The Middle Passage

Gerald Le Van’s Notes on James Hollis’ “The Middle Passage: From Misery to Meaning in Mid-life” Inner City Books, Toronto, 1993 Hollis is a psychologist and heads the Jungian Society in Houston, Texas. He writes well but some readers may be turned off by his turgid colorful psychological literary style replete with references to mythology. These notes are for those readers.

The Advent of the Middle Passage

Middle Passage begins like the grinding of tectonic plates deep inside us. The self we were meant, begins to grate and grind against our provisional self. This tectonic grinding may begin long before one is conscious of it—boredom, loss of energy, premonitions, followed by depression, substance abuse, job changes, affairs—all mechanisms by which we run away from the deep underground pressures. These beginning grindings can occur as early as the late twenties, but may be easily overlooked. A typical antidote is to do more of the same—expend more energy, have more children, work harder, override the warnings. These pressures may be healthy signs of the psyche at work.

Provisional first adulthood usually lasts from about age 12 to about age 40. It is full of blunders, shyness, mistaken assumptions, “and always the silent rolling of the tapes of childhood” says Hollis. Without those mistakes, without crashing into those walls, one remains a child.

The Middle Passage occurs when one is obliged to view his or her life as more than a succession of moments leading to some vague end, its purpose to appear in due time. The Greeks had two words for time: chronos (linear time) and kairos (time revealed in depth and dimension.) It’s kairos in the Middle Passage:

  • “Who am I and where am I going?”

  • “Who am I apart from the roles I’ve played?”

Childhood is characterized by magical thinking. The inner, outer, and wishful world is confused by the wish to be the center of the universe. In adolescence heroic thinking replaces the magic—fantasies of grandeur and accomplishment—to outstrip one’s meager parents. Heroic thinking enables the young adult to leave home and dive into life. In the Middle Passage, magical thinking and heroic thinking no longer square with experience, disappointment and heartache. Middle Passage is characterized by realistic thinking. Youthful hubris and inflation are replaced by hope based on what might be, knowledge based on the valued lessons of experience, and wisdom always humbling, never inflationary.

Projection is an expression activated by the unconscious. Projection isn’t made; it just is. For example, we project our anxieties on our parents, whom we consider omniscient and omnipotent. When we leave our parents, we project these anxieties upon institutions and other persons in authority. The most common projections are marriage, parenting, and career. In marriage based on romantic love, we project unconscious needs on the spouse, which are impossible for the spouse to fulfill. Daily living wears these projections away. We project our unlived lives on our children—a large burden for a child to bear. We may unconsciously expect that child to make us happy with ourselves, to fulfill our own lives.

In mid-life, we can accept that children only pass through us en route to the mystery of their own life. Freud thought love and work were prime requisites for sanity. But career achievement can bring a strange ennui. Like marriage, career is a prime vehicle for projection: of identity—mastery and expertise, of nurturance—fed by being productive, and of transcendence—i.e.: success will overcome the pettiness of the spirit. Eventually these projections dissolve, and cannot supplant growing dissatisfaction with how one is using his or her life. This is Middle Passage.

For men, Middle Passage may mean work that occasions depression, deflation of hope and ambition. For women, having devoted themselves to family, they may feel cheated unappreciated, underdeveloped, wanting to go back to school or finding renewing work. For couples, gender roles may draw them in opposite directions. Marriage may not survive if it hinders the growth of either.

During first adulthood, youth takes the body for granted, and time as an arena for endless play. At mid-life, the body becomes a reluctant antagonist in the drama we have with ourselves. Time becomes limited, rationed. The sudden perception is that one is mortal, there is an end, and there’s no way one will ever accomplish all the heart longs for.

To flounder amid ordinariness is the sour leaven of mid-life. The hopes of the nascent ego for immortality and celebrity are in direct proportion to the childhood fear and ignorance of the world. The greatest cause of failed marriages in mid-life is the enormity of childhood hopes imposed on the fragile structure between two people. Since others cannot meet the grandiose needs of the inner child, we feel abandoned and betrayed. Those will-of-the-wisps—immortality, perfection and grandiosity—do much to poison a person’s spirit and relationships.

