Midway through my life, I was living as if most of my deep, fundamental growth was behind me. Without knowing it, I had accepted our culture's stale and simplistic view of adulthood -- that the person you are at midlife is the person you will always be.
But I was wrong.
We have many words to describe less than twenty years of the life cycle: newborn, infant, toddler, preschooler, child, teenager, adolescent, and so forth. We need all of these words because children grow so fast. But to describe the next half-century -- the period of fifty years or more after we reach the age of twenty -- have only one generally accepted word: adulthood.
The poverty of our language reveals that we still do not understand that "grown-ups" grow too. We act as if adulthood is one long, stable, predictable period. We act as if we have signed a protracted, long-term contract, like paying off a mortgage.
The Second Half of Life
I was jolted from this narrow view not long ago after certain events in my life, which I describe in this book (Listening to Midlife), threw me into a state of confusion and uncertainty. At precisely the time when I thought my development was coming to an end, I found myself embarking on a totally unexpected journey of growth and change. I entered what the great Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung called the "second half of life".
Wholly unprepared, we embark upon the second half of life . . . we take the step into the afternoon of life; worse still we take this step with the false assumption that our truths and ideals will serve as before. But we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life's morning -- for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie. (1)
We cannot tell if we have entered the afternoon of our lives by counting the number of candles on our birthday cake. We do not enter the second half just because we reach a certain age that ends in a zero. To know where we are in our process of transformation, we must learn to took inside.
Adulthood: Transformation and Metamorphosis
Once we look within, we discover that adulthood can be a time of transformation. It can be a time of spiritual unfolding. Dramatic as it may sound, adulthood can be metamorphosis. If you find this hard to believe, remember that a creature as simple and primitive as a caterpillar enters a cocoon; its body partly dissolves and "dies"; it is reconstituted in another shape; and finally it emerges as a butterfly. Is it therefore not at least possible that a creature as complex and evolved as a human being might also have an equally profound metamorphosis?
Based on interviews I have conducted with a wide variety of men and women, and based on my research of the literature on adult development, I am convinced that the answer to this question is yes. There is an adult metamorphosis. However, unlike the caterpillar's metamorphosis, our transformation is invisible. It happens in a part of us that does not show up on X rays, cannot be measured by medical equipment, and cannot be tested in a laboratory. It happens inside us. And it happens over a lifetime.
Our metamorphosis is, in fact, a quest. The signposts on our quest are questions (from quaerere: to search). They may not automatically point us in the "right" direction. But if we ask these questions and seek answers with an open heart, they will move us forward on our journey. Some of them include:
* You no longer look young. You cannot hide the signs of aging anymore. Why does it bother you so much?
* Your sense of purpose is draining away. Everything seems to be losing its meaning. What has happened to the spark?
* Another side of your personality is suddenly asserting itself. This "shadow side" bubbles up unexpectedly. You find yourself doing things that are out of character. Who is this "other person" inside you'?
* You are searching now for a different kind of relationship -- deeper, more authentic. But where, and with whom, can you find it?
* Without warning, you get a "crush" on someone. You're shocked. That person is not even "your type". Why are you thinking about them so much?
* When you made your career choice years ago, you brushed aside certain talents that you had. Why are they coming back, demanding to be expressed?
* Your kids are growing up, and fast. They have consumed so much of your energy and focus. You wonder: what would life have been like without them?
* Or, you are childless. It seemed fine before. But now the question gnaws at you: Should you have a child? Or is it already too late?
* You have always known that you would die. But now you feel it in your gut. Why does time seem shorter now . . . sometimes too short?
* It's been years since questions about God or faith were on your mind. You thought they were settled long ago. So why are they coming up again?
Stages of Life: Crises or Passages?
Already on the shelves of bookstores and libraries are scores of books, both academic and popular, telling us about the crises or stages of our lives. You will pass through certain "psychosocial stages", says the renowned psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, who was my teacher and adviser at Harvard University. You will progress through a sequence of "transitions", reports psychiatrist Daniel Levinson, whom I interviewed for my book, Listening to Midlife. You will undergo a set of interrelated "transformations", advises another expert on adult development, Roger Gould. You will experience predictable "passages", counsels journalist Gail Sheehy, whose book popularized these experts' theories. (2)
But what they cannot do, I believe, is predict the path your life will take, or mine. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, some of their generalizations apply to some of us some of the time -- but the times when they don't apply to us are usually the most crucial. They don't apply to us when our lives are "interrupted" by major historical shifts that are unique to our generation. They don't apply to us when we are challenged by either unexpected illness or unusual longevity. They don't apply when we are expressing the talents or gifts that are uniquely ours. And, perhaps most important, they apply less and less to us as we move into and through the second half of life.
