“I want to know if you know how to melt into that fierce heat of living,
falling toward the center of your longing.”
– David Whyte
He drove up our driveway in his new silver Porsche 914. The top was down. He was wearing Foster Grants and a t-shirt. It was 1975 and my father was in the full throws of what my mother’s friends called his midlife crisis. At 51, he had become a cliché. An affair, a sports car, a new look…he grew his sideburns long, and replaced his polyester slacks with jeans. He started jogging. He started listening to music.
He was Lester Burnham in American Beauty.
His romance with one of his graduate students shattered my parents’ 15-year marriage into a billion jagged shards. When one of his colleagues asked him why he fell in love with Angela, he told him it was because she had large breasts. And he meant it sincerely, as if it were some kind of a virtue.
At half my father’s age, Angela was part girlfriend, part child. She sat tiny and stoic in the front seat of the car behind sunglasses too large for her face, and a mane of frizzy ginger hair. Though Angela was not much to look at, my father seemed, for all intents and purposes, in love.
It was all very weird.
With a nervous wave he gestured me into the topless convertible. I scrunched into the not-really-a-seat part behind Dad, my kneecaps pressed between my chin and his headrest. Angela said hello politely as she pulled her hair into an elastic band. He backed down the drive and drove us away as my mother gazed on, looking tired.
Like many divorced families in the seventies, my mother and dad agreed he would take me every other weekend. It was a time for our obligatory ice cream cone, movie and then sleepover. We would pretend to be a new (and really ‘fun’) family together for 48 hours, and then he’d return me, disassociated and numb, back to my mother’s house.
He and Angela lived in a small semi-hip apartment just off the university campus. Sparsely furnished, the place seemed empty of life or anything meaningful. Hours would pass with nothing to do. I remember sitting on the floor looking at the books on the bookshelf—most of them hers—and feeling oddly estranged from this man who was my father. Sleepovers at Dad’s was like stepping into a black hole. I was adrift without gravity, floating in space.
Once in therapy, my therapist asked me what it was like to be with my father in those days. ‘It was like living inside a dark sock,’ I replied bluntly.
When I look back now, I recognize that sensation was exactly how my father was feeling. He confessed many years later that those years were very dark for him. He felt much confusion. He didn’t understand himself and the choices he made. He was mystified by the urges. He was not the man he knew himself to be. He was lost.
In those days people did not have the skills or awareness to meet the inevitable mid 50’s push from life to create a new chapter. Generations before them were lucky to live to 50 or 60. In 1841 the average newborn girl was not expected to see her 43rd birthday. There was no mid life. There was only one flat length, parenthetically held between birth and death. And so without any modeling, people of my father’s generation misunderstood the sudden impulse to follow a wave, this new generational phenomenon—a swell in that flat length—called midlife.
Of course it was a crisis. People were ill equipped to understand that the midlife pull was a natural consequence of a longer lifespan. No one told them that life was urging a second wind, another chance, a miraculous evolutionary possibility. Ministers didn’t tell their congregation that a soul-life wanted to be born. No one said that it would also be accompanied with a sense of isolation, and fear of the unknown.
And so with only the past to reference, men and women (but mostly men) strayed to superficial quenching of an unnamed yearning, and ran into the arms of anyone who might keep them from feeling alone. And when it was over, they emerged defeated, grief-stricken, and laden with alimony payments. The midlife behemoth ravaged families and embarrassed friends.
It’s no wonder that when the proverbial clock ticks fifty today, and we feel that impulse to take the emerging less-traveled fork in our life’s path, we completely freak out.
Now that life expectancy has more than doubled since the 1900s, with a spike since the 1960s, we are beginning to see more contours in the once-flat line of life. There are more natural turning points, more curves, forks and bends, more opportunities to grow, evolve and transform.
In recent years of working with people, I’ve witnessed an interesting phenomenon with clients between the ages of 50 and 70. I would call it the ‘new mid life’. And it’s anything but a crisis, though to the ego that is dying in its midst, it does seem like the end of the world.
People facing this juncture find themselves, well, called. With the benefit of decades of hard-won experience behind them, combined with remaining good health and energy, these people are poised perfectly to courageously create a life that they previously were too scared to do. It’s a whole new breed of mid-lifers.
And what they are creating collectively is very exciting. Latent entrepreneurs, visionaries, healers, authors, non-profit founders, inventors and leaders are awakening from the dormancy of their chrysalis and unleashing themselves into the world.
