“The worst of it all is that intelligent and cultivated people live their lives without even knowing of the possibility of such transformations. Thoroughly unprepared we take the step into the afternoon of life; worse still, we take this step with false assumption that our truths and ideals will serve us hitherto. But we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the programme of life’s morning; for what was great in the morning will be little at evening and what in the morning was true will at the evening have become a lie”. (Jung 1970)
A mid-life crisis, transition or transformation is usually experienced around the age of 40 plus or minus 20 years. One of the first to write on the subject was the psychologist Carl Jung (O’Connor 1981) who struggled in his own mid-life and came up with the term individuation – the path towards wholeness, the journey to the Self at the core of one’s being and is felt to be a normal part of the maturing process. Not all people experience this transition but for some, a midlife crisis is very apparent and can be an uncomfortable time emotionally which may lead to significant psychological upheaval. Those who struggle with this transitional stage might experience a range of feelings such as:
- Unhappiness with life and the lifestyle that may have provided them with happiness for many years.
- Boredom with people and things that may have been of interest to them before.
- Feeling a need for adventure and change.
- Questioning the choices, they have made in their lives and the validity of decisions they made years before.
- Confusion about who they are and where they are going.
- Anger at their spouse and blaming them for feeling tied down.
- Unable to make decisions about where they want to go with their life.
- Doubt that they ever loved their spouse and resentment over the marriage.
- A desire for a new and passionate, intimate relationship.
It is common to see external factors acting as a catalyst and driver for change. Such events might include debt, loss of a loved one, breakup of a relationship, loss of a job or children leaving home with loss of role for the child carer. Woman also endure a midlife transition – perhaps even more so because of hormonal changes. Some differences between the male and female mid-life transition include:
- Men are afraid of the changes that come with ageing, their loss of virility and masculinity.
- Men are afraid of becoming less attractive to the opposite sex.
- Men are afraid of not attaining goals they have set for themselves.
- Men have many fixed stereotypes
- Men are less able to express themselves emotionally
- Women reach a certain age and find they finally have the opportunity to do all the things in life they have put off doing while caring for a family.
- Mid-life financial security provides woman the opportunity to explore all those things she has delayed.
- Women go through menopause, which means both biological and psychological changes.
So, while many midlife women are yearning to be free whilst their male counterparts are lamenting “I just want to find me”. The term “Midlife crisis” is still much maligned and derided in mainstream culture. The less compassionate feel it is used as an excuse for middle aged men to purchase a fast red sports car, ditch their careers and elope with a woman young enough to be their daughter.
My own experience of transitioning the middle passage has been one of intense soul searching, enduring deep grief with my own Dark Night of the Soul, disintegration of my false-self, infatuation with my anima/soul mate and finally the beginning of integration into a more conscious and integrated true-self (Winnicottt 1965).
“The middle passage is an occasion for redefining and reorientating the personality, a rite of passage between the extended adolescence and our inevitable appointment with old age and mortality. Those who travel the passage consciously render their lives more meaningfully. Those who do not, remain prisoners of childhood, however successful they may appear in outer life.” Hollis (1993)
Many authors have also written about contemporary men’s issues (Biddolph 2004, Bly 1991, Conway 1997, Keen 1992, Lee 1998, Vilar 2008). A common theme is the role or lack of, absent fathers in early life and the vanishing of men’s rites of passages since industrialisation in the West all leads to men struggling with feelings and not having the capacity to talk about their emotions. Further confusion has emanated with the rise of feminism. It is no longer considered politically correct for men to talk about their masculinity and the more dynamic active qualities that is the contra to the passive receptive feminine qualities (Hill 1992).
When the opportunity to awaken is presented in mid-life, the response is more often met with distractions (work, hobbies, fast cars) and/or acting out though addictions (substance abuse, sex, gambling). Roberts (1998) claims that men who have the rare opportunity in finding themselves in a caring group of brothers and who share myths and rituals that dramatise the classic issues of mid-life can benefit deeply. They learn and appreciate the answers do not lie externally in distractions. The answers have to be sought from within. It requires soul work. Soul work is slow, painful and takes courage. Not all men are up for the task.
