What Midlife Crisis?

THE MARK of a man, as it was introduced in the previous chapter, is having the willingness and ability to forego your own needs for the sake of the collective; to do “what’s right”, instead of just “what I want”; to serve a purpose greater than oneself, rather than simply following every whim and fancy. To do that, a boy traditionally had to surrender his unique identity, and become a number, or at least merge with the collective.

Of course, the notion of giving up your identity, and the notion of anything being a process that belongs exclusively to men, is anathema to modern sensibilities. We don’t know where such ardent gender neutrality will take us as a society or what it will mean for men of the next generation, however, until now, a man’s chance to regain his identity came with the onset of the midlife transition, more commonly known as the midlife crisis.

You’ve been introduced to the first two stages of maturity, which are represented by the colours red and white. As mentioned, those colours originated in ancient mythology. If we were to stay with the mythology sequence, there would only be one more colour, or shade, to come, and that would be black, to represent old age and wisdom. However, Carl Jung identified four stages in the development of the anima—four stages in the development of a man’s inner voice, in other words. It’s also clear that it’s quite a leap from the stage of white (the white knight) to the stage of black (wisdom). Surely, something has to happen in between. Surely, the cake of wisdom has to be baked first. Aha! Maybe that’s what the midlife crisis is all about!

Based on the above reasoning, we’re going to go with the notion that there are four stages of maturity for men. We’re going to agree with the last stage being represented by the colour black. We’re going to insert a third stage, and allocate the colour grey to that stage.

The third stage: grey (integrating); appropriate ages 36-55

Following after white is grey, the stage of integrating. This will be the stage of the classic midlife crisis, and its aftermath. Of course, it doesn’t have to be a crisis. I prefer to use the term midlife transition. Basically what’s happening is that the shadow—that storehouse of data about himself that the white knight denies—is starting to break through and make its presence known.

Let’s go back to the example of the man who insists that he never tells little white lies. Despite his many denials, eventually some part of that man’s brain will have started to register that, actually, he does, just like everybody else, tell those little white lies. The part of him that tries to deny that—his ego—starts to feel pushed into a corner.

In addition, and especially for those who prefer a behaviourist point of view, some other part of the man has been gathering evidence of his successes. It’s starting to feel OK about itself. It’s starting to see that his parents weren’t right about everything, that the world doesn’t punish him for the same things that they punished him for, or in the same way.

He’s starting to make up his own mind, not just at the level of his ego, but at a deeper level. The picture probably looks more like this one now. As you can see, the white knight has expanded—and so has the shadow. In fact, the shadow data is almost becoming as visible to him, the white knight, as it is to the rest of the world!

His response can be one of two things. The first is to try to shut it all down. He denies everything and goes harder at it. His wife and children despair. Perhaps she leaves him, or threatens to. Or he leaves her, saying she is unfairly critical, unjust, and he just can’t go on like this. He starts again, this time with an even “better” wife, an even “better” car. Oh, and he’s going to do all those things that he never did the first time around, like play guitar, or own a motorcycle. That’s the classic midlife crisis scenario, and it happens because of a refusal to move forward into grey, which is the acceptance of the shadow data and allowing it into full view. Instead, he wants to stay in white or even go back to red.

The question may arise, why does this happen for men more than for women. The first thing to consider is that male ego is set up to assert itself rather than surrender. Therefore, when it starts to receive data from the shadow, its first response is to fight back and assert itself. A man is not going to do what women do and listen, reflect and talk about it. As the Jungian analyst and prolific author James Hollis has pointed out: “Women are more likely to grieve necessary losses openly and therefore with a measure of psychological honesty while men, I’m sad to say, usually attempt to bury or deflect, but as we know, whatever’s pushed under invariably surfaces elsewhere.”

Therefore, a man will struggle to accept and integrate the data from his shadow. If he does, he’ll experience a less bumpy ride through the midlife transition which is the main feature of the grey stage, and into the black stage of wisdom. If he resists the shadow data, it will be thrust upon him in the form of a midlife “crisis”. If he resists that too, he’ll either remain stuck in the white stage, or regress into red.

Remember, the Self sees the bigger picture. It knows what you need, which is often at odds with what your ego wants. In the scenario above, the Self wants him to see himself as he really is, to become more honest: more honest with himself, and more honest with the world about himself, about who he is, what he’s done and not done, what he’s capable of and not capable of.

At this stage, there may also be a creeping realisation that he gave up his dreams to start and support a family. That hasn’t turned out as perfectly as he’d hoped. So was it all worth it? And, about those dreams that he gave up: is he still going to make a go of them? What part of them can he still achieve, or in what way? For example, if he can’t be Bono, perhaps he can at least join Toastmasters and learn public speaking.

Here’s Jung’s take on the subject: “Every new phase of development throughout an individual’s life is accompanied by a repetition of the original conflict between the claims of the Self and the claims of the ego. In fact, this conflict may be expressed more powerfully at the period of transition from early maturity to middle age (between 35 to 40 in our society) than at any other time in life.”

The midlife transition is tough. Usually, during his white stage, a man was so busy being a father and husband that he gave up most of his friendships. So now he’s on his own. Even if that’s not true, there’s the saying that, “When days are dark, friends are few.” When I was going through my darkest days I used to encounter a beggar at the traffic lights on my way home every day with a sign that said exactly that. It cut me like a knife every time.

As an aside, the most important thing that men need to know at this time is that they’re not alone—that they’re not the only ones “failing”, or going through stuff. Because that’s what men assume and that’s what keeps them stuck. My experience with men’s groups has shown me that when you bring men together into a group, they’ll naturally present their best side; they’ll pretend everything’s OK and they’ll act with bravado and bonhomie. However, if you can provide a context for them to get serious just for a few minutes and you can get each one to tell a deeper truth about themselves, then magic happens. It’s as if each man recognises, with relief, that he’s not alone, that he’s not the only one with problems and challenges. Then they begin to open up and share and, with sharing, the healing can begin.