These people seem to have a few things in common. They engage with some kind of mindfulness or spiritual practice, they are life-long learners, they access wisdom and intuition as a means to navigate choices, and many imagine themselves late bloomers who have just begun leaning into their real life’s purpose. One major attribute to this group is their ability to cultivate a relationship to the unknown—that land where transformation resides.
The unknown—that terrifying empty place on the other side of the threshold you are crossing. Our fears of jumping into the unknown are infinite. Fear imagines that we will destroy our families, disappoint our relatives, and end up homeless without good healthcare if we really take that leap and live into our deepest calling, our – as Parker Palmer calls it – true vocation. Fear tells us we will fail, we are imposters, or that we are just too damn old.
But some are reluctant members of this group. Instead of hearing a call, they more like stumble and trip over the feet of the unknown stretched in front of them like a prank. Midlife drags these folks by their hair to places they thought they’d never have to go. It can come in the form of a sudden layoff, or health crisis. The message is clear: life as they knew it is now officially over.
Whether you feel lured by a kind of yearning of the midlife transition, or fall flat faced into it, the journey across the threshold is the same. And it usually starts with being afraid.
‘How do you stop being afraid?’ asked one friend the other night at dinner. His voice betrayed the yearning in his heart. A successful professional, a choice to follow his heart seemed like it might cost him everything. And that was a lot (there is a price to a certain kind of privilege).
‘I don’t stop being afraid,’ I said. ‘I feel afraid all the time.’
He looked at me confused.
Being afraid is a natural consequence to befriending the unknown. According to neuroscience, several factors contribute to throwing you into an ‘amygdala hijack’, ie, fight-or-flight response. A major one, next to actual physical threat, is ‘the unknown’.
‘I just recognize that I’m going to feel afraid, and do what I’m called to do anyway.’
If, when hearing that mid life call, we become afraid, know that it is by design. The darkness, the fear, the aloneness is a crucible created elegantly to hone us to the people we need to be to live the next chapter. “...wanting soul life without the dark, warming intelligence of personal doubt is like expecting an egg without the brooding heat of the mother hen,” writes poet David Whyte.
In his amazing audio-set Midlife and the Great Unknown Whyte begins by quoting Dante. ‘"In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in a dark wood, where the true way was wholly lost." When you find yourself suddenly without bearings, as Dante Alighieri voiced so well centuries ago, where will you look for guidance?’ he asks.
Great question. So where does one go to glean support, guidance and some kind of light in these times? I can share with you some of the ways our clients, friends and colleagues have found support.
Good company — surround yourself with those who do not encourage you to ‘stay safe’, but rather celebrate your courage, and have a sense of your true gifts.
Meditate – it really does assist in giving perspective, easing stress, and most importantly acquainting you with the fact that all those fear-thoughts and resulting anxious feelings are simply made up. Like, really. Who you are is not that story you keep telling yourself. Best instruction I’ve found on how to meditate in a really easy way can be found here.
Poetry – poetry works, writes Jerry Colonna, because like all great art, it acts upon our unconscious. It speaks to our soul. Just when you think you’ve landed squarely where no human has been before, a poem shows up that describes that place in such exquisite detail, you know the writer has spent a year inside your heart.
Solitude – start actually spending time with yourself—your…self. Journal, draw, wonder, sit in nature, take leisurely walks, bring a camera…allow those quieter voices to emerge and tug you over the threshold.
Get a coach – gifted coaches help you listen to your own intrinsic wisdom, and hold you accountable to your hearts yearning. The midlife transition is an amazing opportunity not to be missed. Good coaches help you to leverage all you can from it.
Forgive yourself, forgive your past – now is the time to finally, once and for all, forgive all that happened before now. Not to do so keeps you stuck in your old ways and your old stories. Just do it.
Befriend fear and anxiety – it’s just a sensation. Period. And if you are leaping into the unknown, you’re going to feel plenty of it, if you are like most of us.
The most beautiful part of allowing the midlife transformation is the permission to wholly and truly be ourselves. At last. For this awakening Lao Tzu offers the following words:
At the center of your being,
you have the answer:
you know who you are
and you know what you want.
There is no need
to run outside
for better seeing.
Nor to peer from a window.
Rather abide at the center of your being:
for the more you leave it, the
less you learn.