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Middle-aged Kangxi Emperor, around age 40 to50, Qing Dynasty

Midlife Transition


“Midway in this mortal life I found myself astray.”



"Those who lose dreaming are lost."

                                                           -Australian Aboriginal Proverb


“It was a dream come true!”  Imagine that you had reached a point in life where you could look at all that you had done in your life as a dream come true.  That’s what happened to Dante Alighieri. All his life he had nurtured an aspiration for political power in his native city of Florence.  He fulfilled that dream, becoming elected one of the supreme magistrates of the city.  But at the moment of triumph, it was all snatched away from him.  In the year of his dream-come-true, he fell from power, was condemned to death, and then was exiled from his native city, never to return.  His dream had turned to ashes.  What to do? 



Astonishingly, instead of bitterness toward those who had destroyed the dream, Dante turned his gaze inward.  He began his greatest work with the famous lines above, realizing that, even before his dream vanished, he himself had been far astray from his true self, as he tells us candidly.


The opening lines from Dante’s Divine Comedy were written at a time of decisive transition, for both Dante the poet and for the wider culture of Western civilization in the late Middle Ages.  Dante sets his poem in the year 1300, when he was 35 years old, at the precise midpoint of the Biblical lifespan of three score years and ten.  The poem itself came after Dante’s exile from Florence and the bitter punishment he suffered. In the Comedy itself Dante the pilgrim is cast as Everyman, the voyager who makes his way from the depths of hell, through purgatory, into a celestial vision of paradise.  In making this spiritual journey Dante frames for us an enduring story for the second half of life.  For Dante, as for us, the second half of life can be a time when we turn away from the dreams of youth, fulfilled or not, toward a deeper understanding of our place in the universe and toward the ultimate meaning of our lives.


Dante’s Comedy was written at a unique historical moment.  In 1300 Dante the poet could take for granted a whole framework of common culture embodied in the medieval Church and in traditions of philosophy and literature.  By refashioning the epic poems of Homer and Virgil, Dante could recast classical ideas in his own terms.  Instead of being an isolated individual, he could see his own life in terms of a larger religious cosmology where the individual life-course found pattern and purpose.  Such a framework is rarely available today.  By the 20th century, James Joyce, in his own masterpiece Ulysses, would try to frame a similar epic.  But now a whole human lifetime was condensed into a single day.  Joyce offers us two heroes in his story: a young Stephen Daedalus and a midlife Leopold Bloom.  The hero is depicted as someone seeking for meaning not in an afterlife, but in everyday activities.  Those everyday activities display only a distant echo of mythic meanings.  A wider “map of life,” which Dante could take for granted, was no longer available to Joyce or his contemporaries.


One of those contemporaries was the novelist Virginia Woolf, who practiced the stream of consciousness technique which Joyce had pioneered in Ulysses.  Like Dante, Woolf faced the challenge of midlife transition. Her mood is well conveyed in a diary entry in 1926, at age 44, when she wrote that although she enjoyed her work and her life, there was something unsettled in her life at that time:  “I have some restless searcher in me.  Why is there not a discovery in life?  Something one can lay hands on and say, ‘This is it?’ “ This same question about life, expressed from the time of Dante through Virginia Woolf, is equally reflected in popular culture today, for example, in the famous lyrics sung by Peggy Lee: “Is that all there is?” 


The recurrent question, “Is that all there is?” is identified by Daniel Levinson in the preface to his book The Seasons of a Man's Life, when he writes, "Adults hope that life begins at 40--but the great anxiety is that it ends there." Levinson speaks of midlife as a time for confronting the great mysteries of life:


In this period the archetypal self take a greater definition and vitality… the self is the ‘I’ a man has in mind when he asks, ‘What do I really want?  How do I feel about my life?  How shall I live in the future?”


Popular culture has enshrined these questions in the phrase “midlife crisis,” as Gail Sheehy did in her book Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life.  But the term “crisis” will not be used in this book. Instead, we speak of “midlife transition,” viewing the middle years as a period entailing a reevaluation of one’s life.  For Dante, certainly, that reevaluation meant a realization that he had gone astray, as he says at the opening of the Divine Comedy.  Dante’s reassessment of his life was prompted by a very tangible crisis: death sentence and exile from his native Florence.  In the circumstances, he couldn’t avoid asking hard questions.  For some people asking those questions also comes with a crisis—illness, divorce, loss of job, and so on.  For others it is a gnawing sense of the question of meaning reflected in the opening lines of my book, The Five Stages of the Soul: “ ‘Time is running out,’ a little voice whispers.”  “Is this all there is?” the little voice whispers.  “A portion of my life is already over. Shouldn’t things be better?  Or at least different?”


