
James Hillman, a Jungian psychologist and author, believes that the later years are expressly for the fulfillment of character. By character, he does not mean becoming a paragon of moral rectitude or some idealized wise being. The character he sees emerging with ever greater force and clarity as we age is closer to what people have in mind when they say of someone, “He’s quite a character.” It has to do with the essential, unique, even eccentric qualities that are etched in our souls from birth. Our character is revealed in our aging faces and creates an image—”our unique way of being and doing,” Hillman writes in his book The Force of Character and the Lasting Life (Ballantine Books, 1999)—that will last in the minds of others long after we are gone.
It’s common to feel an increased need for spiritual connection at 50-plus. Many find it by devoting time to meditation or prayer, or both. Spirituality in the second half of life becomes a more personal experience than it was in the first half, Bolen says, “combining what you have been told in church with what you know in your bones.”
To make thc most of the psychological growth that is possible in the second half of life, many find it helpful to mcet on a regular basis with a group of like—minded friends. “Forming a circle will allow you to hear your own thoughts, listen to your dreams, grieve for what you didn’t have time to grieve for in the past, and try to come to terms with the meaning of your life,” says Bolen.
She suggests that women in particular need the support of a group to take up their late-life journeys, since women are inure at risk of disapproval when they head off in new directions. This disapproval often comes from the veiy ones who love them most, such as partners and children, who may he counting on them to stay precisely the way they had always been. Bolen’s own women s circle has met twice a month for the past 19 years.
Scan the horizon.
When you're good and ready, take some time to meditate on the finite nature of your existence. “You have to flash forward and look at your tombstone and ask yourself, Is this really how I want to be living?” says Holhis. Bolen adds that contemplating the end of life “opens up this mystical, creative place. The key to making good use of the second half of life is realizing that it’s going to pass quickly. You don’t have all the time in the world.”
What we naturally seek in the second half of life is another; more authentic way to be alive, says Hollis. Think of it as the process of becoming, through the exper-ience of life’s long arc, the person one was always meant to be.
Susan Roberts is a psychotherapist and
school counselor in Washington, D.C.
Sept./Oct. 2005. (Pgs. 38.41)
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