Excerpts from When the Heart Waits by Sue Monk Kidd
That winter of my discontent, I had no real idea of any of this. I was mystified by the inner upheaval I felt. This sort of thing couldn’t be happening to me, I told myself. I had already been on the inner spiritual quest--one that began eight years earlier with an experience of chest pains and stress. My journey had taught me a more contemplative way of being in the world and had given me the first real centeredness I’d known.
…I should have remembered though, that the life of the spirit is never static. We’re born on one level, only to find some new struggle toward wholeness gestating within. That’s the sacred intent of life, of God--to move us continuously toward growth, toward recovering all that is lost and orphaned within us and restoring the driving image imprinted on our soul. And rarely do significant shifts come without a sense of our being lost in dark woods, or in what T.S. Eliot called the “vacant interstellar spaces.”
I kept walking through the fogged afternoon light as if the mere ritual of putting one foot in front of the other would lead me out of my pain. I buried my hands in the pockets of my coat and watched the wind blow a paper cup along the gutter. I was approaching the college campus. Was it possible that I had walked so far? The sun was beginning to fade now. I started to turn back but felt weighted inside, as if I couldn’t move.
I dragged myself to a little bench wedged among the trees. Sitting there, I studied their bony arms and felt their emptiness, their desperate reach of sky and light. Tears rimmed my eyes and burned my cheeks. It made no sense. I’d never really believed in midlife crises. They had seemed too trendy, another cliché-ridden piece of Americana. But here I was having one, and it was frighteningly real.
The familiar circles of my life left me with a suffocating feeling. My marriage suddenly seemed stale, unfulfilling; my religious structures, stifling. Things that used to matter no longer did; things that had never mattered were paramount. My life had curled up in the frightening mark of a question.
Each day I went about my responsibilities as always, writing through the morning and early afternoon, picking up my children from school, answering mail, shopping for groceries, cooking—plowing through the never-ending list of duties. I’ve always been accomplished at being dutiful (even during a crisis). Outwardly, I appeared just fine. Inside I was in turmoil.
My husband, Sandy, was as exasperated by my experience as he was bewildered. He wanted things to go back to the comfortable way they were before. He wanted me to “snap out of it.” I did too, of course. I had ordered myself to do just that numerous times. But it was sort of like looking at an encroaching wave and telling it to recede. Demanding didn’t make it happened.
… My life felt measured out in lumps too small. And there was a bewitching music from a distant room I couldn’t find. Voices dying to be heard. Did I dare disturb the universe within myself?
Believe me, I wanted to shove all this away and pretend it didn’t exist. But I couldn’t. Life tasted of cardboard and smelled of stagnant air. At times I found myself shut in a closet of pain, unable to find the door. In my blackened moments I actually fantasized about running away from home to find the vital part of me that I had lost.
Is it possible, I asked myself, that I am being summoned from some deep and holy place within? Am I being asked to enter a new passage in the spiritual life—the journey from false self to true self? Am I being asked to dismantle old masks and patterns and unfold a deeper, more authentic self—the one God created me to be? And am I being compelled to disturb my inner universe in quest of the undiscovered being who clamors from within?
To embark on this task involves a deep and profound movement of soul that takes us from identification with the collective “they” to a discovery of “I,” and finally, as we shall eventually see, to an embracing of the compassionate “we.” This task is truly one of the most precarious and mysterious pathways in the spiritual life, for how it’s navigated radically affects one’s alignment with oneself, with God, and the world.
Jung believes that “every midlife crisis is a spiritual crisis, that we are called to die to the old self (ego), the fruit of the first half of life and liberate the new man or woman within us.” Here is a hiddens and misunderstood turning point of the soul, I thought. Sadly, not every person will maneuver its convoluted mazes. Would I?
I recalled Jung’s words in “Stages of Life”:
Wholly unprepared, they embark on 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 colleges introduce young people to a knowledge of the world and of life? No, there are none. Thoroughly unprepared, we take the step into the afternoon of life; worse still, we take this step with the false presupposition that our truths and ideas will serve as hitherto. But we cannot live the afternoon 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 become a lie.
C.G. Jung “Stages of Life”
In our youth we set up inner myths and stories to live by but around the midlife juncture these patterns begin to crumble. It feels to us like a collapsing of all that is, but it’s a holy quaking. “When order crumbles,” writes John She, “Mystery rises.”
“There is a self within each one of us aching to be born,” says theologian Alan Jones. And this aching breaks into our lives—whether through a midlife struggle or some other crisis—we must somehow find the courage to say yes. Yes to this more real, more Christ-like self struggling to be born.