Reclaiming the Sky: New Adventures in Midlife
Putting away the day timer may be necessary.
Posted May 13, 2019
We left off last blog talking about some of the challenges of midlife. As we noted last time, attitude has a great deal to do with how we manage this life passage. If we cling to old patterns and ways of being, it will be a very challenging time, but viewing it as a new chapter and new adventure can help. One lens through which to view it is using the thought of Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, who argued that by age 35 questions of meaning come increasingly to the fore and can no longer be ignored (334).
In the traditional life trajectory, the ages between 20 and 40 are spent in building up a life through education, career, relationship, and often the creation of family. This, unsurprisingly, takes up a great deal of one’s energy and can result in important aspects of the self being placed on the back burner. For many, this is so all-consuming that they don’t really look up until around midlife. But this is not the only way that this process can roll out.
Increasingly, from the 1960s onward, a sizeable minority of people do not follow the traditional life path, at least not completely. Large numbers of people now no longer get married or have children. That said, it doesn’t mean that this passage is any easier for them. They may have the opposite experience, where they really have to buckle down by the time they arrive in their late 30s. Without children to clearly demonstrate the passage of time, it can be easy to lose track of it. So there is no one-size-fits-all approach to middle age. It depends on what has gone before and depends on one’s personality.
One of the greatest challenges when approaching the halfway mark in life is recognizing that old patterns are no longer working and that something new is required of us. It is a very human mistake to simply to double down on what we have always done and think that will work. It doesn’t. Part of the challenge is embracing what the Jungians call the inferior function, the aspects of ourselves that we have been ignoring and are underdeveloped. This usually feels very uncomfortable, especially at first.
Those who have focused only on their obligations in the outer world are in danger of what Robert Moss refers to as “losing the sky” (237) This idea refers to the largest, most spacious picture of what life can be. A more expanded vision of one’s life can get lost in the details of mundane reality. Almost everyone has had the experience of having so many demands on their time that everything begins to feels arid and devoid of any feeling of inspiration.
The danger here is that this sense of dryness is simply accepted as part and parcel of being an adult. And this is where internal reflection, moving outside one’s comfort zone and maybe attending a retreat or workshop, can kickstart a process of returning to one’s lost source. Some of the more egregious actions of people in midlife can be viewed then as unsuccessful attempts to find that source of joie de vivre. After being repressed for so long, the part of us that seeks a feeling of meaning, joy, fun, and openness roars back with a vengeance.
Taking time out and breaking with the usual patterns of the day can help in this regard. For those who have been living exclusively by clock time and by day planners, a movement out of pressurized time constraint is vital. This can be extremely difficult for some people, as the grind becomes such a habit. These people need to schedule the time to get away.
This getting away is part of the logic of pilgrimage—that we periodically need to be be physically removed from our day-to-day lives. In doing so, we give ourselves the gift of time to reconnect with the larger and deeper aspects of life. Viewed in this way, it is not surprising to see that pilgrimages such as the Compostella from France into Spain have become so popular, often among those who consider themselves to be unreligious. In looking at life stories of the Camino, there are often tales of those recovering from the various challenges that midlife can bring, including divorce, illness, and the passing of a loved one.
While outside of one’s regular obligations, a sense of perspective is often available almost immediately. This often happens on a trip where we suddenly can see clearly all the energy we have been pouring into worrying over unimportant situations. But this is not simply a regular pleasure holiday as important as those are. A more conscious retreat, which could include staying at a monastery or retreat centre, can allow us to reconnect with our intuition and our dreams. One of the casualties of an overly busy life can be the inability to remember dreams when we wake up.
Spiritual traditions tell us that we have within us the guidance that is necessary. However, as life becomes more busy and demanding, it is natural to fall out of alignment from time to time. Genuinely accessing these forms of guidance through meditation, contemplation, and dreams can result in us being asked to change our lives. This can feel very daunting if these patterns have been built up over many years.
Perhaps one of the keys to moving into this passage is retaining or re-discovering a sense of adventure and possibility. It also takes determination to insist on taking time out of one’s day and perhaps a period of time away to move back towards a sense of meaning beyond the day-to-day. This can be viewed as being “selfish” for those who have been busy being caretakers for others. But it is vital to the process of “reclaiming the sky.”
Carl Jung (1973) C.G. Jung. Letters. 1906-1950. Editors G. Adler and A. Jaffe. London: Routledge.
Robert Moss (2005). Dreamways of the Iroquois. Honoring the Secret Wishes of the Soul. Rochester: Destiny Books.