Death & Mid Life Crisis


Men's Health
Author Peter O’Connor

In this extract, the first of three, from his book The Inner Man, psychotherapist Dr Peter O’Connor discusses how it is usually death which characterises the mid-life transition and provides the opportunity to initiate men into adulthood. (The Inner Man can be purchased through our merchandise section as can Peter O’Connor’s other best-selling book Understanding Mid-life Crisis.)
Mid-life, that period between 35 and 45 years of age in a man, is, above all else, a psychological return to adolescence. Because adolescence involves a reworking of the Oedipal themes, this earlier stage of psychological development is also present in a man in the mid-life transition.

It is a transition that I believe is, ultimately, brought on by the growing awareness of death, the sense of one’s mortality, and the awareness that life is circumscribed. This awareness is usually brought into consciousness by the death of someone close, such as a parent or friend. The blunt and unremitting finality of death forces an awareness of one’s own finality. The immediate effect of this often seems to be a manic flurry into activity to deny the very existence of death. It is this, the inevitability of death, that constitutes a universal trauma that is so powerful in shaping our psychic lives.

The other two powerful universal traumas are the inevitability of separateness and that of gender difference. While there is no doubt all three are active during mid-life, it is the trauma of the inevitability of death that is predominant.

Up until mid-life most people assume that death is what happens to somebody else. In other words we are governed by our own omnipotent fantasies of immortality. Death and its inevitability are yet another, often the most severe, blow to our childhood sense of immortality, and therefore provide an opportunity to initiate us into adulthood.

This initiation, if it existed, would, like all initiations, involve separation and would initiate the neophyte into a new view of the self, one composed of the coexistence of opposites. It would be one that was dominated by an awareness, in other words, of constructive ambivalence. The way of the initiated would then be the middle way, in the truest sense of the word. But as Jung so sadly reminds us:

      Wholly unprepared we 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 college introduces our young people to knowledge of the world? No, thoroughly unprepared we take the step into the afternoon of life; worse still, we take this step with the false assumption that our truths and ideals 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.

So much of the first half of life is lived, appropriately so, on the outside; the second half demands a return inward, a need for reflection and the reconstruction of meaning from within, not without.

Most men coming into mid-life have a gnawing sense that what was once true is now starting to feel like a lie. Their aspirations, values, goals, etc. start to have a reduced capacity to generate meaning, and many a mid-life man has asked the question: ‘What is the point of it all?’

The answer is often a shattering silence, a psychological vacuum into which rush such feelings as despair, rage, anxiety and an underlying pervasive sense of pointlessness. These feelings all contribute to an equally pervasive sense of restlessness. Such feelings point to one clear, unequivocal fact: the loss of meaning. Such a loss throws the psyche into chaos and grief and it begins the process of regression in order to go back, make reparation and find out what is the point of it all. This going back seems, in my experience, to inevitably and invariably awaken thoughts and reflections upon one’s adolescence. So powerful are these thoughts and reflections that they propel many men into acting them out. One has often heard the description of a mid-life man who is ‘behaving just like an adolescent’. This is of course exacerbated if he actually has an adolescent son who is just emerging into life, full of energy, hope, drive, etc., while the father looks towards, at best, more of the same and in his own mind usually a diminishing sense of all the qualities that his son so brashly displays. Nature does indeed seem cruel at times.

All of life has an order within the chaos, and mid-life is both an opportunity to attend to the wounds of one’s own adolescence and to begin the task of dealing with the incomplete business. For most men this is usually to do with feelings and in this sense the feminine aspect of a man is of primary importance and significance in mid-life. He now faces the inner image of the unknown woman or a symbol of his unknown feelings that have usually been sacrificed on the masculine altar of power, success, ambition and, above all else, rationality.

So the average mid-life man finds himself besieged by moodiness, rage and overwhelming feelings of despair and depression, against which he realizes that his rational self is useless. It is here that Lady Anima takes over, sometimes destuctively, sometimes constructively and more often than not a combination of both. It is now, at mid-life, time to descend and face that which has been banished to Hades or the unconscious.

(In the next instalment Peter O’Connor looks at how men deal with the sense of loss and accompanying rage that often characterise the mid-life transition.)

Extracts from The Inner Man by Peter O’Connor reprinted with permission of Pan Macmillan Australia Pty Ltd Copyright Peter O’Connor 1993

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