An Indian man feeds pigeons during his morning walk at Girgaon Chowpatty beach in Mumbai on Feb. 14, 2019. (Photo: AFP)
Depth psychology divides life into two halves: the first devoted to getting established in the world and the second to finding a larger meaning for all that effort.
If the dominant theme of youth is potential, where everything is an adventure, in middle age it is reality, tinged with a sense of irony.
In middle age, childhood fantasies are past, but the nostalgia of old age has not yet set in. In middle age, the focus is on coming to terms with the finite resources of the here and now.
Most of us reach our mid-life through a long, gentle process. In this, we rely more on brains and skill than on brawn and beauty, and we increasingly value long-term friendships over imaginary ecstasies.
The middle-aged person doesn’t ask, what happened to all those wild dreams I had? But instead, how has experience changed my thinking?
To do this, it is important to become aware of those ‘psychological turning points’ which take place in everyone’s life.
Some of these are sudden and traumatic — like the sudden death of a spouse which leaves one bereft and empty, or the incidence of cancer or heart disease, or a crippling accident that robs one of all certainty.
Occasionally larger misfortunes, like a fire, an earthquake, or communal violence, may also disturb the even tenor of our lives, and summon all our spiritual resources for survival.
But usually, life’s turning points are gradual and developmental. And more often than not, we don’t notice them until they have passed.
A ‘turning point’ orients us in a new direction, and gently nudges us from one level to another in spite of the understandable urge to stay rooted in the past.
Every transition is accompanied by a sense of loss, and our initial response is always to repress, deny and wish away the sense of defeat.
The psychologist Carl Jung divided life into two halves: the first devoted to forming the ego and getting established in the world, and the second to find a larger meaning for all that effort.
For Jung, the second half was undoubtedly the more important — how men and women search for meaning, especially when the cultural boundaries of meaning have changed.
To have reached a ‘turning point’ therefore may become the signal to develop new dimensions, and Jung would say that then one is ripe for a transformation.
Middle age is when we open ourselves to such transformation.
‘Find your space’
Therefore a key phrase for midlife is, find your space.
Traditionally, “space” was the home, the workplace. Custom and law worked together to shield such space from change. Home was a castle, and the workplace offered a man security till the end of his life.
Today with change being the only constant, we realize the inadequacy of such definitions!
If, as Jung suggested, the key to middle age is the quest for meaning, then the space given to prayer assumes great importance in our personal transformation.
Prayer, of course, is many things, but at its root, it is the relationship we have with God and through God with everything else.
Prayer initiates us into the mysteries of “complexity” — how to be involved in the world and yet remain silent and waiting on God. In this, the value of meditation, or ‘deep focus;’ the place of contemplation and the sanctification of the fantasy; intercessory prayer and its power to uplift the world; praise and thanksgiving as setting the tone for a happy day — in all this, prayer is vital to a meaningful midlife.
‘Find your pace’
Find your space, yes; but also find your pace.
You may not be able to run the four-minute mile, but can you walk five kilometers a day?
In middle age, the pace is slower, more integrated into one’s natural rhythm, without pressures from without. One characteristic of this is taking up a hobby.
A hobby, by definition, is a creative outlet that one engages in for the sheer joy of it. Hobbies have no commercial value, or at least this is not their main purpose. Hobbies bring no fame or popularity. They exist only to provide enjoyment, and in doing so they re-create the person.
In our constant search for meaning, hobbies reveal that even trivial pursuits have their place, and so enrich the soul.
A time of compassion and wisdom
At some point in middle age, we discover that we’re more tolerant of the uncertain, the complex, and the impossible. We’re no longer looking for an instant solution. We’re more interested in how our solutions affect others. We grow in compassion for the world.
Along with being good at figuring out what to do in real-life situations, the middle-ager is also skilled in advising others, sharing wisdom, and becoming a mentor.
Concern for others is one of the hallmarks of wisdom. It may well be that caring about people is the capstone of the process of living.
After all, middle age — like the Middle East or the middle class — is a cultural artifact. It’s our culture’s way of labeling anyone who is ‘thirty-something’ or ‘forty plus,’ and therefore has much to do with trafficking in stereotypes.
Not unsurprisingly then, those who have reached their middle years find themselves quite different from what they were led to believe.
Finding meaning in their lives becomes the best inoculation against the midlife crises they were led to expect.
For this is what middle age is after all — not a time of crisis, nor a time of slack, but an autumnal season meant to harvest the fruits and to taste and enjoy what was sown in spring and sunshine.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.