Midlife Counseling
Navigating the Middle Passage

"Forty is the old age of youth;
fifty, the youth of old age."

--Victor Hugo


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Midlife Crisis (from Random House Dictionary of the English Language): "A period of psychological stress (depression & anxiety) occurring in middle age, thought to be triggered by a physical, occupational, or domestic event, as menopause, diminution of physical prowess, job loss or departure of children from the home."

That certainly doesn't sound too promising! Of course, Random House might not approve of my definition either: "An adjustment period during the middle years, for the purpose of bringing the personality back to a humble, dignified, balanced relationship with the universe."

Why do so many go through so much disruption in their middle years? What is the meaning of such an experience? Seven hundred years ago in The Divine Comedy, Dante described the crisis of middle age as a descent through nine layers of hell! Most of us who have ever experienced it will agree.

In the first half of life, we usually identify ourselves according to our roles, such as spouse, parent, social class, or career title. We fall into the narrow trap of thinking we ARE that role. We make assumptions about how things work and how things ought to be. We develop strategies for getting things done.

Jungian author James Hollis writes, "The middle crisis, which I prefer to call the Middle Passage, presents us with an opportunity to re-examine our lives and to ask the sometimes frightening, always liberating question: 'Who am I apart from my history and the roles I have played?'" These sound like gentle questions, but we usually enter the Passage through intense disorientation and frustration. Nothing seems to work any more.

By the time we reach our mid-thirties, most of us have suffered ample amounts of disappointment, disillusionment, and heartache. We've usually witnessed the collapse of many of our hopes, projections, and expectations, and we've discovered some humbling limits to our talent, intelligence, and even courage. Escorted by such betrayal, failure, abandonment, and loss of meaning, we make our way to the door of the midlife passage.

Hollis says, "The Middle Passage begins when we find we are operating out of old attitudes and strategies that are no longer effective. It is an occasion for redefining and reorienting the personality, a rite of passage between the extended adolescence of first adulthood and our inevitable appointment with old age and mortality."

Could this fated collision be an opportunity for the birth of a new self from the ashes of the old? Only when our midlife suffering helps us discover that we have been living a false self, can we open the possibility for a more honest, second adulthood. Often, for the first time at mid-life, we have our first chance to get real!

Yet, midstream in the process, we may only feel the pain of losing our old self and be totally unaware of the new, true self being born. Especially, considering our culture's youth-oriented fanaticism, most of us don't even know the middle passage exists, much less how to navigate through it (Robert Johnson has observed that we provide ourselves with no meaningful ritual between getting our driving license at age 16 and retiring at age 65)!

If we do not travel the Middle Passage consciously, we remain prisoners of childhood, no matter how successful we may appear in outer life. If we can move through it consciously, our life finds new meaning. Our relations with others become less dependent. We come to ask less of them and more of ourselves. We acknowledge that their primary responsibility, just like ours, is their own journey.

Leaving the Middle Passage, we approach old age, newly equipped with the realization that it matters less and less what happens on the outside, as long as we have a vital connection with our inner self.

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