This is the moment James Hollis has described as the “Middle Passage:”


            The Middle Passage occurs when the person is obliged to view his or her life as something more than a linear succession of years. The longer one remains unconscious, which is quite easy to do in our culture, the more likely one is to see life only as a succession of moments leading toward some vague end, the purpose of which will become clear in due time. When one is stunned into consciousness, a vertical dimension, kairos, intersects the horizontal plane of life; one’s life span is rendered in a depth perspective: “Who am I, then, and whither bound?”


            For Hollis, midlife is a time for asking deeper questions:


            The Middle Passage begins when the person is obliged to ask anew the question of meaning which once circumambulated the child’s imagination but was effaced over the years. The Middle Passage begins when one is required to face issues which heretofore had been patched over. The question of identity returns and one can no longer evade responsibility for it. Again, the Middle Passage starts when we ask, “Who am I, apart from my history and the roles I have played?”


During the Middle Passage that little whispering voice may come in dreams.  Since midlife represents a major point in lifespan development, it is natural to expect that this psychological shift would be reflected in our dreams.  As Alan Siegel, former President of the International Association for the Study of Dreams has put it, “At mid-life, dreams begin a transformation that reflects a transformation that parallels increasing internal perceptions of mortality, questioning and re-evaluation of values and relationships and changes in identity, body image and spirituality. Exploring and understanding these dreams will assist individuals and caregivers in helping those at midlife gain reassurance, awareness, and new perspectives on many aspects of life.”  The unconscious perception of mortality is often the stimulus to the dreams of midlife transition.



Midlife at the Peak





Life at the Crossroads


Let us begin to consider midlife transition by listening to that “little voice” in our dreams through the following examples of dreams that open up deeper questions about meaning in the second half of life.




The following is the dream of a forty-three-year old successful businessman who became depressed in midlife:


            My car wouldn't steer and I tried to go through an old brick tunnel over a road and got stuck against the edge because of no steering. Also I couldn't see ahead as I was on top of the hill.




The following is the dream of a forty-two-year old man in the midst of mid-life questioning:


             I dreamed that the construction of a freeway in a suburb [of the city] is nearing completion.  There is a vast expanse of asphalt but no median strips, painted arrows or traffic lights.


Rosalind Cartwright says that “Dreaming is our own storytelling time—to help us know who we are, where we're going and how we're going to get there."  What is the story these two dreams are telling us?  Both dreams draw on the image of driving.  In the first, “Steering,” the dreamer is driving the car, a perfect symbol of self-management and control.  But the dreamer cannot control the car, and this condition reflects his depression and confusion about where he will go next for the rest of his life.  There is a tunnel that might be a way out for him, but because he can’t steer the car—and can’t control his life—he cannot find the way.  The final lines display a paradox.  The dreamer is “on top of the hill,” at the high point of life, just as Dante was before his fall as leader of Florence.  He at the top, where one ought to be able to see. But the dreamer cannot see, just as Dante could not see correctly because he was “astray.”


In the dream titled “Freeway” the dreamer is evidently driving, but he is confronted with “construction…nearing completion.”  The “construction” in this dream is the life we have made for ourselves by midlife, the empirical self reflected in our resume, the family photo album, in our accumulated memories.  As the dream of youth is now “nearing completion” the dreamer confronts a problem: the rest of life, the second half of life, is just a “vast expanse” without any guidance and directions.  This dreamer finds himself, like Dante, “astray.”


Both of these dreams employ imagery of the automobile, that great 20th century instrument that promotes autonomy and control in our movement through the world.  Think of the importance of driving for adolescents who are trying to break free and strike out on their own. It is natural that driving a car would represent autonomy and also represent the “middle passage” when we, in every respect, simply don’t know where we are going. The car, then, is an important dream symbol: "In countless ways, psyche's conscious and unconscious have registered the impact of the automobile."


There may come a point in our lives when the autonomy symbolized by the car no longer works: in the first dream, the dreamer's car "wouldn't steer," and so he gets stuck trying to make his way through "an old brick tunnel."  It is curious that the dreamer "couldn't see ahead" even though his car was "at the top of a hill."  These contradictory images-- a tunnel underground and the dreamer at the top of a hill-- suggest opposite poles of the psyche: a path through the underworld and then the high hilltop, a point where we ought to be able to see far ahead.  But not for this dreamer.  Despite being in a good position to see-- "at the top of a hill"-- he cannot see and so he remains stuck.


