We all know someone in mid-life who buys a Harley. Catholic Register file photo.

In mid-life, some things die as we are born anew

By  Christopher de Bono, Catholic Register Special
  • September 13, 2014

The weekend retreat on “mid-life” was neither in my calendar nor on my radar. But at the last minute, my wife, the scheduled attendee, needed to cancel. 

The possibility of taking her place suddenly occurred to me. For years, I’d been tied up with clinical work, academics and family health issues, and I was about to transition to a new job. I thought, “If not now, when?” 

Thankfully, Manresa Renewal Centre, that wonderful Jesuit retreat house in Pickering, Ont., was able to take me as a substitute. Being a substitute meant the topic and director of the retreat were not of my choosing. I doubt I would have signed up for a mid-life retreat because, until then, I never really considered myself to be anywhere near mid-life. This insight was the first grace I received that weekend. 

The title of the retreat, Midway upon the Journey of Our Life: Finding God in New Ways in the Second Half of Life, borrowed from Dante Alighieri’s spiritual classic The Divine Comedy. The retreat itself reflected the opening lines of Dante’s poem: “Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself within a forest dark / for the straightforward pathway had been lost.” 

Over four brief talks, director Fr. Scott Lewis, Jesuit priest and biblical scholar, explored the concept of mid-life using psychology and spirituality, with specific reference to Carl Jung as well as to biblical and religious sources. Lewis began by making the point that mid-life is typically that period experienced between the ages of 35 and 50 years old. Age can be a slippery concept and many fellow retreatants were a lot older than 50. The theme obviously had resonance for them as well. 

Lewis said that what is key is not so much one’s age but Dante’s point: mid-life is that time when familiar pathways now seem lost, when tools of life that once worked so well no longer cut it. 

Popularly we call this a mid-life crisis, but at its core it’s really some kind of “wake-up call.” How we wake-up, Lewis argued, is the most important part of it. We’ve all heard stories of the middle-aged guy who buys a Harley Davidson, gets a tattoo, even leaves an established relationship for another with a much younger person. Lewis mused that reactions such as these can be efforts to recover some sense of the youthfulness that is so clearly slipping away. 

Instead, Lewis suggested that this extended mid-life period can be a “bridge” to a more meaningful second half of life, to a new form of wisdom in our older age. 

For Lewis, the key challenge is to embrace the reality of middle age. This is a rich place for creativity, psychologically and spiritually. To get to that place of creativity, Lewis recommended “digging deep” into one’s own emotional and spiritual life, honestly exploring what lies within the shadows, and, the hard part, letting certain things die. 

On this final point, Lewis made a link with the Christian tradition when he invited retreatants to recall the familiar story from John 12:24: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” What makes for a successful mid-life response, he argued, is how we transform this period into generous service and generativity for the next generation. 

If this retreat’s first grace was to get me to stop long enough to realize I am actually in that potentially dark and forested place called middle age, the second was much more spiritual: to be consciously aware of how my own middle age “dying and living” might call forth great, though as yet unknown, things. After all, as Lewis concluded, this is the stuff of the spiritual life. Even saints such as St. Ignatius had a mid-life crisis, and out of that came the Jesuits, including their foundational charism of finding God in all things — even mid-life. 

(De Bono is a clinical ethicist and pastoral theologian.) 

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