Confusion and Mayhem: The Journey Through Adulthood
You may recall that the best seller Passages, which effectively brought the issue of adult development into public consciousness in the mid-seventies, bore the subtitle "predictable crises of adult life". Just as children go through specific phases of child development, Sheehy marshaled life stories and anecdotes which suggested that adults similarly pass through a specific sequence of developmental stages. While Sheehy demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that grown-ups do grow, I do not believe our growth is predictable. If it was, why would any of us get lost? Indeed, why would the experts themselves get lost? If you read between the lines in these experts' books, or interview them (as I have done), you soon learn that they are just as confused about their journey through adulthood as any of us.
The truth is: The experts could not predict their own growth, much less ours. The more we truly grow for our whole lives, the harder it is to reduce to a statistic. Try as the experts may to make us fit their theories, we won't. Try as they may to make our life histories follow their stages, they can't, because as we mature, we are less predictable.
Perhaps child development researchers can predict when, and in what order, children will learn to crawl, walk, speak, and so on. After all, a child's development is visible. It has clearly identifiable, observable, sequential stages. But this is only the beginning of the human journey. When we reach our full height physically, we are still in the caterpillar stage of our journey. What happens next is not clear, not observable, and not sequential. What happens over the next five, six, or seven decades is a mystery. We can study it, probe it, interview it, map it -- but in the end, the mystery remains.
When the experts try to describe what happens in various stages of adulthood, they run into trouble. Can they generalize that in the early twenties young adults marry and have children? No. Can they assume that men and women in their twenties will select a career ladder? Hardly. Can they predict that forty-year-olds will be less fit than when they were thirty? Not anymore. We know precisely what "grade" in elementary school to find a child who is ten years old. But can we predict what grade in life we will find forty-year-olds? They may be grandparents -- or they may have just had their first child! They may be experiencing the first signs of energy loss and decreased vitality -- or they may be more fit than they were a decade earlier! They may have stopped being so ambitious and become concerned about spiritual matters -- or they may have finally decided to express the secret ambitions they never before dared to show! There is simply no way that the modern lives of men and women can be categorized in neat, standardized chronological stages.
Instead of answers, we are left with questions. How do adults grow? What exactly is our metamorphosis? Does it happen to everyone? How do we enter the cocoon -- and how do we get out? And finally, how do we come into our own and learn to fly? Although these questions are metaphorical, they are real. I know they are because I have listened to scores of men and women tell their own true stories of transformation.
Breakdowns and Breakthroughs of Adulthood
As you learn about the transformations of adulthood, both the breakdowns and breakthroughs, you will see for yourself that no one's process of growth or change is like your own. As Walt Whitman wrote, "Not I, not anyone else, can travel that road for you. You must travel it for yourself." Nevertheless, the stories of those who have gone before you can serve as a guide. When you get lost on your journey, turn to their wisdom. But they can show you the way inside yourself, where the voice most important to you lies.
When you find that voice, listen to it. It will help you along the journey through adulthood. It will help you come into your own.
(1) Toms, Michael. An Open Life: Joseph Campbell in Conversation with Michael Toms (New York: 1990).
(2) Adult development is one of the youngest in the overall field of human development. As recently as the late 1980s, major funding was allocated by the MacArthur Foundations for research in child development, adolescent development, and development of the elderly. Belatedly, they realized that there was a major gap in their funding -- namely, the middle third of the life cycle. This remains the missing link in our understanding of the life cycle.
Excerpted with permission. ©1992.
Reprinted by arrangement with
Shambhala Publications, Inc.,
Listening to Midlife: Turning Your Crisis into a Quest
by Mark Gerzon.
Based on interviews with a wide variety of men and women and research on the literature of adult development, Mark Gerzon answers the question, "Is it possible that human beings experience a profound metamorphosis in midlife?" with a resounding "yes."
About The Author:
Mark Gerzon's role as chronicler of the postwar generation's journey began with his 1969 best-seller, The Whole World is Watching. He is also the author of A Childhood for Every Child, A Choice of Heroes, and A House Divided: Six Belief Systems Struggling for America''s Soul. He leads midlife workshops nationwide with his wife, Shelley Kessler. Visit his website at http://markgerzon.com/