Listening To Midlife, by Mark Gerzon

“We yearn to live our unlived lives.”

Listening to midlife

Listening To Midlife, by Mark Gerzon

“Midlife crisis” is a topic of relevance for most of us, at some point in our lives. For some, it comes in the mid-thirties, while for others it may come in the forties, or even fifties. In Listening to Midlife, Mark Gerzon does an outstanding job of describing this important transformational period that most people in modern society go through.

According to Gerzon, life has two halves, and the sooner we acknowledge this, the more prepared we can be to deal with it. Else, it will be an inevitable struggle with undesirable consequences.

Our quest is waiting for us – but only if we listen to these quest-ions. If we ignore our questions and act as if we are still in life´s first half, we do so at our own peril. Whoever pretends that the second half of life is no different from the first, wrote Jung, “must pay with damage to his soul”. If you don´t find the time, the time will find you. Whether you begin your midlife quest on purpose with your eyes open, or against your will with your eyes shut tight, it will one day begin.

The Search For Wholeness

Gerzon claims that we all yearn for wholeness, so in the second half of our lives we will unavoidably seek to live those things that we have not lived in the first half.

As we age, we human beings yearn for wholeness. We yearn for the parts of ourselves that have been in the dark to find sunlight, and those that were sunburned to find shade. We yearn for the parts that have been underdeveloped to grow, and those that were overdeveloped to be pruned. We yearn for the parts that have been silent to speak, and those that were nosy to be still. We yearn for the parts that have been alone to find companionship, and those that have been overcrowded to find solitude. We yearn to live our unlived lives.

It is important, therefore, to identify elements and experiences in our lives that truly make us whole.

What we share, I believe, is this quest for wholeness. Have you ever heard of anyone upon their deathbed who said: “If only I had specialized more narrowly in my field”? Have you ever heard of a last will and testament in which deceased said they wished they had not made love such a high priority; that they had not spent so much time with their children; or that they had not taken such good care of their health? Have you ever heard reports of wise elders who, looking back upon their lives, said they wished they had spent more time in the office; paid more attention to other people´s expectations of them; or been more cautious in exploring new parts of themselves?

Manifestations Of The Crisis

Sometimes, midlife shows up in the form of a crisis, where the life we lived no longer seems to make much sense and we end up questioning some of our deeply held assumptions.

Now suddenly the structure of our lives does not fit us, but we don´t know why. Bargains we made, both professional and personal, may suddenly seem unfair. Relationships we chose may suddenly seem unfulfilling. Signs of aging in our faces suddenly seem prominent. A car, home, or community that once brought pleasure may now seem utterly inadequate. A life-style that seemed satisfying, or at least bearable, now grates on our nerves and becomes increasingly intolerable. Goals that seemed so clear may now become complex or blurred. Rewards that before seemed destined to bring pleasure now seem empty, not even worth the effort. A life-span that only yesterday seemed long now seems inexplicably abbreviated.

The triggers, of course, may be different for different people. For most of us, there is at least one area in our lives that is not completely fulfilling, or where we feel trapped.

For some, the jail cell is marriage. They feel they must escape from the deadly limitations of their domestic life. For others, it is their job. They feel suffocated, almost incarcerated, by their employment and harbor desperate fantasies of freeing themselves from the Alcatraz of their office. For still others, it may be a physical addiction or psychological obsession, an invisible set of steel bars that prevents them from becoming a free man or woman. In some cases, the prison may be the body itself and the experience of being overweight, ill, in pain, or simply unattractive. 

Whatever may be the trigger, the breakthrough will come only after we acknowledge and accept the existence of it. The next step would be to ask questions, and seek answers. It may not always be a simple, linear process.

This is the kind of breakthrough that is possible when the quest begins. For some, the breakthrough may be physical, a deep healing within the body. For others, it may be in a relationship, a deepening of intimacy with their mate or lover. For still others, the breakthrough may be professional, leading to the discovery of a true calling that draws forth their hidden gifts and talents.

The quest manifests in different forms, with different strength and at different times for different people. According to Gerzon, the quest does not move through “clock time”.

You may be only thirty and already deeply engaged in the quest; or you may be fifty and still resisting it. This is because your chronological age is based on clock time; the quest moves through soul time. In this “times zone”, which many of us encounter for the first time only in the second half, getting old turns out to have less to do with calendars than with fear; less to do with wrinkles than with truth; and less to do with death itself than with the deepest dimensions of life.  

Also, like everything else, the nature of the quest may also be different for different people. In that sense, each individual charts his/her own unique journey with equally unique outcomes.

For some, the quest begins gently, like a sea breeze through the palms. But for others, it hits like a hurricane. If this happens to you, you will not know what hit you until you have been swept away. If you have experienced your life primarily through words, then on your quest words will fail you. If your life seemed under your control, it will now seem uncontrollable. If you have been passionate, you will now lose your passion; if passionless, you will find it. If you have been strong, your weakness will overwhelm you; if weak, your strength will grip you. If you have been inactive, you will become energetic; if energetic, you will be tired. If you have been deeply intimate, you will encounter loneliness; if lonely, you will discover intimacy. If you have loved your parents, you will encounter your anger; if you have hated them, you will seek for their forgiveness and love.

Personal Relationships

Midlife crisis is often associated with disappointment and loss of passion in personal relationships. But we can choose to see the crisis as the end of something, or as an opportunity for growth and a new beginning.

One four-letter word -love- now becomes coupled with another: pain. The personwith whom we unpackgroceries and coordinate work and child-care schedules no longer seems to be the person with whom we once frolicked in the grass or kissed in the moonlight. To cope with this unexpected problem, we want them to change (or change back). We feel our mate has let us down or broken their promise (or they feel we have). The joy and ecstasy have diminished, if not disappeared. Sometimes we actually feel betrayed.

