A Cure for the Midlife Crisis

The Midlife Crisis

How to recognize a midlife crisis?

  1. You have the desire to start over.
  2. Your marriage is stale.
  3. Your career is less than adequate.
  4. Your life seems rudderless.
  5. You feel more impulsive than ever.
  6. You just bought a brand new red convertible.

The midlife crisis has less to do with the passage of time than it has to do with psychological experience. That is, the ego achievements of the first half of life have been accomplished: you have a wife/husband, children, pets, home, career, car, Ipad, etc. But what you don’t have is happiness. It is at this specific moment in your life that you begin to wonder about your legacy – what impact will you have on the world?

The midlife crisis is a wakeup call sent from your alienated soul. The first half of life is the domain of ego. Childhood patterns developed to protect the ego unconsciously run your life. Up until now you have been living what I would call a societal egoic life. The rules and roles that run your life, unconsciously, are not your own. To say to someone — you are a chip off the old block — is very true. Until you consciously choose the values, roles, and rules you will live by, you are simply a chip off the old societal block. Who you think you are is what Jung called the persona, the mask you show the world. Midlife is the time to emerge as a unique individual soul.

It could be said that acting out the midlife crisis — having the affair, changing careers, buying the red convertible — is a defense against the reality of death. Said differently, the existential task of midlife is to make sense of your life before you die. This means a transfer of power from the unconscious ego, to the conscious soul. Death is a reality that is easy to deny in the first part of life, but cannot be denied in the second part of life, although there are huge industries — plastic surgery for one — built around helping you continue to deny death. That aside, death creeps in with every wrinkle, every gray hair, the flabby belly, the hormonal changes, and aging children.

So what is the cure for the midlife crisis?

SOUL CONSCIOUSNESS!

The consciousness I am referring to is a state of being. It is not your identity (social persona); it is not your ego-consciousness; it is not your shadow (the part of your self you deny and repress). It is your ever-present self-awareness. Ego is focused on objects, obsessed with the past and the future, and leary of the present moment. Soul, on the other hand, is eternally present, alive and moving towards wholeness — its evolutionary purpose. Ego speaks in language; Soul speaks in symbols. Ego’s purpose is to protect the self from harm, and propagate the species. Soul’s purpose is to create, to love and move towards wholeness.

Jung outlined several steps in the project of one’s soul journey, a process he named individuation. They are:

  1. Encounter with the Shadow
  2. Encounter with your Soul-Image
  3. Encounter with your God-Image
  4. Emergence of the Self

I will talk more about these stages of individuation in another post. For now here is James Hollis, the author of The Middle Passage, identifying the end of the midlife crisis:

We know we have survived the midlife crisis when we no longer cling to who we were, no longer seek fame or fortune or the appearance of youth. The sense of life as a slow taking away, the inexorable exeperience of irreplaceable loss, is transformed by relinguishing the old ego attachments and affirming one’s deepening descent into the mystery. (Hollis, 1993, p. 113)

Psyche aims towards Wholeness with a Religious Fervor


Carl Jung lists nine occasions for successful termination of analysis in the (1953/1968) “Introduction to the Religious and Psychological Problems of Alchemy.” However he says, “there is a relatively large number of patients for whom the outward termination of work with the doctor is far from the end of the analytical process” (p. 4). It was in his investigation of these cases that continued the conscious-unconscious dialectical relationship after termination that his “belief that there is in the psyche a process that seeks its own goal independently of external factors” (p. 5) was confirmed. According to Jung the unconscious in these individuals was aiming towards wholeness with a religious fervor. This took the work further than a purely medical consideration into the realm of religion and alchemy.

Jung took up the task of resurrecting the soul of the European Christians seeking wholeness from the superficialities presented in the current expression of Christianity. While he did not blame Christianity he saw the veneration of the object of Christ as that which prevents the Christian from “reaching down into the depths of the psyche and giving … a wholeness. … the divine mediator stands outside as an image, while man remains fragmentary and untouched in the deepest part of him” (p. 7). By separating man from Christ with dead symbols and rituals Christianity has perpetuated the neurosis he sought to cure.

Jung recognized the difference between Western and Eastern religions were their object focus. While the Western man was focused on the external objects leaving his living soul unacknowledged, the Eastern man was focused on the internal objects of his soul often leaving the external world devoid of spiritual meaning. Jung names the differences between the Western and Eastern man.

