A few years back, I turned forty years old. On the cusp of this landmark birthday, I wrote about the stigma of so-called midlife crises. I resisted the idea that changes associated with midlife should be mocked, when indeed many of those changes actually represent something like birth itself. I have come to think, however, that I was perhaps naïve in my wild embrace of midlife self-birthing. I still believe what I said before, basically, which was that midlife occasions opportunity for self-knowledge in a way that is largely inaccessible to babies, children, adolescents, and novice adults. What I could not have known a few years back is how much it costs to answer the waking self’s summons.
In the years since I first started thinking about myself as a person in midlife, I have experienced a trifecta of sweeping changes in work, family, and health. My sense of self has been destabilized, and, even more, what I value has changed. In ways, I do not recognize myself, while in others, I do not recognize the girl in the photographs around my house. It seems like she was always hiding beneath her Mona Lisa smile the woman that would show up in a few decades. All these disillusionments! All these decisions! All this stuff in my kitchen and basement!
I might sum it up by saying that the past few years have not been easy ones. Yet, it has been the difficulty that makes it possible (at least for me) to begin in earnest to undertake a true spiritual walk. The challenge of these years has been in a most fundamental sense the question of myself to myself about how I will be in the world. It seems to me that one has to lose the illusions, the comforts, and the safety nets in order to meet fears, to find strength, and to determine what will be for the unchained self. “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” as the song goes.
Amidst the mess and the challenge, I have discovered the deepest appreciation for disruption. Everything that a person knows, that is, for a person who lives long enough, every single thing that one knows will change in its meaning and value. Health, wealth, love, friendship, trust, labor, desire, sexuality, taste, embodiment- everything transforms. And, it isn’t a matter of “if;” it is a matter of “when.” I find that I am grateful, truly grateful, to have encountered certain challenges early enough in life to be able to answer and respond in my own human growth with sufficient time to see what I will be like on the other side.
I have to say that I enjoyed the seeming simplicity of days of ascendency, when my babies were little and everyone was still alive. It was fun to be in graduate school and to feel enthusiastic about committee work as a junior professor. I didn’t used to mind the heavy ticket price of conference travel when travel was novel, and mulch was great to spread when I didn’t resent the tax structure in my community. I enjoyed that version of myself; she was a nice person, hardworking, confident, and grateful (even if she was hiding and bottling up anger, fear, and often her better judgment).
However, I think I will find much wiser and genuine the retiring self I am becoming, who gives away rather than gains, who conserves her work for value, and who minds the costs of being good and complicit. I look forward to discovering whether I will be a person with integrity. Will I be able to make professional changes that I can feel good about? Will I sustain relationships and make new ones that feel authentic and constructive? Am I a person who can learn new tricks?
It may or may not have been a favorable turn that I started reading Jung’s Red Book during this period of my life. His work sometimes frightens me, probably because I find it to come close to saying something true to the essence of human knowing. In this reading, I keep returning to some words I find particularly keen to my own experience of what Jung calls “The Desert.” He says:
My soul leads me into the desert, into the desert of my own self. I did not think that my soul is a desert, a barren hot desert, dusty and without drink. The journey leads through the hot sand, slowly wading without a visible goal to hope for… I take my way step by step and do not know how long my journey will last.
Jung’s context here is Christian, and he is asserting that it is in the desert that one can find the emptiness of worldly stuff that conditions the possibility of discovering a whole soul, as Jesus did. In his contemplation of the experience of foolishness, loss, and mockery of the self, by the self and by others, Jung offers:
Is there any one among you who believes he can be spared the way? Can he swindle his way past the pain of Christ? I say, such a won deceives himself to his own detriment. He beds down on thorns and fire…No one can be spared the way of Christ, since this way leads to what is to come. You should all become Christs… Be he himself, not Christians but Christ.
Jung’s wisdom here is that the great lesson in the holy books is not about the pursuit of Jesus himself, the great teacher of dictates and archetype for a Church institution, but rather the pursuit of the soul which Jesus himself pursued. A human being at some point invariably stands looking (not at Jesus) but with him.
To me, this explains why disruption and loss seem like such welcome opportunities these days. While the experience of disruption cannot endure healthfully forever, for a season it creates space for discovery, patience, and listening, especially for those whose general conditions are typically livable if not even privileged. The wilderness becomes the great teacher, and from that liminal state, the humanity of the self (whatever it will be) can be known and experienced.
It is a curious blessing to meet oneself as a stranger, thirsty, tired, and needing a bath.
Natalie Kertes Weaver, Ph.D., is Chair and Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Natalie’s academic books include: Marriage and Family: A Christian Theological Foundation (Anselm, 2009); Christian Thought and Practice: A Primer (Anselm, 2012); and The Theology of Suffering and Death: An Introduction for Caregivers (Routledge, 2013). Natalie’s most recent book is Made in the Image of God: Intersex and the Revisioning of Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2014). Natalie has also authored two art books: Interior Design: Rooms of a Half-Life and Baby’s First Latin. Natalie’s areas of interest and expertise include: feminist theology; theology of suffering; theology of the family; religion and violence; and (inter)sex and theology. Natalie is a married mother of two sons, Valentine and Nathan. For pleasure, Natalie studies classical Hebrew, poetry, piano, and voice.