But there is another alternative. We can decide to make our marriage part of our quest. This does not mean that we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that we will remain together forever. What it does mean is that we will consider our wedding a beginning, not an end. As one longtime married couple put it: “A wedding is not a marriage. A wedding is only the beginning of an undertaking that may or may not, someday, develop into a marriage.”

Professional Life

Midlife crisis typically affects our work life too.

In the second half, it is common to experience feelings of dissatisfaction, alienation, and emptiness in our work. We feel inexplicably lost or, more precisely, abandoned. Abandonmentmeans literally “to be uncalled,” “to be without destiny.”

(…) Douglas LeBier concluded that most of them had lost their identity in their career. Indeed, for some people, identity and job were so enmeshed that LaBier found, “They are almost equivalent.” Unfortunately, this is not a conscious, purposeful expression of oneself through work but rather a subordination of the self to its demands.

 Idealists – usually with a spiritual orientation, or a relatively high income, or both – encourage us to find our calling without regard for any reward to be gained or any fame to be acquired. Only when we have freed ourselves from outer influences of all such outer considerations, according to the idealists, can we hear the inner voice that tells us clearly what to do. Practically speaking, however, freedom from such external pressure is hard to obtain in the second half of life. We have responsibilities that cannot be so easily thrown off. So we have to find a way of hearing our inner voice while still in the fray.

Nevertheless, the idealists have a point. If our voice is drowned out by the siren of reward or fame or by the overpowering drumbeat of raw ambition, our true calling will elude us. This is why the second half is so crucial – the siren and the drumbeat may have stilled, allowing the inner voice at last to be heard.

But also in our professional life we can choose to see the crisis as an opportunity. According to Gerzon, changing jobs is not necessarily the only solution.

(…)  Whether to remain in one´s old job or switch to a new one is secondary, because it is possible to find a new voice within the same job description. An editor at a major New York publishing company, for example, found in her early thirties that she was feeling the need to express a different side of herself – one more connected to the community around her. The spark inside her was lit when she learned that thousands of books were destroyed by companies like hers simply because warehouses were overstocked. Yet the public schools were so underfunded that many schoolchildren rarely had a book to call their own. She proposed a program that, if implemented by the mayor´s office, would assure that these surplus books would not be tossed into the incinerator but instead given to New York City´s book-starved schools.

Gerzon stresses the importance of perseverance and maturity when facing our career choices.

Perseverance and continuity are vital; without them, “change” and “growth” are nothing more tan polite misnomers for narcissism and escape. 

So let us nor portray those who embark on career change as either heroes or villains. There is no single right answer. 

Who would not want to be praised for “persevering” and “hanging in there” rather tan “bailing out” or, even worse, “chickening out”? This is what makes letting go of the old so hard: The new is not yet in place. This is where the risk is greatest, and the reward most elusive. But our calling will elude us until we let go and jump.

Definition Of Success

Often times, when we enter the second half of our life we realize that what we considered success was only illusory or partial; that we have confused success with achievement, and we find that it does not fulfill us.

In The Heroine´s Journey, Maureen Murdock calls experiences such as Jan´s and Donald´s early career achievements the “illusory boon of success.” Whatever form this success may take -an academic degree, a promotion, a spouse and children and home- it makes us think that we are on the road to achieving goals. 

But then, the bottom falls out. We discover that our success is illusory.  

(…) when, as Ram Dass describes it, “you can no longer justify your existence with achievements… When you think you have won and find that you really haven´t won anything, you start to experience the dark night of the soul.” We realize that we were successful in only one dimension of our lives. But in another dimension, we are still waiting to be born. To understand this dimension, we need another image of success.

Final Advice

Gerzon provides some good recommendations on how to approach our own crisis. Ultimately, the answer is within us and it is up to us to see the crisis as a threat or face it as an opportunity for personal development and growth.

(…) happiness also depends on your own attitudes -on what you bring to the world. For most of us, what´s missing is not something outside us, but ourselves- our own sense of being, our souls. That´s what gives our life balance, a center.

To help you find your center, where your calling will continue to unfold, remember to check the dial on your radio. How long has it been since you´ve listened to your own station rather than somebody else´s? How long has it been since you´ve interviewed yourself?

You must not only hear the call, but heed it. A calling is not a free ride. The right path may be just as steep and rocky as the wrong ones were. The difference is, this time you are headed where you are meant to go.

Don´t decide too quickly that it´s a “wrong number.” Yes, it may seem like a wrong turn now. It may seem as if you “wasted” your time. But you´re not on the mountain top yet. You can´t see the whole terrain. The step you are now taking may turn out to be the most important of your entire journey.

So listen to the voice, or voices, telling you it is time for a change. Listen to their tone, their cadence, their nuance. (Is it the voice of fear, offering you a way to escape? Or the voice of courage, challenging you to take a vitally important new challenge?) Distinguish between voices so that you know which are there to befriend you, and which to distract you. Just because we hear a voice does not mean it should be followed. Our challenge is to decide which of them to heed, and when. And this requires taking stock of our lives. 

Taking stock means recognizing that our time is finite, the second half of our lives is a gift, and our responsibility is to listen for our calling. As Murray Stein puts it, “I cannot specify what the gift of the soul to you will be at midlife.” 

Listening to Midlife is a truly inspirational and comforting read for those facing the second half of their life. It helps understand this complex phenomenon we all go through at some point in our lives, and we realize that we are not alone.

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