We change constantly, continuously. Usually this process is slow—so slow it doesn’t register. Every so often, though, the fact we’ve changed breaks through our regular way of seeing things. We catch sight of it, and a sense of surprise catches us.
Rites of passage or initiation ceremonies traditionally help people through these changes. They also bring our attention to the fact transition is hard, which is why the ceremony is necessary. We invest in our current identity to such an extent that we have to be helped out of it and on into the next one. For this reason, such ceremonies often have a hardship involved in them, something that has to be endured as a figurative “death” of the old self.
Initiation follows a basic format:
- Separation from your current group
- Ritual “death and dismemberment,” which while not literal is often unpleasant and requires endurance
- The addition of the new material (a vision, instruction, insight, identity, etc.)
- A return to the world as the new person, with new duties
Our society has observations that mark some transitions but not others. Perhaps you can think of some of the ones we do have, depending on the cultural groups you’re familiar with. Baptism, first communion, bar and bat mitzvahs, quinceañeras, fraternity or sorority hazing, graduation ceremonies, and marriage are some of them.
Interestingly, these celebrations tend to cluster in the first stages of life, where transition is often cause for joy. But what about the change from youth to midlife? Or from middle age to old age? Or the first serious encounter with your own mortality? Here, not many rites or ceremonies come to mind. The transitions of later life are into states that, from the outside, at least, don’t look as inviting as do reaching sexual maturity or finally finishing school.
Let’s look at an example of using therapy to negotiate a difficult life passage.
Jason (not his real name) is experiencing some of the symptoms of depression—feelings of hopelessness, some agitation, significant loss of pleasure. But he’s not reporting feelings of worthlessness or guilt, and this makes me wonder if this really is depression.
Jason is a fairly successful actor, handsome, poised, and casually but fashionably dressed. He looks to be somewhere in his thirties. As we talk about what’s going on for him, he says, “I don’t enjoy what’s always made life worth living. I don’t like traveling anymore. A lot of the excitement’s gone out of sex, and sex has always been important to me. And, frankly, I don’t really care if I get this part I’m in line for. Which is how I make my living, so that’s why I’m here.” It turns out during the assessment that I’m mistaken about his age—Jason’s actually in his late forties.
We noticed above that a symbolic “death” of the old identity is part of initiation ceremonies. What our culture doesn’t provide us, the psyche often does. Here, Jason’s loss of pleasure has the effect of removing him from the groups of which he’s been a member since his late teens—people excited by acting, people who bring a lot of energy to their sexuality.
We note together that Jason has been pursuing the same interests since high school. I mention that “things get old sometimes.” We talk about a paradox he’s observed in the theater, which is that if a show runs for many years it’s considered a success, yet it’s hard for an actor to be enthusiastic about the same role and keep it fresh for years.
I note parenthetically that there aren’t many myths about people renewing their youth that turn out happily.
I ask him what actors do when they get older. Jason grimaces and says, “Character roles.” I challenge this, and it turns out we can each think of a number of main characters who aren’t youthful romantic leads. And yet I can still feel Jason’s boredom in the room. This isn’t taking him anywhere.
My first attempt elicits an image of midlife identity that is being seen from the position of youth. “Character roles” are less than—a diminishment—to Jason’s way of thinking.
It isn’t until our third session that I think to ask, “What are you most afraid of doing?”
And for the first time, his boredom breaks. “I’ve thought about directing,” he admits. Immediately he tries to cover it again with a laugh. “Don’t tell me that isn’t the biggest cliché you’ve ever heard.”
“I don’t know about it being a cliché. What’s the scariest part of that?”
“Telling people what to do. That they wouldn’t listen.” He pauses, still thinking. “That if they did, I might be wrong, and the show would be a flop because of me.”
“What would happen then?”
“I would have failed everyone.”
The transitions of later life are into states that, from the outside, at least, don’t look as inviting as do reaching sexual maturity or finally finishing school.
“With your permission, I’m going to keep asking this question. If you need us to stop, we can. What would happen if you failed everyone?”
To each of his responses I ask the same question, monitoring him for stress or any signs of dissociation. In this way we go down, step by step, to the worst place in Jason’s inner life. We get to a place where if he fails to please others they will abandon him, and the feelings of shame and fear and loneliness will be so intense that he won’t be able to survive them. And yet these “unbearable” feelings are what he’s currently experiencing in session. To support our spending time in the unbearable place, I ask him to tell me how it feels, where he feels it in his body, and anything that will support his staying with it. At one point, I quietly ask him how he’s doing. It’s terrible, he says, but he’s OK. “In spite of the terrible feeling, you’re basically OK,” I repeat.
Now I ask what would make these unbearable feelings even the tiniest bit better, shifting them from unbearable to just-barely-bearable. He tells me his dog is waiting for him to get home to walk and feed him; this makes him feel slightly better. I ask again: what would make this feeling better? Step by step we come back up, somewhat more easily than we went down. Knowing that his dog depends on him gives rise to his feeling connected to others who wouldn’t actually abandon him even if “he really blew it.” And, even if they did, Jason says “sooner or later I’d just get back on my feet.”
This descent corresponds to the “death” stage of initiation, and the step-by-step arousal of Jason’s core feelings of fear, shame, and sorrow to the “dismemberment” stage. His willing experience of the “unbearable” feeling and his describing it out loud are an incorporation of previously unconscious material into his conscious viewpoint and sense of identity.
I ask him to tell me who a director is. He brings forward an identity of someone whose effectiveness is based on his lived experience and the knowledge he’s gained—what works onstage, what the text of the play means on all its levels, what individual actors are capable of, and how to help them access that potential.
In following sessions, we make two more descents at Jason’s suggestion. From the insights Jason gains, we put together a new story of his life thus far. In this story, his work as an actor and his interactions with others have been about pleasing people so that they will stay with him. Having found a role in life that compensated his fear of being shamefully abandoned, it turned out that the compensation compounded the original fear, making him unwilling to risk change. His resistance to change brought him to a crisis point—a crisis because aging is a process that can’t be stopped. And while the “intolerable” feelings didn’t seem to be about aging, his encounter with them decreases the fear and makes it conscious, where it can be assessed and worked with, rather than remaining something he unconsciously flees. A director is someone with enough ground under his feet to issue direction even at the risk of not playing to the people he directs. Generativity is a way of describing activity that both benefits others and leaves your mark on some part of the world. It’s often a sign of a successful adaption to midlife.
Whether or not Jason goes on to direct plays, he’s successfully brought forward from the psyche the identity of the man in midlife and begins to live it. Or in the model we’ve been following, he completes this initiation.
For further readings, please see Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy by Mircea Eliade or Arnold van Gennep’s classic The Rites of Passage. Allan B. Chinen’s brilliant Once Upon a Midlife is also well worth the read. Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development, especially the stages from young adulthood on, is a particularly bright light as well.
If you are experiencing challenges adjusting to midlife, I encourage you to seek support from a mental health professional.
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