The midlife passage is one of the great thresholds in life. It is a period of intense personal transformation marked by the passing of youth coupled with a growing awareness of our own mortality. James Hollis describes this period of time as the middle passage, in which we move from misery to meaning. How does the middle passage lead us toward a deeper sense of meaning in life?
This article explores a selection of ideas presented by James Hollis in his book, The Middle Passage: From Misery to Meaning in Midlife (1993). Rather than providing a book review, my interest is focused on identifying the core elements in the shift from misery to meaning.
I awoke in a dark wood
The Middle passage is a child of aging. It is a threshold in which we must pass between the first and second half of life.
In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in a dark wood, where the true way was wholly lost.
– Dante in The Divine Comedy: Inferno, Canto I)
The idea of awakening in the midst of a dark wood (dark forest, dark wood of error) having lost the true way captures the crisis of the midlife passage. Dante describes the dark wood as being savage, dense, and harsh, a description that also retrieves a dark night of the soul.
We awake to find ourselves abandoned in a cold, silent, and inhospitable realm. The darkness of the woods arrests our perception and defies our comprehension. The dark wood is the very essence of fear and uncertainty.
The darkness that falls upon us is internal; it is a deep interior darkness that infuses our body, mind, and spirit. The familiar and comfortable routines in life begin to feel strange, foreign, and alien. More importantly, they no longer offer a sense of fulfillment or vitality. The world around us has not changed, but our sense of identity, meaning, and purpose within it is undergoing a deep transformation.
At some point in midlife, we awake from the somnambulism that characterizes much of our journey through the first half of life. The idea of sleepwalking symbolizes the loss of the true way, that is to say, the loss of our authentic presence in natural seasons of life. We awake in the dark wood to the shocking realization that a great deal of our time to this point in our life has been spent living a provisional life.
And then, from somewhere in behind the darkness, mortality whispers to us that our time here is running out.
The dark wood turns each one of us into a stranger in a familiar land. There is, however, an important purpose to the misery of being wholly lost, and that is to shed the dynamics that constrict and hinder our experience of life so that we may renew our sense of identity. Through our misery, we discover an opportunity to reclaim our true inheritance – the freedom to embrace our authenticity and become who we truly are.
The Middle Passage
The unwavering truth of the psyche is: change or wither into resentment; grow or die within.
– Hollis, 1993
Based on average life expectancy, the middle of life would occur roughly around the age of forty. Depending on our experiences in life, however, the midlife passage can present itself in our twenties or as late as our sixties. It may be that some people remain trapped the confines of midlife until their death.
A passage is a journey or adventure across an unfamiliar terrain in order to move from one place to another. Uncertainty and the unexpected are our constant traveling companions during the midlife passage. Along the way, we must constantly endure the difficulties that we find ourselves in. Inside of these difficulties we hear the fierce call of our destiny.
How long does it take to complete the passage? The midlife passage is not a phase of life that has clearly identifiable chronological start and end points. Personal transformation does not easily lend itself to the mechanics of time-keeping. The middle passage is less about the duration of time and more about the depth of our experience in time. In the end, some people may experience relatively smooth and short passage, while others remain confined in the midlife passage until death’s release.
The heart of the middle passage is the felt-meaning of time. As mortality reaches out to us, we sense a different time horizon. The time of our life acquires a new and more realistic sensibility that is tuned to the natural cycles of life.
A Rite of Passage
The Middle Passage is an occasion for redefining and reorienting the personality, a rite of passage between the extended adolescence of first adulthood and our inevitable appointment with old age and mortality. Those who travel the passage consciously render their lives more meaningful. Those who do not risk the journey remain prisoners of childhood, however successful they may appear in outer life.
– Hollis, 1993
To travel the middle passage consciously is to take the courageous step, or as David Whyte says, the step you don’t want to take. Failure to take the step we fear the most, sentences us to remain prisoners of childhood
Midlife as a rite of passage is a modern idea that originated in the 20th century. One reason for this is that increases in longevity have extended the realm of human experience deeper into old age. Our definition of “old age” has changed over time and continues to evolve today.
Another reason for the emergence of the middle passage is that the focal point of psychological power and responsibility for creating meaning, purpose, and identity has shifted away from institutions and has been placed firmly into the hands of the individual. Church and state are no longer the primary hubs of identity. The responsibility for creating meaning resides firmly with the individual.