The other belief that a man needs to let go of in order to successfully negotiate the grey stage is the belief that he can, and should, fix things—including himself—by himself. That’s not true. They need to find support in order to grow and change.

A man who moves successfully through grey will finally be the man you can be with, and tolerate. The edges will be rounded off. He’ll be less one-sided. He’ll be more open and honest about himself, better able to talk about himself—although he may still not really have the inclination to and that’s OK. More detailed examples of what this looks like will be provided in Part II.

When a man has moved through grey, and if he does it with real conscious attention, he’ll be ready for black.

The fourth stage: black (integrated); appropriate ages 56+

According to Jung, “…the transition from middle age to old age creates again the need for affirmation of the difference between the ego and the Self.” Basically, the ego wants to live, and the Self knows it’s going to die and wants to prepare for it. So the man “receives his last call to action in defence of ego-consciousness against the approaching dissolution of life in death.”

At this time, a man’s Self will hand him some experiences that will create a more meaningful transition, one that “offers something more spiritually satisfying than the adolescent rites”. The adolescent rites are typically earth-bound and secular. They’re about bringing a boy down, preparing him for life on earth. He learns to fight, drink, have sex. At the threshold to black, on the other hand, a man’s ego will need—even though it may not want—something more religious, or at least spiritual, in nature, and his all-knowing Self is bound to provide it—usually in the form of loss.

This is why the initiation into black is often about loss, and usually it’s a big loss. This could mean the man’s recognition and acceptance of paths not taken, and of how his life has turned out. It could mean the loss of his children as they leave home, or the loss of his hopes for them as they turn out differently from how he’d hoped or expected.

Ten or so years into this stage will come the loss of his career when he retires. (This is changing somewhat, as people “rewire instead of retire”.) If he’s an entrepreneur, it may mean the loss of control over his business as he’s forced to hand over to the next generation. (In the popular TV series Succession, we see how hard that is for a man, as Logan Roy, the octogenarian founder of a media empire steadfastly delays appointing a successor.) Then will come the loss of people around him as they pass on. Perhaps the loss of his own spouse—although women tend to outlast men, which is a noteworthy fact in itself, since women are more prone to seek and give each other emotional support, to share, and thereby to integrate their shadow data.

The way that loss does its work is well illustrated by men who become politically imprisoned. In Iron John, Robert Bly reckons that, “Anwar Sadat undoubtedly got to the black while in prison.” He adds that, “More politicians probably should be put in prison.” His comments were made before Mandela’s release, so he could not have known how that would turn out, but he was clearly prescient on that score. Gandhi, too, knew the inside of a prison cell, as did Martin Luther King, Jr. The latter was a prodigy who seemed to operate with great maturity and wisdom in his twenties and thirties already. Interestingly, after he was assassinated at age 39, the autopsy revealed that King’s heart was in the condition typical of a 60-year-old. The coroner ascribed this to stress, but it takes on a kind of transcendent symbolism when considered in this context.

When Bly says that “prison is good for politicians”, what he’s really saying is that the sudden and complete loss of power, plus what is most likely a strong sense of injustice, thrusts the man into that place where life no longer makes no sense. He discovers that people don’t want what he thought they wanted, and that life is bigger than him, even though he’s such a powerful man. In addition, prison will give him time to reflect and, being a man of conscience—because a man without conscience will not reach black—he’ll admit that he has made mistakes, that he has done things he shouldn’t have done, and that he has his own flaws. Therefore, those men may realise that, at some philosophical level, they even deserve some form of punishment, as does every man.

Bly expressed this by saying that men who go through that kind of imprisonment bring “all of the shadow material […] back inside”. In other words, they admit and allow back into themselves all the flaws they’ve previously denied, plus all their unsavoury thoughts and secret misdeeds. The picture now looks like this, where both ego and shadow have expanded, and the person is expressing both at the same time. They are able to live with paradox—that of themselves and of the world. Bly acknowledges that, prison aside, it “takes a long time to move into the black”.

Bly calls black the stage of “humanity”, of “giving up blame”, of wisdom, of humour in the face of adversity. A man in black is able to see that every person, including himself, has both good and bad within them. He becomes less judgemental. He develops a sense of humour around things that younger, less mature people take very seriously. He’s able to act with wisdom that includes forgiveness, as Mandela did when he allowed the sport of rugby in South Africa to maintain its Springbok emblem, which was strongly associated with white Afrikaner authority. The team went on to win the Rugby World Cup in 1995, and that victory did a great deal to develop racial tolerance and unity in the country. It was a masterstroke by Mandela and would not have come about if he hadn’t been in black, if he had been fighting like the “red” soldier he had once been, or all about “right” and wrong” as a man who was still a “white knight” would have been. Currently in South Africa are the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a populist political party led by a man named Julius Malema who is very much in the red. His age indicates he should be in white by now, but he seems stuck in red. He and the members of his party even wear red overalls and red berets in parliament. All his rhetoric uses military terms. He styles himself the Commander-In-Chief, or CIC. There are no subtleties, no nuances, in his approach. When the rest of South Africa was united by their team’s Rugby World Cup victory of 2019, his cadres issued statements that tried, unsuccessfully, to find ways to undermine that unity. They cause havoc in that parliament whenever they don’t get their way, sometimes being involved in physical scuffles. Malema thinks of himself as some kind of Che Guevara. You would not want a man like that leading a country.

The Man Matrix by Neil Bierbaum © 2021 Neil Bierbaum All rights reserved. No portion of this website may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher, except as permitted by international copyright law. For information, contact the author.