Emotions are not chosen; they choose us and have logic of their own. In mid-life, the largeness of emotions breaks through ego boundaries—and we concretize [outside ourselves] what is symbolically injured or neglected. A man runs away with his secretary. A woman becomes depressed and turns her anger on the only person she has permission to attack—her husband. It is a time when the maps of reality no longer match the terrain. The gap widens between the acquired sense of self, and the demands of self that lies beneath one’s history. The frightened individual wants most of all, the self that once “worked.” If this can be faced, there is great opportunity for transformation.

The central project of first adulthood is to build ego identity. The person who has not separated psychologically from parents is still tied to them. The project of the first half of life is incomplete. Readiness for second adulthood requires a challenge of productive fulfillment, mature commitment to relationship, and some engagement in the outer world.

The deflations of Middle Passage are experienced as confusion, frustration and loss of identity. Our tacit contract with the universe collapses. We assume reciprocity—that if we act correctly and are of good heart and intentions, everything will work out. But there’s no such contract.

The greatest shock is discovering that one is not in control. Apart from shock, even panic, one is humbled. Life is unsparing in asking us to grow up and take responsibility for our own lives. This requires confronting one’s fears, dependencies, and complexes, without the help of others. All this while we still have obligations to children, economic reality, and duty. While the outer world still requires much of us, we must turn inward to find that person who is the goal of the journey.
By mid-life we have managed to mask much of our personality. Anger may erupt because we have so long been encouraged to suppress it. (Anger from the Indo-European root, Angh—to constrict—hence anxiety, angst, angina). Most socialization represents constriction of natural impulses. But where has the energy of those impulses gone? That energy may fuel our ambition, or drive us to chemical dependency, or to abuse ourselves or others.

Marriage carries great potential for hurt and disappointment in mid-life. Marriage bears the burden of the inner child. To marriage we bring so much hope, need, capacity for disappointment. Looking back at mid-life, we shudder at the enormity of choosing marriage and career, made decades ago in the unconscious. Few mid-life marriages—those that have survived—escape great strain. Either divorce launches the Middle Passage, or marriage becomes a prime locus for the tectonic pressures. Mid-life brings more reflection on intimacy. The person to whom we deliver our soul carries large weight.

Intimate relationships can never be better than our relationships with ourselves. Relationship with ourselves determines both the choice of the Other, but also the quality of the relationship. Every intimate relationship reveals who we were when we commenced it. All relationships are symptomatic of our inner life. In mid-life, the emphasis shifts from asking the other to save us, to the work of attaining a greater meaning of life.

In our culture, the model of first adulthood is fusion—together, oneness, union. Together we will be whole. In mid-life, that model doesn’t work. Each supports the other, but cannot perform the other’s developmental tasks—cannot rescue the other. “No one can give me what I most deeply want and need; only I can.” The partner is neither rescuer nor enemy; only partner. The relationship offers companionship, mutual respect and support, and dialectic of opposites. Where one wanted confirmation, one must now accept differences. Where one wanted the simple love of sameness, one must now learn the difficult task of loving otherness.

Perhaps love is really the capacity to imagine the other so vividly, that we can affirm that being—the ability to take responsibility for oneself and the courage imaginatively to validate the reality of the other. Real relationship becomes the conscious desire to share the journey with the other through conversation, sexuality and compassion. Many older couples have exhausted conversation because they have ceased to grow as individuals.

The partner is neither rescuer, nor enemy—only partner. We can’t love our partner’s “otherness” unless we understand what it’s like to be that person. Love may be the capacity to imagine the experience of the other so vividly that we can affirm that being. Concern for one’s own personal growth isn’t narcissistic so long as we grant the same right to the other. This requires double strength: to take responsibility for ourselves, and imaginatively to validate the reality of the other. The alternative is the sad state of many marriages.

It may be more difficult for women to affirm their individuation needs than men because of the enormous claims of the relationship. Feminine consciousness makes her much more aware of her surroundings and those claims. Permission to choose one’s own path may be slightly more available to women today, than in the past, most still feel constrained by others’ claims. Martyred women make neither good mothers nor good partners.

For many men, the chest is the numbed zone. Conditioned to shun feelings, avoid instinctual wisdom and override inner truth, the average male is a stranger to himself and others—a slave to money, power, and status. When asked how he feels he responds with what he thinks, or where the problem is out there. It’s difficult for women to have good relationships with men who, in turn, don’t have a good relationship with their inner selves. Men in Middle Passage need to become the child again, face the fear that power masks, and ask the old questions:

  • What do I want?

