When I was in my mid-forties a little more than a decade ago, it dawned on me oh-so-slowly that things were changing in my life. My once-predictable menstrual cycles had gotten wacky. My occasional bouts of insomnia had become as regular as the rising sun, which I found myself witnessing way more often than I wished. My mom died. My kids were leaving the nest. I found myself experiencing a shift in my relationship with my local church. I battled a lingering case of clinical depression. I gained weight. I schvitzed (a good Yiddish word to describe sweating) at strange, unpredictable moments, experiencing drenching hot-flashes in job interviews and in mid-winter grocery store lines.
Though I am a wordsmith by vocation, I didn’t yet have the language for what I was experiencing. I knew I’d hit midlife, but didn’t know anyone in my circles who was talking about what it all meant. My friends and I would complain about our physical symptoms, but that’s usually as far as our conversations went. So I did what I’d done since I was a kid: I turned to books in search of answers.
One thing I learned early in my reading is that God has a developmental purpose in this life stage, just as he does in toddlerhood and adolescence. His desire for us is maturity – that we are being formed into the image of his Son. I was encouraged to discover that a signifier of growing maturity and security in my identity was the ability to embrace paradox even as I continued to rest on a foundation of Biblical orthodoxy. As a young person still trying to figure out who I was, I remember being very uncomfortable with reading material that challenged or disagreed with my core Christian beliefs. By my mid-forties, I’d learned to trust the Holy Spirit to help me sift wheat from chaff in my reading, viewing, and listening.
I was working at a seminary bookstore at that time in my life, and had access to all kinds of books on theology as well as popular Christian titles. The store held a solar system’s worth of knowledge, but I was not able to find books that addressed my questions on the store shelves. I am grateful for the discipline of Bible reading that had been formed in me from the time I was a teen. God’s Word grounded me, and oriented me to the idea of traveling through uncertainty without a map, following Jesus. Midlife doesn’t contain tidy resolution. It calls on us to develop a follower’s heart.
Scripture could could orient me, but I desired Over the last decade, I’ve found my way to a few titles I commend to people who are struggling to make sense of the emotional and spiritual changes happening in you at midlife, but none would have been found on the shelves of that seminary bookstore. I offer these suggestions to you with the caveat that each one of these titles may push at least a couple of your theological buttons, but if you read with your eyes wide open and ask the Spirit to guide you, you may find these books offer some helpful insight you can integrate into your own experience.
Father Richard Rohr’s description of the spiritual shifts and tasks of midlife was a life-saver for me when I wondered if I was going under for the third time. Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life gave language to the groanings of my soul during this time of transition in my life. He helped to explain my experience, and reminded me in this disorienting new territory of midlife that there is no going back, nor do I truly wish to do so. Fr. Rohr draws from other religions, and universalism seeps through some of his words. I blogged chapter by chapter through this book a few years ago (click here for a link to those posts), which can give you a helpful overview of this essential guide to the second half.
Sue Monk Kidd is best known for her fiction, but a couple of decades ago, she wrote When The Heart Waits: Spiritual Direction for Life’s Sacred Questions to describe the spiritual crisis in which she found herself at midlife. Her book is a much easier read than Falling Upward, but contains some of the same insight. She reminds readers that the darkness of midlife will almost imperceptibly give way to the dawn of second adulthood,.I blogged each chapter of this book, too. (Click here to have a peek at those posts.)
Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life: How to Finally, Really Grow Up by James Hollis is a fairly dense, Jungian analysis of the emotional and spiritual process of growth at midlife. While Rohr and Kidd’s books reflect the Christian ethos of their authors, Finding Meaning is anchored in the world of Carl Jung’s framework for human growth and development. His chapter entitled “Swampland Visitations” is worth the price of the book. In it, he details some of the real issues bundled in the transition to which we refer as the midlife crisis: guilt, grief and loss, betrayal, doubt and loneliness, depression, and addictions. He notes, “The central paradox of our feel-good culture is that we grow progressively more and more uncertain and less and less persuaded that our lives really mean something. Feeling good is a poor measure of a life, but living meaningfully is a good one.”
What books would you add to this list? Why?
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This little community is definitely impacting the way I read books these days, and I’m seeing it in this re-reading of Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter (a glorious Christmas gift from my good husband).
I was a fairly young mum the first time I read the book, so all Hannah’s struggles with her emptying nest and the disappointments of mid-life were fairly academic and “fictional.”
In the chapters I read last night, she and I were of an age, and although I still have teens in the nest and see my married kids quite regularly, my heart was able to enter into her pain so much more completely. I’m reading Hannah purely for pleasure and had kind of vowed that I wasn’t going to spoil the experience by writing about it, but I may have to process this in print at some point.
I have loved Sue Monk Kidd for ages, but haven’t read the book you shared. Sounds wonderful.
We’re glad to be a part of inspiring new reading (and writing!) here at PerGen. Should you decide to process in print those thoughts about Hannah Coulter, we’d sure love to read them. – Michelle
I’ve also found that at this stage in my life I’m more open to uncertainties and don’t mind having those theological buttons pushed. It’s one of the things that helps me clarify my beliefs. Thanks for these recommendations. They aren’t as plentiful as the ones about child-rearing and the earlier stages of life.