The Middle Passage occurs when the person is obliged to view his or her life as something more than a linear succession of years.
– Hollis, 1993.
Time is not merely sequential and linear. There is also a depth dimension to time, that is to say, a felt-meaning in time. It is possible to become old without having a deep experience of life. Age does not make us wiser simply because more years have passed by and we are now older.
The Middle Passage is a point of no return. There is no option to turn around and go back in time. We either center ourselves in the here and now, or remain confined by the trappings of youth.
The first adulthood, which may, in fact, extend throughout one’s life, is a provisional existence, lacking the depth and uniqueness which makes that person truly an individual.
– Hollis, 1993
Hollis characterizes the first half of life as a provisional existence, a way of life that lacks depth and authenticity. The middle passage is the space in which our persona and our authentic self-collide. The light at the end of the tunnel is the second half of life.
Seismic Collisions in Midlife
The midlife passage marks the fall of the persona and the rise of the authentic self.
Persona means mask or character. It is the facade we create in response to the requirements of our family, education, work, and culture. Our persona is the public identity we invent in order to successfully perform our job, role, and function in society.
Authentic means genuine, real, or pure. Our authentic self is discovered through our unique talent, passion, and sense of vocation in life. These aspects of our identity are pure in the sense that they are not defined or influenced by an external job, role, or function. The authentic self is our primary source of meaning, purpose, and identity in life.
Midlife is the terrain on which the persona collides with our authentic self.
This is the one aspect of the appointment we have with ourselves during the Middle Passage: to reclaim those parts of ourselves left behind through specialization, ignorance or prohibition.
– Hollis, 1993
Our persona, the provider of stability in the first half of life becomes remarkably unstable in midlife. The unlived aspects of our life begin to demand our attention. Performing a role, regardless of our success, no longer provides enough meaning. And even though we cannot recall how we arrived, we suddenly find ourselves on the mercurial terrain of midlife.
Hollis describes these encounters with the unlived aspects of our lives as seismic intimations, a kind of mental and physicaltectonic pressure that builds from below. Like two tectonic plates, our persona and the unlived aspects of our lives begin to scrape, grate, and grind against one another.
The resulting friction often presents itself as uncertainty, confusion, and inner turmoil. We begin to feel a sense of discomfort with our current course of life, regardless of our material success and power. Superficiality is brutally scraped away. Nothing has prepared us for this humbling change in life.
If our reaction is one of avoidance, we turn away from our fears and make naive attempts to cling to the familiarity of our youth. This may present itself as a dramatic and destructive change in our relationships, or as an obsessive attachment to youthful appearances. Sadly, some of us live under the delusion that there is value in clinging to the cult of youth.
If our reaction is one of acceptance, we step into our fears in order to see what they have in store for us. Our deepest fears have the potential to become our greatest mentors. This is the essence of making a successful midlife passage, and entering fully into the second half of life.
The Touch of Humility
The midlife passage is a humbling experience. The inflation of our youth collides with the fierce reality of our impermanence. The felt-meaning of time shifts inside our body as we become more attuned to the natural cycles of life.
During the Middle Passage it is useful to see how one’s successes have also been imprisoning, constrictive to the whole person.
– Hollis, 1993
Hollis believed that the middle passage is characterized by the experience of disappointment. We feel a sense of defeat in that our expectations and wishes for our lives have not been fulfilled. We might become disheartened by the loss of our youth and our decreasing time horizon in life. A core experience in the midlife passage is, therefore, a deep sense of disappointment:
- We no longer believe that if we act correctly, everything will work out.
- We no longer believe that our ego can bring a meaningful life.
- We are shocked to find ourselves not living an authentic life.
- We feel disillusioned with our existing relationships and may engage in destructive behaviors.
- We become disheartened by the enormous price of economic servitude and performing work that does not contribute to our sense of vocation.
- We realize that the success we have achieved in the external world may also be a source of confinement.
In the middle passage we are disappointed to learn that our old ways of life no longer provide comfort or security. There is no way to turn back and return to life as it was, but there is also no reason to want to. Our task is to turn into our sense of disappointment in order to begin the process of re-creating our life.
Perhaps more than any other quality it is humility that ushers in a shift away from misery and lays the foundation for the creation of meaning. Although this idea was not stated by Hollis, I sense that it is the underlying ground of the movement from misery to meaning in midlife.