The second dream makes the use of the imagery of a road or path or, in our contemporary terminology, a "freeway."  The dreamer is seeking a path which would be free or lead to freedom.  But in this dream the road leads only to confusion.  In "big" dreams a city may represent the totality of the psyche or the self in its comprehensiveness. In this second dream the city (the self) is "nearing completion" but the dreamer remains on the outskirts, in the suburbs, not in the city itself.  To go into the self is to enter strange territory where we need guidance if we are not to get lost.  This dreamer, in the midst of crisis, finds no guidance: no median strips, no arrows, no traffic lights.  Here is an image of the self without direction, without any way of finding a "free" way to enter the city of the genuine self.


Midlife Anxiety


At midlife, it the “little voice” whispers that “time is running” out.  We fear that perhaps we have already have missed our crucial opportunity, as in the following dream:




A carousel is going round and round and I am holding on. The centrifugal force is such that it can easily break my neck but I tense my neck muscles.  I am told that I have missed an opportunity.


Something of the same feeling is conveyed in the following dream, but now with a more optimistic sense that possibilities are still open to the dreamer:




Here is the dream of middle-aged CEO facing a new challenge:


             I am back in school, learning a foreign language.  I am told that if I graduate, I will be given a higher degree in philosophy.  The work is hard, but a teaching assistant gives me private coaching.  He takes me to a place in the deep woods.  He tells me I'll find it easier to study there.


In this dream the middle-aged CEO is back in school, but what he is it that he needs to learn?  And what sort of school is this anyway?  In the dream, he is faced with learning a foreign language—not something easy for any middle-aged person to learn.  Indeed, at midlife, we all have to go back to school again.  We must go beyond the “language” of the first half of life and learn an entirely new language with which we are unaccustomed.  Here lies an essential task of the midlife transition, as Jung put it:


            "Wholly unprepared, [people] embark upon the second half of life.  Or are there perhaps colleges for forty-year-olds which prepare them for their coming life and its demands as the ordinary colleges introduce our young people to knowledge of the world and of life?  No, there are none.  Thoroughly unprepared we take the step into the afternoon of life; worse still, we take this step with the false presupposition that our truths and ideas will serve us as hitherto.  But we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the programme of life's morning-- for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie."


 Jung’s description fits the dreamers in “Missed Opportunity” and “Back to School.”  The dreamers need direction and guidance.  Where will they find it?  In “Back in School, there is a mysterious “teaching assistant” who takes his pupil (the dreamer) into “a place in the deep woods,” where the real learning will take place.  We recall that Dante began his Divine Comedy in with these words: "I found myself astray, in a dark wood.  Ah, who can say how terrible that was!"  Dante, at the mid-point of life, will go on, in his allegorical vision, to encounter Virgil, who serves as his guide through the underworld, the Inferno, ascending to the higher ranks of Purgatory.  The "dark wood" here can be understood in many ways, but there is a parallel with the malaise depicted in midlife dreams.  On the positive side, in “Back to School” the dreamer has a “teaching assistant” who takes him into “the deep woods” just as Dante had the poet Virgil serving as his guide when he found himself in the dark wood.


Whether it appears in Dante’s poetry or in contemporary midlife dreams, there arises this persistent question of meaning:  who am I, after all?  How do I find true freedom?   Midlife dreams suggest that autonomy involves a coincidence of opposites: we need to go up to the peak but also down through the tunnel, down into the underworld, as Dante had to do when he descended into the Inferno before ascending to Paradise.  Going higher and going lower seem contradictory.  Where will we find guidance?  Finding the path to freedom evidently requires guidance, not simply the absence of restraint.  When there are no signs, no direction, the self wanders in confusion, like the driver in “Missed Opportunity.”  Dreams of depression and crisis often underscore this contemporary hunger for freedom and self-fulfillment in the second half of life.  It is not so easy to find the way forward.


Dreams of midlife transition are not always filled with anguish.  Here is another dream just after the dreamer’s fortieth birthday, often an important milestone:




            I recently reached my fortieth birthday and dreamt I was walking uphill. It was quite tough going. When I got to the top I saw the road on the other side was very steep. I felt frightened of going down it. I looked around and saw that the top of the hill stretched away on each side, so there was plenty of space, like a plateau. I realised that I could walk around and there is no hurry to go down the hill.


“Climbing Uphill” recalls a comment by writer George Sand: “It is quite wrong to think of old age as a downward slope. One climbs higher and higher with advancing years, with surprising strides.”


