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November 1995

Listening to Midlife

by reviewed by Bill Dwyer

Listening To Midlife — Turning Your Crisis Into a Quest, by Mark Gerzon; 1996, Shambhala Publications, Boston; 336 pages, paper, $15

Mark Gerzon has provided us with a rich new paradigm for living in an authentic, empowered manner throughout all the years of our adult lives. Filled with wisdom and observations culled from the work of such varied authorities as Carl Jung, Erik Erickson, numerous native American elders, as well as his own wide experience, Gerzon’s Listening To Midlife is a wonderful handbook for living a full and meaningful life.

Such a life requires that we honor all aspects of our beings, not just those limited aspects which this culture elevates as all-important. Gerzon describes, in painful detail, how we as a society view aging, or, more accurately, how we try not to view it at all. Youth is what we worship in western culture, with its strength, energy, beauty, and physical ease. In this view, growing older is at best a challenge to be dealt with, an obstacle to be overcome, and fodder for comedians, as though our natural biological processes should be regarded as a kind of personal shortcoming.

Our cultural maps describe in great and varied detail the various psycho-dynamic stages within the first twenty to thirty years of life. But what should we expect once we enter the open spaces of full adulthood? Where then are the signposts that identify the curves and bumps in the road, that point us in fulfilling directions rather that dead ends? They’re there, says Gerzon, but there is work to be done before we can fully understand and make full use of them.

"Midlife is a crisis of the spirit," Gerzon argues. "In this crisis, old selves are lost and new ones come into being...physically, a person is beginning to show signs of aging, and so an earlier self-image starts cracking and altering."

In fact, many people wake up to the reality of middle age through crisis — health problems, emotional distress, a sense of emptiness or meaninglessness. Gerzon counsels us to turn such crises into quests. A crucial metamorphosis struggling to occur, if we will only let it be. First, we must realize and accept that we are not who we were as young people. We must break the limiting identification we hold with that youthful persona that we worked so hard to form in the first half of our lives. Just as we passed through sexual puberty and lost our virginity in our second decade, so we must allow ourselves to enter a sort of spiritual puberty in our fifth decade. If we are to be able to function fully as mature adults and, later, as wise and purposeful elders, we must be willing to shed the self-image of youth and to delve more deeply into the authentic, soulful aspects of our selves.

We must make the transition from outer work to inner work, from an obsession with the physical remnants of our hallowed youth to a dedication to fostering the inner development which we all need if we are to function fully in the second half of our life cycle.

Gerzon implores us to "come to our senses," that is, to listen and to pay attention to our senses. The beauty and transcendence we long for is immanent in the world that surrounds us, he counsels, if we will only look and listen with an open heart.

"I am deeply suspicious of a view of aging that fundamentally disrespects the process of growing older," Gerzon writes. "Strategies to retard aging that lead to frenzy and fear, to obsessive diets and frenetic workouts, and to a cult of youthfulness that denies the rhythms of life is not progress.

"Of what value is a long life if it is lived without self-respect? Of what value is a wrinkle-free face if it masks despair? Of what value is aging slowly if we deny its depth of meaning?"

More than anything else, growing older, in Gerzon’s view, means moving more and more deeply into a sense of empowered responsibility for ourselves, our fellow beings, and this earth on which we make our physical home. Loving, respectful focus on others, rather than on self.

Life in middle age has values and satisfactions largely foreign to the value system espoused in popular culture and its attendant media. Sadly, those values are largely foreign to most of us. Yet, without knowledge and appreciation of the gifts that await us in middle age and beyond, we truly have little but despair to look forward to as we back into our later years, endlessly mourning our withered youth.

Wholeness, says Gerzon, dictates that we honor not just youth, but the "Seven generations" — our great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, our generation, our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Such is the wisdom of our native American brethren, who see life as an evolving process, and the aged as priceless cultural resources.

Asked by two white journalists to interview his tribe’s elders, Oren Lyons, the "faith keeper" of the Turtle Clan of the Iroquois people, responded, "You think we turn our elders over to anyone who walks through the door? We guard them like pure spring water."

Mark Gerzon shows us the way, not to a fountain of youth, but to the pure spring water of full personhood throughout all the years of our lives here on earth.

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