The dawn of the middle passage
The middle passage is a modern concept. Until a few generations ago, life expectancy was little beyond what we now consider to be the commencement of mid-life, around 40-50 years old. But its not just increasing life spans that allows for contemplation in this part of life – increased living standards and accumulated wealth means that for an increasing number, the lower levels of the personal hierarchy of needs (Maslow 1943) are satiated, allowing progress towards what appears to be an innate human drive for self-actualisation.
Given the average male in the West now lives into their late 70’s, we can see how the ego goes through various phases of maturation that extend far beyond the early stages of life and into adolescence. Ancient cultures had their myths, rituals and wise elders to guide others through not only the initiation from boyhood into manhood but also other phases of difficulty. In our Western egoic patriarchal culture, we have lost these Rites of Passage or they have become diluted to fit in with modern standards and norms.
With the dawning of the middle years we have the realisation that we have less years ahead of us than are behind us. Our physical vitality starts declining and our biological drives of procreation, family raising and providing has by and large completed. We have a dawning of what next? Existential questions such as meaning and purpose (Yallom 1980) may start to invade our minds, we develop a restlessness for change, to find something more than just being on the hamster wheel of working until we are 65 and then retiring to an uncertain future with a finite lifespan.
And yet, within this tumultuous transition, our egos are defending against these life changes and it compensates by grandiosity. This delusion of greatness keeps at bay our darkness, we resist looking into our shadow. The ego also yearns for the perfect relationship. It hangs onto the early fairy tales and archetypes of “if only I could find the ideal partner, my life would be perfect”. As we enter midlife, we start appreciating relationships are difficult and few if any couples have the perfect relationship and yet we delude ourselves into thinking we are different and we can find our “magical other”. And so comes along another realisation of the middle passage: that intimate relationships have their limitations, that no one other person can meet all our needs. We project all our wants and desires onto our partners and with time we appreciate they do likewise and they too are full of vulnerabilities and fears.
And so midlife is a time when inordinate pressures are placed on marriages and many do not last the course. We are projecting our unconscious childhood needs on the other and these grandiose desires rarely can be met, leaving us feeling abandoned, rejected and betrayed. We project what is unclaimed or unknown within us. Life erodes these projections and we start appreciating we have to be accountable for this and we are the only ones that are responsible for our own contentment.
About Jungian Archetypes
Jung believed that archetypes are models of people, behaviours or personalities. He suggested that the psyche was composed of three components: the ego, the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious. According to Jung, the ego represents the conscious mind while the personal unconscious contains memories, including those that have been suppressed. The collective unconscious is a unique component in that Jung believed that this part of the psyche served as a form of psychological inheritance. It contains all of the knowledge and experiences we share as a species.
The collective unconscious, Jung believed, was where these archetypes exist. He suggested that these models are innate, universal and hereditary. Archetypes are unlearned innate experiences that function to organize how we experience certain things and to help translate sensations into a visible reality from the external world to within us. Jung identified four major archetypes, but also believed that there was no limit to the number that may exist. These four are the self, the shadow, the anima or animus and the persona.
The self is an archetype that represents the unification of the unconsciousness and consciousness of an individual. The creation of the self occurs through a process known as individuation, in which the various aspects of personality are integrated. Transitioning the middle passage is one way of undergoing this process of individuation.
The shadow is an archetype that consists of the sex and life instincts. The shadow exists as part of the unconscious mind and is composed of repressed ideas, weaknesses, desires, instincts and shortcomings. This archetype is often described as the darker side of the psyche, representing wildness, chaos and the unknown. These latent dispositions are present in all of us, Jung believed, although many people remain unconscious of this aspect of their own psyche and instead project it onto others.
The anima is a feminine image in the male psyche and the animus is a male image in the female psyche. The anima/animus represents the “true self” rather than the image we present to others and serves as the primary source of communication with the collective unconscious.
