By today’s sociological standards midlife ranges between approximately 40 to 60 years of age. Initially, it might announce itself with the question, "Is this it? Is this all there is?" We might feel a vague sense of stagnation, at a loss for how to go forward. By the time we reach the midpoint of our lives, imperceptibly, something may have changed deep within us, as if our personal atmosphere flattened in tone, became somewhat gray and indistinct. Our days and weeks may seem to run together, merging into dull normalcy. In the background of our lives we might feel a vague sense of disenchantment, as we yearn for something more.
By the time we reach the midpoint of our lives, imperceptibly, something may have changed deep within us, as if our personal atmosphere flattened in tone, became somewhat gray and indistinct. Our days and weeks may seem to run together, merging into dull normalcy. In the background of our lives we might feel a vague sense of disenchantment, as we yearn for something more.
In our invincible youth we set sail on a journey towards an horizon of endless possibilities. Somewhere at midlife the shocking truth dawns on us that our brightly colored sailboat will never return to shore. Instead of moves towards a finite horizon. At the midpoint of our lives we may become acutely aware that time is running out.
The recognition of our necessary mortality is radical. It can strike a chord of terror within us but it also contains a hidden jewel. With the realization of impermanence everything becomes very real and vivid. We become acutely aware of our lifelong habitual patterns that have served, but also limited us. We are confronted with the life's painful contradictions and ambiguities, and any inflated sense of self that we have carried since adolescence gets deflated. But we may now be more willing to reconcile ourselves with such truths, as we recognize that there are no more dress rehearsals. This is it.
Over the years we may have lost the sense of a meaningful destination, a purpose-driven life. Instead, we may find ourselves just getting through another week, just surviving. We dutifully get up, attend to our kids and our morning rituals, put on our uniforms and manage to get to work and die a little every day. The result, all too frequently, is that we suffer symptoms of undiagnosed depression and/or anxiety.
Our idealized images of ourselves as heroes and heroines of our personal dreams collide with the limiting reality of our actual lives. Midlife can be a time of painful deflation when the circumstances of our life drop us into a more grounded perspective of who and what we are. Due to the radical challenges of our children growing up, or the absence of children in our lives, our parents' health declining, our own bodies growing out, and perhaps our jobs and marriages needing redefinition, our predictable world frequently gets jolted. We've lived to an age where it is not uncommon to hear that our friends and extended family are getting diagnosed with life threatening illnesses, or dying. Such natural events are deeply disturbing and can feel like a violation of trust, a betrayal of the unspoken contract we made with life or God. We could feel that, “it wasn't supposed to be like this”, or “I didn't think that I would be alone at 48 years old without a spouse or kids”, or “I was supposed to get breast cancer”.
By the time we get to the midpoint of our lives we carry many wounds that may not have been healed. Such wounds are deeply disturbing, reminding us of our own fragility. Our image of ourselves may be challenged with every bodily alteration, every change of condition or capacity. We may have to reevaluate our most intimate relationships with our spouses and our friends, reevaluate our commitments to various projects, and question whether our work is meaningful or alienating. We might come to the realization that it’s time to take the next step on our journey, but this realization is often denied.
Yet we are not so quick to upset the predictable and familiar order of things. The challenge of genuine change both thrills us and fills us with doubt and insecurity. "Do I leave my husband?" "Should we join the peace corps and live abroad?" “Perhaps I should go back to school, get retooled and create a more meaningful career for myself.“ It feels awkward to emerge nakedly from our strenuously created 'cocoon', our web of habitual patterns. Most of us live our lives based on the program of the first half of life and don’t trust that we can survive without the familiar social roles and scripts.
In nature a cocoon is a second womb. It provides a holding container allowing the miraculous transformation of the caterpillar into a butterfly. This is a stunning image of death and rebirth. The cocoon serves as both nurturer and protector of the fragile transmuting caterpillar. But as the process of transmutation nears its end, the newly emergent butterfly separates from its cocoon, spreads its wings and flies towards it's second life. Were the evolving caterpillar-butterfly to cling to its cocoon because of a need for safety and security, it's “holding container” would become a tomb rather than a womb, suffocating the dream of flight rather than nurturing it.
This may be an apt metaphor for many of us either at the threshold of midlife, or somewhere in the second half of our lives. It has taken a lifetime to develop the infrastructure of our life: our marriage, our kids, our house, our job, the community of friends and the various organizations to which we belong. We’re irresistibly drawn to re-create the ‘nested’ condition of safety, security and comfort through our spouses, children, work, our extended family and community of friends. For most of us this takes the form of a predictably patterned lifestyle— a cocoon, so to speak.
If our second half of life journey is going to be an actual passage then we need to gradually let go of our old worn out stories so that a larger and more complex story could be born. In wounding, the psyche is opened up and we are dropped into our depths. Yet, it is the pain of wounding that is the impetus to leave our cocoon. If we think of our lives as an evolving journey than the symptoms of stagnation, ambivalence, and dissatisfaction may be midlife's wake up call to step beyond the comfort of our predictable patterns. If we can learn to honor the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful about ourselves, a deeper and richer personal narrative becomes possible. This is what makes our midlife wounds sacred. We are being provoked to open to the largest possible conversation we can have with our life.
If we refuse to update our “story” we tend to repeat the same patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior again and again, spinning these habitual patterns indefinitely. This is what neurosis is about. As long as we stay within the boundaries of our cocoon we feel a sense of normalcy, safety, security, and certainty. When we step beyond these boundaries such experiences can't be both thrilling and threatening, as if walking into foreign territory. This is the invitation to the larger story.
Our unlived life lies on the other side of the cocoon. It wants our participation so that we can continue our human journey beyond the limitations of our cocoon. This is what allows us to be healed and to be whole. In order to meet the remainder of our lives, it’s often necessary to wade through uncharted waters. Even though we can not see what lies ahead, paradoxically, it’s our wounds that guide us for how to step deeper into our lives, while moving forward on our path.