Western man is held in the thrall by the “ten thousand things”; he sees only particulars, he is ego-bound and thing-bound, and unaware of the deep root of all being. Eastern man, on the other hand, experiences the world of particulars, and even his own ego, like a dream; he is rooted essentially in the “Ground,” which attracts him so powerfully that his relations with the world are relativized to a degree that is often incomprehensible to us. The Western attitude, with its emphasis on the object, tends to fix the ideal – Christ – in its outward aspect and thus to rob it of its mysterious relation to the inner man. (p. 7-8)

In this distinction Jung saw the need for the Westerner to follow an introverted path like the Easterner toward the inner man. Furthermore Jung saw that the extraverted focus contributed to the void and the devaluation of the Westerner’s soul.

Christ the ideal took upon himself the sins of the world. But if the ideal is wholly outside then the sins of the individual are also outside, and consequently he is more of a fragment than ever, since superficial misunderstanding conveniently enables him, quite literally to “cast his sins upon Christ” and thus to evade his deepest responsibilities – which is contrary to the spirit of Christianity. Such formalism and laxity were not only one of the prime causes of the Reformation, they are also present within the body of Protestantism. If the supreme value (Christ) and the supreme negation (sin) are outside, then the soul is void: its highest and lowest are missing. The Eastern attitude (more particularly the Indian) is the other way about: everything, highest and lowest, is in the (transcendental) Subject. Accordingly, the significance of the Atman, the Self, is heightened beyond all bounds. But with Western man the value of the self sinks to zero. Hence the universal depreciation of the soul in the West. (p. 8)

Jung is not suggesting the European should starting meditating and seeking gurus in Indian. In fact, he was quite vociferous about the problems of slapping an Eastern religion on top of Western psychology. I suspect he was using the introverted attitude of the Easterner as a validation that religion is also (to say the least) a psychological problem. Jung knew he was impinging on the territory of the theologians; and he knew he would be discounted by his medically-oriented colleagues. Yet he felt it necessary to traverse these grounds exclaiming “A little more Meister Eckhart would be a very good thing sometimes” (pp. 9-10)!

Jung was fortunate to have the financial means and Freud’s shoulders to stand on allowing him to reach into the forbidden territory of religion. Jung could do nothing less than pursue wholeness albeit quite antithetical to the scientific inquiry which throws out what does not fit. His search for repeatable patterns, the way to give his work validity in the sciences, brought him face-to-face with world myths and religions where the repeatable themes were recognizable Jung warned that “an exclusively religious projection may rob the soul of its values so that through sheer inanition it becomes incapable of further development and gets stuck in an unconscious state” (p. 10). He finds it inconceivable that “soul” could be thought of as “nothing but” and psychology as some wholly-untouchable other separate from religion. Jung said,

Even the believing Christian does not know God’s hidden ways and must leave him to decide whether he will work on man from outside or from within, through the soul. So the believer should not boggle at the fact that there are somnia a Deo missa (dreams sent by God) and illuminations of the soul which cannot be traced back to any external causes. It would be blasphemy to assert that God can manifest himself everywhere save only in the human soul. Indeed the very intimacy of the relationship between God and the soul precludes from the start any devaluation of the latter. (pp. 10-11)

In this short statement Jung elevates the devalued soul to an intimate of God who might on occasion receive dreams and illuminations from God via the psyche. Jung even goes so far as to conjecture that “this correspondence [between God and the soul] is, in psychological terms, the archetype of the God-image” (p. 11). As an archetype this puts the material squarely in Jung’s psychological province. This completes his argument for rescuing the soul robbed of its nourishment by Christianity, trapped in the unconscious and unable to move towards wholeness which opened his inquiry into alchemy.

In the introduction to Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy he suggested that alchemy was

rather like an undercurrent to the Christianity that ruled on the surface. It is to this surface as the dream is to consciousness, and just as the dream compensates the conflicts of the conscious mind, so alchemy endeavours to fill in the gaps left open by the Christian tension of opposites. (1953/1968, p. 23) [CW 12, ¶26]

Jung saw alchemy compensating for the Church’s one-sided obsession with good to the exclusion of evil. He saw the executed (and externalized) symbols of Christianity come alive in the laboratories of alchemists. To Jung these ancient texts were a gold mine of symbols compensating, completing, and bringing the Christian consciousness to wholeness.

Jung wrote,

This was a time when the mind of the alchemist was still grappling with the problems of matter, when the exploring consciousness was confronted by the dark void of the unknown, in which figures and laws were dimly perceived and attributed to matter although they really belonged to the psyche. Everything unknown and empty is filled with psychological projection; it is as if the investigator’s own psychic background were mirrored in the darkness. What he sees in matter, or thinks he can see, is chiefly the data of his own unconscious which he is projecting into it. In other words, he encounters in matter, as apparently belonging to it, certain qualities and potential meanings of whose psychic nature he is entirely unconscious. (pp. 227-228)

To Jung the unconscious projection of the alchemist’s psychic content onto matter was a “Passion Play” of a different kind.