  • What do I feel?

  • What must I do to feel right with myself?

Without answering these questions, he is bad company for himself and others.

Many women are under empowered with inner voices of a negative animus—masculine side—that whispers “You can’t do that.” Her animus that represents creative capacity and empowerment to live her own life hides under the shadow of her mother’s model, her father’s encouragement or discouragement, and the constrictive roles offered by society. Modern women struggle to balance career and family. In mid-life the nest empties and the career may stymie. She feels abandoned. Her inner child rises to the surface. It’s traumatic. When the mantle of nurturer drops away, she’s obliged to ask again:

  • Who am I?

  • What do I want to do?

The transformation of marriage of mid-life involves three necessary steps:

The partners must assume responsibility for their own psychological well-being.

The partners must commit to share their own experience without reproaching the other for past wounds or future expectations—to try to hear the other’s experiences without feeling defensive. They must commit to sustaining a dialogue over time—“radical conversation” the only vehicle to share “what it’s like to be me.” Radical conversation is what long-term commitment is about.

The alternative is that marriages limp along or dissolve.

Middle passage is like waking up alone on a small boat in a storm. Your choices are:

  • go back to sleep,

  • jump overboard,

  • or grab the wheel.

By not grabbing the wheel, we stay stuck in first adulthood.

Recall the climax of the movie “The Truman Story” where Truman (played by Jim Carrey) though mortally afraid of water, sets out in a small boat to escape the artificial environment in which he has always lived—televised to the world—since birth. The “Director”, a wonderful parent image, creates an artificial storm designed to frighten him into turning back to his artificial first adult self. But Truman takes control of the small boat, sails on, and eventually escapes his artificial environment, presumably to a mature second adulthood self. The climactic storm scene is an elegant movie metaphor for the Middle Passage.

Changing jobs or partners doesn’t change one’s sense of self over the long run. When the pressure from within becomes less and less containable by the old strategies, a crisis in selfhood erupts. We don’t know who we are apart from roles and psychic reflexes. And we don’t know what to do to lessen the pressure.

One’s self is maneuvering the ego into crisis to bring about a mid-course correction. Underlying the symptoms is our false assumption that we can save ourselves by finding and connecting with someone or something in the outer world. But there are no life preservers “out there.” We are in a “sea surge of the soul” and must learn to swim under our own power. What we must know must come from within. We don’t know how free or determined we are, but are constrained to “act free.” So long as we are identified with the outer, objective world, we will be estranged from subjective reality.

“Individuation” is the process of separating ourselves from our dependent relationship with our parents to become our best adult selves. Hollis expresses the concept of individuation in various ways, e.g. from first adulthood to second adulthood. “Middle passage” is the hard part of the emotional journey to individuation.

The paradox of individuation is:

  • We best serve intimacy with another by becoming sufficiently developed within ourselves not to feed off others.

  • We best serve society by being individuals.

  • We are most socially useful by becoming our fullest selves.

Concern for our own individuation is not narcissistic; it is the best way to serve and support others’ individuation. “The world is not served by those alienated from themselves and others, or by those who in their pain bring pain to others” says Hollis. Individuation is a set of guiding images that are the goal and process at the same time, serving the person and culture at the same time.

To “get in touch with our feelings” asks us to define ourselves from an inner reality, rather than an outer context. Risking loneliness to achieve oneness with oneself is called solitude, and is essential to survive Middle Passage.

Mid-life is full of losses: children move away, friends die, divorce devastates. The loss of a necessary other can be as terrifying as the loss of a parent would be to a child. True, some feel liberated by these losses, but many don’t. We honor that lost relationship by feeling the loss, yet recognize that we have a larger commitment than any single relationship.

People so fear loneliness that they will cling to terrible relationships and clinging professions rather than risk the consequences of letting go of the other. There’s no substitute for the courage to confront loneliness. We will never hear the inner voice unless we risk solitude—sitting quietly: no phone, no children, nothing—listening to silence; allowing silence to speak. The purpose of this ritual is to link with the larger rituals of life. The individual must generate a ritual of personal significance; a quiet ritual of disengagement from the traffic out there and the traffic in here. Once silence speaks, one has companionship with oneself, moved from loneliness to solitude, which is a necessary precursor of individuation.

