I ran across an interesting quote on middle age by George Eliot. She wrote:
“The middle aged, who have lived through their strongest emotions, but are yet in the time when memory is still half passionate and not merely contemplative, should surely be a sort of natural priesthood whom life has disciplined and consecrated to be the refuge and rescue of early stumblers and victims of self-despair. Most of us, at some moment of our young lives would have welcomed a priest of that natural order in any sort of canonicals or uncanonicals, but had to scramble upward into all the difficulties of nineteen entirely without such aid, as Maggie did.”
The quote is from Eliot’s novel The Mill on the Floss, published in 1860. Maggie Tulliver, the novel’s heroine, struggles with tumultuous feelings and conflicted loyalties. She could benefit from someone capable of soothing her tumult and providing her with perspective on her troubles. She could, suggests Eliot, benefit from the wisdom of someone middle-aged: someone who is past the years of greatest emotional turmoil but can still remember past upheavals well enough to empathize. Eliot describes the middle-aged as a “natural priesthood,” prepared by their past struggles to minister to those like nineteen-year-old Maggie who are still in youth’s whirlwind.
Eliot’s view of middle age seems strange to us. Isn’t middle age itself a time of turmoil? What of the mid-life crisis–the angst felt by many in their forties whose early dreams have been eclipsed and for whom mortality is shading life like never before? Is such a person merely “half-passionate”? Don’t some of us become “stumblers and victims of self-despair” just as readily in middle age as we did when young?
I wrote earlier about the decline in life-satisfaction that occurs in middle adulthood. In passing though those years, many of us never found a salve sufficient to soothe the no-longer-young-but-not-quite-old soul. Yet that isn’t the whole story. Midlife is also the time that many individuals become more generative. They are less focused on their own personal projects for success and more focused on guiding the next generation. They start giving themselves away in order to benefit children, grandchildren, younger colleagues, nephews and nieces, or other young people who could use an infusion of support and wisdom.
These two processes–disillusionment with one’s life and the desire to assist others–seem incompatible. Isn’t the first one self-focused and the second other-focused? Perhaps, though, a clearing-out of illusions about the self is just what is needed to get to the point where we can give ourselves to others. If, as Eliot suggests, we are consecrated into a natural priesthood of middle age, this consecration occurs precisely because life–or, for those of us more spiritually inclined, because God–has taught us that we will be gone one day, both our successes and failures forgotten. Freed of self-importance, we are well-prepared to minister to others.
So, the middle-aged may not be free of struggles to the degree that Eliot thought, but their very struggles are what help them become the “natural priesthood” she imagines. What, though, of those of us who are a decade or more removed from midlife’s struggles? Eliot implies that for we oldsters passion has faded completely and all we can do now is remember our youthful enthusiasms from great distance. Is she right? I’ll consider that question in another post.