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Apr 25 2009

What Happens in the Midlife Transformation

Published by at 5:11 am under Advice

I have a friend, 72, who said, last week, “I’ve just realized that I’m going to die. I always pretended it was only something that happened to others.” At seventy-two he finally could handle the full impact of the challenge that drives us all through the midlife transformation.

Some of us never get that strong. For most of us, it takes years. I remember when the beginning edge of that awareness struck me. I was thirty five. I had been living a life designed more to make other people happy than to make me happy. Somewhere in my inner shadows I was sustaining myself on the thought that next time I would live life for me. I began to understand that depending on my next life to give spiritual justification to this one was a poor strategy, but I wasn’t sure of the alternative.

What was a better idea? I didn’t know and then I had a dream. In the dream I was in an office in an advertising agency visiting an important person, who I referred to in my dream as “the person in the advertising business I admired most.” In the dream I realized that that person was me. Even in the dream I felt sheepish about giving myself such importance. I had a lot to learn.

In my waking life I was not yet a psychologist. I was an associate creative director making television commercials for shampoo, soap, cereal, frozen pizza and dog food. In my dream I walked into my office and found this important person, “me,” on the window ledge about to jump.

The “me” on the ledge said to the “me” in the office, “In there it is only the 36th floor, but out here it is the whole world!” (Thirty-sixth floor! I was thirty five.) Then the “me” on the ledge jumped backwards, out, away from the building, and into the air. When I saw him/me jump, I was startled and terrified. He saw my reaction and laughed. He hung in the air for a moment, immune to the laws of gravity, and then, as if he has wings, he flew away. Out here it is the whole world!

When I woke up I said, “What was that?” Apparently, I was living a life much too small for my Soul. The following Fall, shortly before my 36th birthday, I entered graduate school to become a Psychologist.

Midlife like the third quarter in a basketball or football game. You’ve seen how the first half of the game has gone and you have a chance to step back and review your strategy and approach. Psychologically speaking, you develop a different way of seeing, thinking and experiencing the world. It’s as if you gathered enough experience of yourself as an adult that you can think about who you’ve become. It is the time when you realize that it is your life and you can do with it as you wish. So what are you going to do? Strengthen and clarify your approach? Or make changes?

Sometimes the simple numbers wake you up. Thirty-five is half seventy and seventy is, well, seventy. Other times, the wake up comes as a powerfully provocative event a dream, a loss, a crisis, a divorce, a break-up of an important post-divorce affair, or even a success. A friend of mine has a story about his midlife awakening at 50. He was chairman of the board of a local institution and he was given a party in honor of his birthday. He looked around the room at the tuxedos and realized that there wasn’t a single person there that he considered to be a true friend. Time to change. He bought a motorcycle and leathers, and he did much more.

Whatever the wake-up call is, you suddenly realize that your life is, in large part, your creation. This is the core realization. It will be what you chose it to be and you can continue to make your old choices, or you can unmake them and make new ones.

Working out the implications of this wake-up call changing careers, creating a second marriage, or restoring your first marriage can take five to ten years. This is the midlife transformation, a life transition as meaningful and challenging, in its own way, as adolescence, college, or graduate school.

Maybe the best analogy is graduate school because in the process of maturing you acquire capacities, abilities, strength, which you then rely on to create quality and satisfaction in your life for the rest of your life.

The first capacity you acquire is an understanding of what it means to write your own life story. Similarly, you learn to be both more imaginative and more deliberate in the way you manage and creating relationships.

You become capable of genuine self-examination. You have some ability to see yourself as others see you, and also as they don’t! You become open to coaching and more capable of self-coaching. You become open to learning how you are both a better and a worse person than you thought you were.

As you become capable of seeing yourself somewhat objectively, you become aware that you have a unique personal style, (a psychology) which shapes how you think, feel, judge and decide and which makes you very much an individual, a character. (Mature adults are always real characters. It’s a good thing.) Being able to see your style means you become able to refine your style. You become your own work of art.

As you become more aware of how unique and quirky you are, you also become aware of the unique quirkiness of others. Your sense of humor becomes generous. You become solid in your ability to forgive and be charitable.

Notice the key phrase in this ancient observation about maturity:
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity I Cor 13:11

All this maturing amounts to a spiritual awakening. You become aware of how strongly who you are influences life around you. You become able to see the next generation of adults moving onto the main stage of life and, with grace, how you can help them. You are also able to see how, in all your intimate relationships, you are the co-creator.

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