Carl Jung was one of the first to identify midlife as a period of transition and potential growth.  He drew upon his own experience of midlife transition.  At 37, it was already becoming clear to Jung that his approach to psychoanalysis differed profoundly from his mentor, Sigmund Freud.  Before long, Jung’s midlife transition would be marked by a final break with Freud.  Here is a dream that for Jung foretold that transition:


                                                            BORDER CROSSING


It was toward evening, and I saw an elderly man in the uniform of an Imperial Austrian customs official.  He walked past, somewhat stooped, without paying any attention to me.  His expression was peevish, rather melancholic and vexed.  There were other person present, and someone informed me that the old man was not really there but was the ghost of a customs official who had died years ago.  'He was one of those who still can't die properly.'


This dream displays revealing images of two towering figures of depth psychology, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.  Jung writes about his own interpretation of this dream:


I set about analyzing this dream.  In connection with ‘customs’ I at once thought of the word ‘censorship.’ In connection with ‘border’ I thought of the border between consciousness and the unconscious on the one hand and between Freud’s views and mine on the other.  This extremely rigorous customs examination at the border seemed to me an allusion to analysis.  At the border suitcases are opened and examined for contraband.  In the course of this examination, unconscious assumptions are discovered.


As for the old customs official, his work had obviously brought him so little that was pleasurable and satisfactory that he took a sour view of the world.  I could not refuse to see the analogy with Freud.



The peevish and melancholic image of Freud depicted in this dream reflects Jung's own attitude toward Freud and toward the results of Freudian analysis. Freud would often say that the aim of analysis was to produce "ordinary misery" in place of neurosis.  There was therapeutic optimism here, but not the expectation of “living happily ever after.”  The best that could be hoped for, in Freud’s famous phrase, was “Where Id was, there Ego shall be.”  Psychoanalysis was, ultimately, a process of “growing up,” perhaps giving up the infantile dream of unbounded happiness. 


But Jung wanted something more than “ordinary misery.”  Jung at this time was writing an important work, The Symbols of Transformation, and he suspected that his book would not meet with Freud's approval.  “Bordering Crossing” is set in a distinctive place: at a border point, the boundary between two countries.  It is an appropriate image because Jung, at just this time, was moving across the boundary from one sovereign realm (Freudian theory) into another, unknown country.  The unknown country would be his own approach to the psyche, which would occupy him for the rest of his life.  His midlife transition signaled “crossing a boundary” in himself.


The elderly "customs official" in this dream symbolizes Freud's own view of "dream censorship" according to his theory of repression.  A customs official, after all, is a suspicious and repressive figure.  The customs official who could not die represented Freud's strong grip on Jung, a power of domination which "would not die."  Ironically, in the image of the dream, the old man is described as only a "ghost" that is present.


The transition for Jung would not be easy.  Two years later he would find himself in the midst of a severe psychological crisis, when he dreamed that “a frightful cold had descended from out of the cosmos...”  This was the point when Jung had broken with Freud and had given up many of the supports of his life up until that time: his academic career and his affiliation with the psychoanalytic movement.  In Jung’s midlife dream he confronted the following powerful image:


            a leafbearing tree, but without any fruit (my tree of life, I thought), whose leaves had been transformed by the effects of the frost into sweet grapes full of healing juices.  I plucked the grapes and gave them to a large, waiting crowd.


Jung had found here an archetypal symbol, the tree of life, flowering in the midst of this “frightful cold” that had descended on him.  Jung’s own book, The Symbols of Transformation, reflects a powerful symbolic transformation itself: namely, the way frost (midlife crisis) can turn sweet grapes into healing juices.  Jung believed that the manifest content of dreams can comment upon and illuminate the contents of our conscious life. Jung understood the language of dreams to be, not a deception, but a kind of self-revelation.  The imagery of dreams unfolds “as a plant grows or an animal seeks food” so that dreaming spontaneously composes imagery which, like a parable, “does not conceal but it teaches.” A dream, therefore, is not a “façade” but a “text,” or a “little hidden door.”


Dreams, in other words, do not deceive us, but reveal to us truths that are not yet accessible to ordinary consciousness.  Jung further insisted that modern man is suffering from a profound estrangement, or alienation, from a symbolic attitude toward the universe, an attitude receptive to multiple dimensions of meaning.  In short, we are very far from the world of Dante. With the decline of traditional religious belief, many of us lack access to rituals or symbols that give meaning to every stage of life, and this loss is profoundly felt in the second half of life, from midlife through old age.  It is in the realm of dreams that we may find a more positive "return of the repressed," in this case, an orientation toward what is transcendent in our lives and what can give us hope.


