Midlife Awakenings

The ’60s Generation Confronts Itself

by Douglas LaBier

A shorter version of this article appeared in somewhat different form in The Washington Post, February 20, 1995

Steve was a warm, outgoing man who discovered at 48 that an outwardly successful life is not the same as feeling whole or fully alive. A business professional at a Washington nonprofit organization, he talked with me about this during a therapy session one crisp October afternoon a few years ago “I enjoy my career,” he said, “and I have a pretty good marriage — though I’ve had some affairs. But the different parts of my life just don’t add up to enough. I’m not very happy, basically. Thoughts about aging and change bother me. . . I want to feel more connected, more of a sense of purpose about life.”

Steve’s words struck home. I, too, had struggled with similar conflicts as I entered midlife. In fact, concerns like these are coming home to roost for many men and women now at midlife — the ’60s generation and baby boomers.

Over the last several years, I and others who have been treating and studying new midlifers find that the desire to create real human connection, as well as greater meaning and purpose, is a major theme of midlife conflict today.

We also find that doing something about it requires facing up to how we are actually living in the present moment — to take charge and become the “authors” of our lives.

That’s more difficult than it sounds. Reclaiming “self-authorship” and integrating neglected ideals into our lives involve intangibles — things like “life vision” and meaning, inner renewal and transformation. It’s this nonmaterialistic quest that has fed the recent explosion of interest in spiritual growth and practices, especially those associated with the new age movement.

But there are two problems with today’s new age spirituality. One is that most of it is a form of magical thinking: inspirational-sounding but vague beliefs and passive expectations that actually undermine spiritual growth.

The other problem is that spiritual development alone isn’t an adequate basis for midlife renewal. This effort requires us to transform two other fundamental life practices as well: the relational, or how we relate to other people and living things, and the creative. Interwoven, these three strands of our lives form what I call the “triple helix” of midlife renewal. Without dealing with these challenges, we remain half-children living half-lives.

Joan, a New York advertising executive, experienced problems with magical spiritualism. A self-described “quester,” she attended some spiritual workshops after reading a few of the popular new age books. “I was looking to fill a kind of spiritual void in my life that seemed to be growing,” she said. She came away disappointed and turned off instead. “Too mystical and wifty for me.”

The problem is that magical spiritualism implies that something wondrous and uplifting will happen if we open ourselves to (take your pick) the “inner spirit,” “ancient wisdom,” “energy enhancement” and so on, while never really showing what each of these are or how they occur.

Ultimately, magical spiritualism fosters narcissism. It pushes us toward becoming isolated and narrowly focused on getting spiritual “needs” met. It turns spirituality into just another consumer product from which we hope to feel special and important in a fragmented world.

Real spirituality is altogether different. It means creating meaning through linkage with something beyond ourselves. We do this through a moral vision of life expressed each moment, each day — and through our values, choices and actions, our total “life practice.”

Today’s magical spiritualism speaks, in particular, to members of the ’60s generation, whose positive ideals — justice, caring, freedom, equality — dropped away as we over-identified self-worth with career success.

Members of the ’60s generation could never incorporate all their ideals into personal or political life. Many of us never came to terms with personal and relationship issues, so we sought meaning through money and power. We bought into careerist values just as we were segueing from young adulthood into midlife.

Not knowing what it took to construct relationships and a culture that was different from what we inherited, many of us ended up living a lie in relationships, careers and life paths by the time we became midlifers. Those of us who work with midlife issues find this — a life of self-deceit — to be the most pervasive form of midlife conflict today. The acclaimed short-story writer Alice Munro calls this conflict our “open secrets,” visible in how we are living, though we may not see them.

Many new midlifers yearn to move away from a life of disconnection and self-betrayal. At this critical turning point, when we no longer need field glasses to see death waiting at the end of the road, many f us want more authenticity in daily life.

To make one’s personal life and contribution to social change converge into a new path, the first step is wanting to see the truth about ourselves and the world around us. Exposing our “open secrets” and dealing with them is the beginning. So is awakening to what our values, choices and actions feed within our character — both good and bad.

Becoming more spiritual interplays with the two other strands of the “triple helix” of midlife renewal — our relationships and creativity.

Cultivating the first strand means taking responsibility for our impact on others by relating to them as whole people, not as objects to fear or dominate.

Paul, an economist with an international organization, became aware of his relational shortcomings following harsh feedback from subordinates, which happened on the heels of his marital separation. Some painful self-examination followed. “I see now that I’m a pretty selfish person,” he told me. “I’ve rationalized most of my actions in terms of what I could get for myself. And I don’t want to be that way anymore.”

Pioneering work by Boston psychiatrist Jean Baker Miller and her colleagues shows that emotional health and maturity means increased capacity for mutuality, or valuing each other as equals within relationships. We cannot exist or develop apart from continuing relationships with other living systems — whether our families, the culture or the environment.

Practicing the relational strand requires authenticity and connection; being neither a wimp nor a dominator, but a full equal, both in our inner desires and outer voice.

Mary, a 43-year-old senior executive with a cable TV network, worked at this when one of her staff became upset after being excluded from a meeting. She talked with him directly, demonstrating openness and respect for his views and feelings. But she also explained why she made her decision, without apology or backing down.

The third strand of the helix is the creative — whether we use our energies to build or destroy, to affirm or negate. The challenge is to practice life-affirming, innovative and flexible use of creative powers when facing dilemmas or problems.

Everyone has these powers, but activating them requires the proper mind-set, what Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer calls “mindfulness.”

Her research documents this as a perspective that allows us to break through the conventional ways of understanding problems and potential solutions. A mundane example is being able to use pliers as a hammer.

Attention to each moment, each action, helps us shift away from the common tendency toward rigidity and deadened imagination. Most of us are familiar with this from the workplace, especially when our creative energies become blocked or end up serving deadened, bureaucratic goals.

Cultivating the creative strand means responsible risk-taking. Taking even small risks can be hard when we become over-attached to our position, power or perks. But it is worth it, as Dan discovered.

At 44, he led a team of talented and independent-minded researchers. He had begun a personal struggle to confront some old issues about security and dependency that he had evaded all his life. And this, in turn, aroused his desire to stretch himself at work.

Initially, he experimented with active listening: His subordinates voiced long-standing complaints about his tendency to control staff meetings and turn off new ideas. He tried letting go more, openly encouraging ideas from his staff. The entire work atmosphere began to change. Dan’s colleagues began to see new strengths and resources in themselves — and in him as well.

Overall, the triple helix teaches that we can’t expect to develop or renew ourselves in piecemeal fashion. Because the strands overlap, the practice of any one aspect necessarily affects and is affected by the practice of the others. We grow as whole people or not at all.

The larger fabric woven by the triple helix is the strengthening of connection. And it is fundamental to midlife growth and health.

At a time of rampant disconnection, an important shift is occurring. We are gradually awakening to the ancient truth that all human beings are fundamentally interconnected with each other and with other living things and living systems.

Both modern physics and Eastern perspectives converge upon this recognition, that we are all constructed from the same matter, the same energy. Like part of a vast latticework, we are completely linked with everything.

Midlife renewal can only occur by acting upon this reality and forging stronger connections where it counts — in our spiritual lives, in our relationships and in creativity. And in real time: not tomorrow, not later, but now.