In previous posts at Life Assays and Olderhood.com, I wrote about the cover story in the Atlantic that describes the “happiness U-curve,” the finding that happiness decreases in the decades of early adulthood, reaches a low in midlife, and increases in late adulthood. The decline in midlife may stem from increased awareness of our mortality, dissatisfaction with what we accomplished up to that point, and the dawning realization that we’ll never be able to make up the shortfall. We are likely then to go through a grieving process, mourning the loss of our earlier dreams and putting them to rest. There is a spiritual aspect to midlife grief, and that aspect is the topic of this post.
What does it mean to be spiritual? I like Ronald Rolheiser’s explanation of the term. In his book The Holy Longing, he writes:
“We do not wake up in this world calm and serene, having the luxury of choosing to act or not act. We wake up crying, on fire with desire, with madness. What we do with that madness is our spirituality.”
As Rolheiser understands it, to be alive is to have desire, and each of us needs to decide what to do with that desire, how to channel it. “Desire makes us act and when we act what we do will either lead to a greater integration or disintegration within our personalities, minds, and bodies—and to the strengthening or deterioration of our relationship to God, others, and the cosmic world.”
As we seek to satisfy our desires, we receive various responses. These are never exactly what we had hoped for. “Soon enough, we realize that our lives are not fair, that we are not loved and valued as we deserve, and that our dreams can never really be fulfilled.” Our disappointments become particularly acute at midlife, when we realize that “we are so rich and that all of this richness has really no place to go.” Our choices then are either to become permanently angry and disaffected or to grieve our losses. For Rolheiser, “the greatest spiritual and psychological challenge for us once we reach mid-life is to mourn our deaths and losses.”
Richard Rohr, in Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, gives a similar description of loss and spirituality in midlife and beyond. He suggests that we can only progress spiritually if we experience some disappointment or failure—that we “stumble over a necessary stumbling stone.” This can lead us to an encounter with God unlike the more egocentric faith experiences common earlier in life. “By definition, authentic God experience is always ‘too much’! It consoles our True Self only after it has devastated our false self.”
The false self that Rohr believes is devastated in the encounter with God is the same self that is devastated by midlife disappointments. It is a self constructed of flimsy twigs–the acclaim of others and the accomplishments we’ve amassed. These burn to ash in the divine encounter, allowing us to see the true self that was previously obscured.
And what is that true self we stand to gain once the false self is in ashes? Rohr describes it this way:
“Your True self is who you objectively are from the beginning, in the mind and heart of God, ‘the face you had before you were born,’ as the Zen masters say. It is your substantial self, your absolute identity, which can be neither gained nor lost by any technique, group affiliation, morality, or formula whatsoever.”
This, then, is one way to understand late-life spirituality: it is to mourn the death of many of our hopes and dreams, in the process to encounter the divine, and thereby to come to know the self we always had been.