Midlife Crisis (and Transformation) in Portland?

What might a so-called midlife crisis really look like? And does it really happen here? In Portland, aren’t we (I’m generalizing to make a point) pretty well put-together? We’re conscious about the environment, intentional about what we eat, invested in local communities, authentic in relationships, and so on….

It’s not good or bad to have these ideas about being conscious and well-put together, but it’s important not to take them as literal truths. Part of the danger of such literalism is that something important could get overlooked: that there come times in life where our self-image falls apart–a little or a lot–and may even need to fall apart for us to transform. Midlife is a period where this sometimes happens, leading to a renewal of life and self.

The so-called midlife crisis is often seen in psychology as happening as early as 35 years old, and often later, at some point in the 40s or 50s. The psychologist Carl Jung contributed a lot to the psychology of midlife. Jung’s view feels a little old in some ways, but still holds deep insight if we adjust for cultural changes that have occurred since his time. Jung argued that the first part of adulthood usually focuses on adapting to life in society. We get educations, find work, build a career, have relationships, become parents, and thus establish a well put-together place in the world.

It’s usually once we have been through a lot of this stuff of life’s first half that we may reach a critical moment. It certainly doesn’t happen to everybody, but something may come along to upset the structures that we have so carefully built and tended in the first half of life. The outward cause of the upset could be a death, an illness, a divorce, the loss of a job, a new relationship, an inner malaise, a depression, trauma, or any number of events on the outside or inside of life that threaten to shake up the known structures of life and self.

A lot of strong feelings can come through during this time. It’s not necessarily all bad or all good feelings that come, but an intensity of feelings and a variety too. The Jungian analyst Murray Stein and others have written about midlife crisis as a kind of second adolescence. If you will remember the tumultuous feelings and developments of your first adolescence, you might get some flavor for the second adolescence of midlife. Like the teen years, midlife can be a major transition into a new phase: what Jung called the “second half of life.”

And like the teen years, midlife can feel unsettling. We can feel confused and uncertain of the future. It’s often a rich and satisfying time as well as a challenging one. We may begin to realize that the old structures of our life could use some readjusting. We may begin to enjoy living in ways we forgot we knew. A feeling of renewal can come, and a feeling of increasing freedom to be ourselves.

The midlife crisis and transformation doesn’t tend to happen without struggle. There’s a reason people in one form of midlife crisis or another end up in therapy. In Jung’s view, therapy can facilitate a long-term process of change. The uprooted feelings of midlife can lead into a new feeling of rootedness, deeper in our real selves than we had imagined possible. Then life can proceed out of a new source of vitality and development.

I ran across this poem by Pablo Neruda today, and I think its language evokes some of the feelings and potential of the so-called midlife crisis and transformation.

Lost In The Forest
by poet Pablo Neruda (1904-1973)

Lost in the forest, I broke off a dark twig
and lifted its whisper to my thirsty lips:
maybe it was the voice of the rain crying,
a cracked bell, or a torn heart.

Something from far off it seemed
deep and secret to me, hidden by the earth,
a shout muffled by huge autumns,
by the moist half-open darkness of the leaves.

Wakening from the dreaming forest there, the hazel-sprig
sang under my tongue, its drifting fragrance
climbed up through my conscious mind

as if suddenly the roots I had left behind
cried out to me, the land I had lost with my childhood—
and I stopped, wounded by the wandering scent.

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