Second Acts


            F. Scott Fitzgerald once famously remarked that “There are no second acts in American lives.”  He was perhaps alluding to his own career, which displayed early brilliance with The Great Gatsby, followed later by what he himself would call “the crack up” in midlife.  For Fitzgerald midlife represented a failure to live up to youthful promise.  He faithfully lived out the pattern out, dying at the age of 43.  More profoundly, Fitzgerald’s pessimistic remark is a reminder that in contemporary culture we lack guidelines for what to do next in the second half of life.  This lack of guidance is reflected in the following dream from Sheila Moon.  It is from her remarkable book, Dreams of a Woman, a lifelong collection of dreams which we will draw upon throughout this book.  Here is Moon’s dream at age 36:


                     SECOND ACT OF THE PLAY


 I am suddenly in a play.  I haven’t rehearsed for it, but it seems as if I knew the lines because I had seen the play before.  I have no costume and have to wear my own clothes.  I get through the first act all right, although feeling uncertain and making up lines sometimes.  Then, while scenes are being changed, I realize I don’t know what comes next at all.  A woman director, rather stern, says I’m doing fairly well but should do better.  Then I try to find a copy of my part, but cannot.


Sheila Moon’s dream goes on to describe how in the play she is guided “through basements and corridors to the staircase” where she must “climb up a very narrow spiral ladder.”  She climbs up the ladder, waiting her entrance into the play even though she still doesn’t know her lines, but hoping “that I’ll just have to respond spontaneously if I can.”  At the time Moon was carrying on a substantial psychotherapy practice and giving seminars.  She was leading a busy life, while also responding to inner demands.  The “play” of her life had moved beyond its first act, a situation in which we all know the lines because we have “seen the play before:” that is, we have been socialized by family and education and career into how to play the roles we are cast in through youth and early life.  But in the second half of life, the dreamer says she has no costume and has to wear her own clothes. 


This need for “wearing of our own clothes” is the task of individuation, or “becoming the person we were meant to be.” This task will considered in more depth in the following chapter.  Here we note the presence of the woman director in Sheila Moon’s dream. This “director” is the one who controls the play, who represents the voice in each of us who tells us we should “do better,” and perhaps gives us guidance on how to play our part.   Most of us are familiar with that voice.  Yet, just like Sheila Moon, we can’t find a copy of our part so we don’t know what to do.  We don’t want to recite lines written by someone else.  But how do we find a copy of our own part? 


This insight into midlife transition is what Sheila Moon comes to after she has been guided through the underworld (“through basements and corridors”), just as Dante had to do. In the opening of the Divine Comedy, Dante tell us that he “refound himself” (mi ritrovai) and it happened not “in” the dark wood but “through” the dark wood (per una selva oscura per).  As Helen Luke puts it, “it is precisely through the terrifying experience of the dark wood that we find the way of return to innocence” and “the coming to consciousness is not a discovery of some new thing: it is a long and painful return to that which has always been.”


In Sheila Moon’s own intensive analysis, she has climbed a narrow ladder of self-knowledge and reached the point where she acknowledges that, like an actor in a play, she doesn’t know her own lines.  But she has a positive feeling nonetheless, a hope of responding spontaneously to growth in the second half of life.


 At age 37, during a midlife transition which she describes as “breaking apart” Sheila Moon had another dream in which she is climbing a ladder:




I had to return alone to a high place by climbing a difficult and precarious ladder.  I could see the tower-like structure, and knew I must make it, but alone.  I was walking in snow, and people were laughing at me because I was so tired and weak.  I had on heavy gloves to protect my hands while climbing, but I kept losing them…


Just as in the previous dream Sheila Moon must climb up a ladder, now felt to be “difficult and precarious.”  Here is an important clue to midlife transition: the ladder is a recurrent archetypal symbol in the dreamworld: "Ordinary and magical, the ladder's specific character evokes the sense of climbing through space, suspension above an abyss and the inking of  disparate realms."  In shamanic traditions, the ladder may understood as a transition beyond the limits of space and time, an initiatory passage which, as Sheila Moon describes it, is "difficult and precarious."  This midlife dream of "Climbing a Ladder," then points to a different kind of progress through life: "To climb a ladder is to make vertical progress up or down one step at a time, each involving a temporary stabilization and rebalancing."  As in her dream about "The Second Act of a Play," the dreamer must learn a new part for which she is unprepared.          


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