One of the most influential books I have read is Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life by James Hollis. This book was recommended to me by a friend sometime in my mid thirties. I guess he suspected I was getting a jump on things. As I approached my 40th birthday, when all the insanity was supposed to occur, it seemed anticlimactic. Surely, just as I thought I had come to this developmental milestone without the stereotypical crisis, I found myself immersed in it.
Hollis and other Jungians speak of the midlife crisis as a point where life seems to have lost its meaning; a period of confusion and distress manifesting in what appears to be a regression in behavior. Perhaps rebellion is a more fitting term. Whether a function of awareness that ensuing years mark more lived than remaining, the half-way point of life is experienced much like a developmental earthquake for many.
There are two very distinct developmental periods associated with rebellion. The first is known as the terrible twos, the second, adolescence. According to Erik Erikson’s 8-stage developmental model, the initial rebellion occurs in service of autonomy, the second, to facilitate the formation of identity. Primary caretakers serve as the chief adversary in the process.
Midlife rebellion is more complicated as the targets of rebellion are the internalized messages, rules and expectations of parents, family, culture, religion, society, etc. The developmental stage of midlife and its accompanying rebellion serve the same ends of autonomy and identity just at a more advanced level and emerging from the essence and depth of one’s being- the soul.
Jung asserts that the greatest task in the second half of life is individuation, a concept almost identical to Abraham Maslow’s stage of self-actualization. Self-actualization is the final stage in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in which we are concerned with living to our fullest potential. Theorists since Jung argue that individuation is a lifelong endeavor. Essentially individuation is a process of psychological maturity in which a person lives ever more fully and securely from the place of his/her authentic Self.
Though individuation occurs throughout life, the first half of life, psychologically, is consumed with the development of the ego; that sense of “I” arising through acting and interacting with the external world. In more practical terms, we are consumed with the acquisition of knowledge and skills to make our way in the world- meeting basic needs, the demands of career, family and existing as part of the collective.
Why crisis at midlife? Why not sooner? One view is associated with the esteem stage of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Once our basic needs have been met along with the need for safety and love and belonging, the need for esteem- external and internal- takes precedence. High self-esteem is the hallmark of a strong sense of self or strong ego. It is believed that at midlife we have been on the planet and in our skin just long enough to summon the courage to rebel against the commandments of the external world…and withstand the backlash likely to occur.
As so much energy is directed toward navigating the external world, the redirection inward at midlife often leaves us bewildered, not only wondering whose life I have been living, but who am I, really?! Out of the dissonance often emerges the quest for that which aligns us to our own inner truths. This often appears as a regression to previous years inclusive of the same manner of experimentation occurring in adolescence.
Perhaps this is the ego’s feeble attempts to respond to an invitation toward its own expansion. Unfortunately, perhaps because of a lack of understanding many proceed through this period recklessly and haphazardly. Thus, crisis is manifested as rebellion; however, the opportunity to source deep and profound meaning for one’s life is presented.