“…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 evening become a lie.” Carl Jung
Midlife is an important period of transition in most people’s lives. In the “first half” of life the developmental goal of the personality is the maturation of the ego and our adaptation to the demands of society. In youth we are educated, find work, pursue careers, and perhaps start a family, raise children, etc. If all goes well, we enter midlife with a stable sense of identity and place within the larger community.
It is also natural during this period of our lives to utilize and develop the more prominent attributes of our innate personality. That is to say, we lead with our strengths. For example, the naturally extroverted child will tend to exercise and develop his social skills; the movement-oriented girl may be drawn to dance or sports, further developing her natural athleticism; and the thinking-oriented boy may gravitate to math, science, and the school chess club, thereby strengthening his thinking abilities.
To lead with our strengths is natural and appropriate in the first half of life. In order to establish a stable identity and sense of competence we must build off of the natural foundation we’ve been given. But towards midlife a shift occurs. The psyche increasingly directs its attention to the integration and strengthening of our “other half,” the positive but mostly neglected and undeveloped parts of our personality. In the same way that a conditioning coach helps an athlete strengthen less developed muscles for improved performance, the psyche pushes the individual to develop and integrate the weaker and less-developed parts of his/her personality. Thus, the thinking man is challenged to become more feeling, the extrovert more introspective, the introvert more outgoing, the kinesthetic person more auditory or visual, the follower more of a leader, and the leader better able to follow. It is not that we are asked to become our opposite, but rather, to develop our whole personality so that its complementary parts are more available for use and guidance. If not for the strong ego we developed in life’s first half, we would not be able to shoulder the demands that the psyche places upon us in the second half of life. Weaknesses are strengthened when they have something stable and solid to push against.
This midlife transition can be both humbling and transforming. It is humbling because we are exploring a new world and sometimes re-experiencing the awkwardness of childhood. It is transforming because as we integrate new abilities and perspectives, our sense of self and world are changed. In youth the ego is expanding in strength and influence. Typically, it follows the well-posted paths of society, perhaps gathering accolades along the way. But at midlife the ego is challenged to become a servant of the larger personality and soul. This is why men often encounter a feminine guide–and women, a masculine guide–in their dreams towards midlife. These figures are manifestations, or symbols, of the soul. They invite and would guide us to an understanding of our deeper nature and a more personal spirituality. Thus, we could say that in youth the ego is educated mostly by family and society, at midlife and beyond, by the soul.
“New goals demand new eyes which see them and a new heart which desires them.” Carl Jung
It is natural and psychologically healthy for mature adults to wrestle with questions of meaning, purpose, spiritual values, and personal sacrifice in the second half of life. To cling to the identity, goals, and worldview of our youth in later adulthood can lead to a midlife crisis. Such crises often occur because our ego wants to continue its current path while life and our deeper self beckon to us from another. In fear, or stubbornness, we sometimes fan the dying embers of youth’s ego identity, while the kindling of life’s second half sits at hand, unrecognized and unused.
The famous psychologist Erik Erikson observed that the midlife years (roughly 35 to 65) are generally approached in one of two ways. People can stagnate in self-absorption and egocentricity, or they can shoulder the torch of higher values, meaning, and vision for their own development and that of succeeding generations. He called this latter path “generativity.” In the first half of life our generativity is often biological and procreative. We grow physically and we may bring new physical life into the world. But at midlife and beyond our generativity gradually shifts from the biological sphere to the spiritual. From ego to soul, from the present to the future, from our immediate family to the world family. The deepest form of generativity is that which turns and plants the soil of our own soul. Without a living relationship with the core of our being, our outer pursuits can become just so much restless activity and white noise. Erikson observed that people who are able to negotiate the death/rebirth process of the midlife transition are more likely to enter their later years with a certain integrity of character and faith in life. Those who are unable, or unwilling, to pass through the transforming fires of midlife often approach late life with despair and a depleted sense of life’s meaning.
“The neurotic disturbances of adult years have this in common, that they betray the attempt to carry the psychic dispositions of youth beyond the threshold of the so-called years of discretion.” Carl Jung
One example of misdirected and derailed generativity is seen in the growing problem of internet pornography by midlife and older men. Viewed symbolically, sex is the generative union of opposites. Biologically, it produces a new generation of people. Psychologically, it can represent the integration of the complementary dimensions of the psyche, leading to growth of the personality. When older men or women become fixated on the outer biological/physical expression of this process, they short-circuit and derail the generative energy of the creative psyche. The inner drive to consciousness and transformation is thus diverted from its true goal.
Of course, encouraging adults to maintain the worldview of a twenty-year-old is big business, one example being the sale of impotency medications to senior men. When the body does not behave as the ego would like, we “pathologize” the body. Yet, for many men, impotence probably reflects the psyche’s effort to redirect their generative energy into the further maturation of the personality, creativity, and the nurturance of meaningful relationships.
“From the middle of life onward, only he remains vitally alive who is ready to die with life.” Carl Jung
The gambling industry is another example of the way in which the generative instincts of seniors can be effectively diverted for others’ profit. To live life well involves taking risks and leaps of faith. And this is no less true, maybe even more true, in the second half of life. To accept midlife’s journey inward is to venture into the unknown of our soul and that of the universe in search of life’s gold. But when the need to “go for the gold” and to make a leap of faith gets projected onto money and games of chance, the instinctual drive to live life fully has missed its mark. Probably we all have a “bucket list” with challenges, both outward and inward, that we need to embrace in order to discover and live the deeper purpose and meaning of our lives. Take your risks and place your bets at the table of life, allowing what needs to die, die, and what needs to live, live with abundance.
1. Erikson, Erik H. Identity and the Life Cycle. W. W. Norton & Co., NY 1994.
2. Jung, Carl G. Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Random House, Inc., NY 1963.