The persona is how we present ourselves to the world. The word “persona” is derived from a Latin word that means “mask.” It is not a literal mask, however. The persona represents all of the different social masks that we wear among different groups and situations. It acts to shield the ego from negative images.
The middle passage and awakening the soul
Roberts (1998) describes the transition to greater consciousness in the middle passage as only being obtainable by addressing what he calls the four soul tasks:
- Breakdown of the persona – the superficial identity we develop in the first half of our lives
- The encounter with the shadow – the dangerous side of our personality we have learned to avoid
- The encounter with the soul-mate / anima – the contra-sexual aspects of our personality
- The dialogue with the self.
Stein (1983) formulated three main features of the midlife crisis in order to transform and for a passage to deepen self-awareness.
- A crisis that cuts the person off from the known ways in which they controls their thinking, feeling and acting. He calls this first transition separation. What needs to be separated from in the first phase of the midlife transition is an earlier identity, the persona. We want freedom. We cry for depth and meaning. The ego needs to let go of this attachment before it can be encouraged into the second transition.
- Entering liminal space. ‘Liminality’ means what is “at the threshold”. To go through liminality, the person needs to ‘find the corpse’ and then to bury it – to identify the source of pain and then to put the past to rest by grieving, mourning and burying it. But the nature of the loss needs to be understood and worked through before a person can move on.
- The third transition according to Stein, called reinstatement, is the return to life with changed consciousness. This may be the most difficult part of the task because in the face of denial, it is difficult to stay true to what is known inside. As Au (1990) so eloquently puts it, “healthy self-acceptance cannot be based on denial or projection. Maturity will elude us as long as we try to disown unattractive parts of ourselves and project them onto others. Maturity comes when we stop blaming God for making us the way we are.”
Are male rites of passage experiences needed as part of transitioning the middle passage?
Roberts (1998) argues that the mid life has such potential for major transformation is that anything less than a Rite of Passage can’t realise that potential. That shift is so great that we need help to accomplish it. And the best type of help is a Rite of Passage. All old and traditional cultures that are still in touch with deep human wisdom, have Rites of Passage to assist in moving from one stage of life to another – birth, marriage, death – plus the passage from childhood to adulthood. Some cultures also have a Rite of Passage, generally just for men, to assist them to become elders – the wise, accomplished leaders of the tribe. A Rite of Passage classic purpose is “to impart entry level knowledge of the techniques and mysteries” of the next stage of life.
It does that by having a set structure. Rites of Passage generally have three elements – they begin with a Rite of Separation; then there is the transitional time when important information and wisdom are imparted; they then conclude with a dramatic Rite of Incorporation. Modern men’s rites of passages emulate this journey; an example being the ManKind Project’s Warrior Adventure training that is based around Robert Bly’s Iron John.
“The great disappointment of modern masculinity is that there are so few mature, wise men to show us the way. Most men can admit they did not get enough fathering; many feel that they grew from boy to man without much guidance. The ManKind Project cannot replace these missing elders but it can empower men to father themselves and, in time, become themselves the elders and fathers of the future. Together, we can positively change the future for other boys and young men. Together, we can positively change the way girls and women are impacted by boys and men. Together, we can play our part in creating a future that we can feel proud of. The Adventure is a modern male initiation and self-examination. We believe that this is crucial to the development of a healthy and mature male self, no matter how old a man is. It is the “hero’s journey” of classical literature and myth that has nearly disappeared in modern culture. We ask men to stop living vicariously through movies, television, addictions and distractions and step up into their own adventure – in real time and surrounded by other men.”
In addition to the structure, the content is punctuated with rituals. Men can’t just talk their way through these transitions. They must do something. This is particularly important for men. Women have something that helps them with their major transitions – they have first menstruation to mark the passage to womanhood and they have menopause to mark the passage to the second half of adulthood. Women learn naturally about the seasons of life. Men don’t have that advantage. There has to be some way for men to experience the changes of life, to embody the changes of life.