We don’t have just one child within, but a whole kindergarten: class clown, artist, rebel, spontaneous, etc. Virtually all have been neglected or suppressed. We also must deal with our narcissistic child, our jealous or enraged child whose eruptions can be embarrassing and destructive. We have likely forgotten the freedom, joy, and naivet of childhood. One of the most corrosive experiences of mid-life is the joylessness and futility that comes with the routine. We seldom welcome the free child at the office, or even in marriage.

To heal ourselves, we must ask what the healthy child wants. The talents left behind as we specialize not only at work but in intimate relationships, are left behind unless brought to the surface and utilized. Unused talents—our incompleteness—are part of the existential tragedy; but the more talents that can be lived, the richer one’s life.

Depression or boredom often blocks the flow of feeling in mid-life. This says that our own nature is too narrowly channeled, or has become dammed up. Mid-life asks: “What would my inner child enjoy?”

Borrowing from Joseph Campbell (“follow your bliss”) Hollis exhorts, “follow your passion.” Passion fuels us; it’s less like vocation than a summons. The artist is near the fire at all times. Mid-life invites us to find our passion—that which draws us so deeply into life that it hurts. Fear of our own depths is the enemy. We don’t feel like we have permission to be passionate. If we are afraid of our own depth—our passionate capacities—we are more afraid of the unlived life.

Some axioms:

  • Life without passion is life without depth.

  • Passion, while dangerous to order, predictability, and sometimes sanity, is an expression of the life force.

  • One cannot draw near the gods, the archetypal depths, without risking the largeness of life which they demand, and which passion provides.

  • Finding and following one’s passion serves one’s individuation.

  • Living passionately is the only way to love life.

The goal of individuation is wholeness, not the triumph of the ego. Without it, we suffer the swamplands of the soul, whose denizens are loneliness, loss, grief, doubt, depression, despair, anxiety, guilt, and betrayal, etc. Rather than run from the swampland, mid-life invites us to wade in and see what one’s psyche is saying, and what one will do about it. Meaning, dignity, and purpose compensate the terror of the swampland.

During mid-life, magical childhood thinking and heroic thinking of first adulthood are replaced by grim awareness of time and finitude. The same force that brings us to life will consume us. We are stunned by this in mid-life. We may try to turn back “where plastic surgery erases the epaulets of life’s campaigns and adolescence rules the culture.” Underneath the distress is an invitation to shift gears from outer acquisition to inner development. Seen from the perspective of first adulthood, second adulthood is a slow horror show. But we must accede to the greater wisdom of the process. Rather than operate from youth’s perspective that can only imagine security in terms of ego, we must acquire the tensile strength to affirm the larger rhythm of our whole life span.

If we were immortal, nothing would really matter, nothing would much count. But we are not immortal, so each choice matters! Through making choices, we become human and find our meaning. Thus the paradox: worth and dignity, terror and the promise of human existence depend on mortality.

We know we have survived mid-life when we no longer cling to who we were, no longer seek fame or fortune or the appearance of youth. The paradox is that only through relinquishing all we have sought, do we transcend the delusory guarantee of security and identity; all sought let go. Then the surplus of existence floods our heart. We move from the knowledge of the head to the wisdom of the heart.

A sign that one has not made the journey through mid-life is that one is still caught in the ego-building activities of first adulthood. The experience of mid-life crisis is not the collapse of our essential selves, but of our assumptions. We assume that if we follow the example of our models, we will be affirmed and find out what life means. Those who say they do are either caught in projections or are hucksters.

For those who worry about the impact of their journey on others, our best way of helping them is to live our life clearly and free them to live theirs. The hero in each of us is required to answer the call of individuation; to separate who we are from the sum of internalized experiences. We either embody some essential or our life is wasted.

The above is Hollis on Middle Passage as best I understand him. What I don’t understand will be obvious to the more sophisticated. Nor do I wholly concur with his ideas I do understand. I do know that I am now well beyond the Middle Passage and that it was a very hard time for me and most everyone around me. I understood very little about that turbulent journey in the small boat in the storm, other than the huge reality of its profound symptoms. Had Hollis’ book been published at the time (it hadn’t) his insights might have eased my ordeal.

As my clients, and indeed as my own children traverse the Middle Passage, I hope these notes will help them approach a healthy understanding of the daunting quest for the persons they were intended to become.

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