Hiding in Plain Sight

Posted on in On Our Radar by Elizabeth Wolfson

Uncovering Richness
Past Midlife


“You’re young one day, but youth is rude, and
while you watch it walks right past”


Anyone who has circled the corner of midlife has been subject to this rudeness. And one day each of us awakens to realize that time has been a thief, robbing what we hold most dear—our youth.

We know it when we dread the mirror, dye our hair, forget the name of a favorite song, and as Leonard Cohen says, “ache in the places where I used to play.” Approaching midlife is like standing on top of a mountain and seeing down the other side to where it ends. The end is nearer than it has ever been, and knowing this is precisely what saves us. In fact, it is our increased awareness of aging and mortality that enriches our lives, as every next breath and step is more precious than before.

Our culture calls the midlife passage (currently deemed to be anywhere from 35 to 75) a “midlife crisis.” I call it a midlife amazement. You may be amazed that former energy dedicated to career building and child rearing is shifting. You may be amazed that you are no longer interested in directing energy toward people you don’t like and places you don’t want to go. You may be amazed at what you know and are capable of. You may be amazed at opportunities available to you, hiding in plain sight.

The word crisis itself comes from the Greek krino, to decide. If the middle passage is actually a midlife decision, it is time to decide how you want to use the precious time ahead.

You can choose to focus energy on what you have lost, including former roles and your youthful body. You can choose to cling to familiar habits, stagnant friendships, and ways of being in the world that no longer serve you. Or you can use newly freed energy to enrich valued relationships, cultivate new ones, and explore creative interests. Midlife is a time of shifting priorities and looking inward in order to expand outward. It is a time of connecting to the authentic self, saying yes to opportunity while also slowing down to relish the presence of now. Sexual energy may not be what it was, but your capacity for sensory awareness and emotional intimacy is greater than ever. All of this richness is hidden in plain sight, but you must pay attention to notice the signposts on the path.

The crucial signposts of the middle passage are nostalgia and longing, tempered by wisdom. Nostalgia connects us to our youthful identity, when possibilities seemed limitless. We recall aspects of the past that made us feel alive, hopeful, and creative.

Longing is future directed, like a promise not yet fulfilled. We may not know what it is we are longing for, but we feel it like an itch we cannot scratch. This is the time to explore our longings, to ask, What are my hopes and dreams for the path ahead in the time that remains?

Wisdom, the great gift of the middle passage, informs us about our potentialities within reality. Wisdom frames the cultivation of our longings, our creativity, and our desire for vitality. Wisdom guides our quest for aliveness, not in the self-destructive mode of the proverbial “midlife crisis,” but in construction of rich possibility within real-life limits.

So how do we get there?

One must be willing to connect to all aspects of the self—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Embracing change includes embracing our changing bodies, roles, relationships, and interests. Connection to the authentic self requires the courage to see, appreciate, and love the full range of our strengths and vulnerabilities. To wisely respond to the rich tug of nostalgia and fulfill the calling of our longings, we must be courageous but not reckless.

This is the rich midlife opportunity available to all of us, hidden in plain sight. In the darkness of a forest, we tend to stay on a safe, familiar path, moving in a linear fashion. If, however, we train our eyes to penetrate the darkness, we see dimension, color, and texture. We are able to venture onto unseen fields of light to experience enlightenment and expanded appreciation. Then we can say yes to our authentic, creative self while understanding we can only take one path at a time. Enlightened gratitude embraces all of life, including the lessons of adversity and the full stretch of path leading toward our inevitable end. Embracing death as the organic conclusion of our entire journey from birth can generate aliveness. How we proceed makes all the difference.

The holiday season may elicit gratitude as we connect with loved ones and ponder the turning of the new year. It is a good time to ask, Can I be enriched and find inspiration from the aging process itself? The richness of the middle passage is hidden in plain sight. We need only be willing to look and to decide.

Elizabeth Wolfson, PhD, LCSW, is a psychotherapist and chair of the Master’s in Clinical Psychology Program at Antioch University, where she developed the concentration in healthy aging. She is also a founder of Santa Barbara Village, an organization supporting elders living at home. ElizabethWolfson.net

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