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
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.
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
"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
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
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.
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.