Looking into the Heart of the Beast
You know, there's one thing I can say for being an expert in midlife: when an emotional crisis sneaks up from behind you and pounces on your back, you know the material well enough that you can identify the beast before it takes too bad of a bite out of you. Even if you can't figure out in the heat of the moment which tools to use, at least you've got a very good idea what not to do to make the situation even worse.
You would think that that the three (relatively) stable phases of life (childhood, adulthood, and maturity) would make up three very separate and distinct ages, and, once you've passed from one to the next, you'd never need to go back. Obviously, during the two very unstable transitional stages (adolescence and midlife), a person tends to ricochet back and forth between childhood and adulthood in the former and between adulthood and maturity in the latter. But, you'd think that if you were a child, or an adult, or a mature person, you'd at least be able to camp out there for a while. I'm afraid that you (and I) would have another think coming.
I really appreciate irony; but not so much when it happens to me. Last night, I was featured on a teleseminar dealing with midlife issues. I spoke very eloquently (I hope) about how, in midlife, the basic assumptions on which you base your life decisions fall under attack. The beast of midlife seems to be at your throat as, one by one, all your assumptions, beliefs and expectations fall under attack. Yet, "It only seems deadly," the wise midlife expert reassured his audience, "it's really just a rather painful passage into a better stage of life, where your sense of self-worth is grounded in your understanding and appreciation of your life's purpose, as it unfolds." Good theory, I'd say, or even great theory. Regardless, one bad day can blow that theory all to pieces.
Here's just another piece of the midlife puzzle falling into place and inviting you and me to grasp its full importance. Even when you've laid aside your old belief systems and your presuppositions, and your life's true purpose has emerged from the fog of uncertainty that clouds so much of midlife, you're still not out of the woods permanently. The words of that favorite passage of mine from Richard Bach's Illusions keeps coming to mind: "Everything in this book may be wrong." It takes surprisingly little to shake up your world. You don't have to go way up on the Richter Scale to have the foundations of your life shaken.
Talk about taking a bounce back into a less mature and less stable period of your life! There's the bad news: just because you've reached some stability and serenity doesn't necessarily mean you're always going to keep it. But, where there's bad news, there's almost always some good news, and that's that, instead of taking up residence there in the world of uncertainty, you can make it just a brief and passing visit.
So, when I was suddenly under attack from the midlife beast, I bucked up, picked up my tools of maturity and got to work. Most important of all was to break through the glass walls of isolation: pretending that everything was just hunky-dory and I was in total control. It wasn't. I wasn't. But I know that acknowledging how I feel and then letting the people closest to me know how I feel (and, to the best of my ability, why I was feeling that way), I could get out of the trap that the best of midlife had set for me to send me backward toward an earlier phase of my development. OK, so I'm not entirely over my upset yet. Again, the good news is that I didn't really expect to be. I've got strong emotions, and I can feel them without feeling afraid of the consequences, and I can talk about them with others without feeling like I'm less mature, or less of a man. The result? It gets better.
What's the lesson here? It's not about the midlife expert having a touch of midlife crisis. The lesson comes down to the reassurance that, no matter the source or the kind of upset that you face in maturity, it can't have the faith-shaking consequences that the same events might have had at an earlier stage of your personal evolution. There is light at the end of the tunnel: we know how to look into the heart of the beast without flinching. We can walk through the shadows of self-doubt without shame. And, when it's all done, we can walk out the other side of the experience knowing, not that we've conquered the beast (it will, undoubtedly return), but that, once again, we're stronger because of our encounter with it.