Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself / In dark woods, the right road lost. / To tell
About those woods is hard–so tangled and rough /And savage that thinking of it now, I feel /
The old fear stirring: death is hardly more bitter. —Dante Alighieri, The Inferno
We don’t need Dante to tell us that lives go through changes. Anyone who has undergone a life transition knows, perhaps too well, about these often-difficult alterations. What is not so well known is that pain seems to be an important part of it.
We have no shortage of painful rites of passage among tribes and developing peoples. Tribes in Papua New Guinea typically scarify boys, cutting their skin and humiliating them sometimes for weeks, to turn them into men. Boys and girls among the Okiek tribe in Kenya depart life in the wild for several months and are ritually terrified by their elders blowing a horn that sounds like a wild animal.
But what about adults? It’s been said that one of life’s big vacancies is a rite of passage for older people, recognized as something more positive than, for example, a midlife crisis. The Buddha reportedly sat under a tree for 49 days before he attained enlightenment. Carl Jung played in a sandbox as an adult, to reconnect with his inner child. According to psychologists, this painful and lost period is the necessary preliminary to a reawakening into something bigger.
“Of course, there is pain, produced by resistance, otherwise there would be no change,” said psychologist James Hollis, author most recently of Living an Examined Life: Wisdom for the Second Half of the Journey.
“The message we get growing up is that the world is big, and I’m not, and how will I deal with that? So, we attach ourselves to that larger world and lose touch with our individual guidance. Then later we try to recover that guidance and pursue our own story, which is obvious in the abstract, but in practice quite painful. I have to step outside my comfort zone and open myself to unfamiliar influences.”
“So yes, change is difficult, but if you don’t do it you are stuck, a creature of fate.”
Hollis draws a distinction between following fate, which means remaining loyal to where external forces take you, and following destiny, which means hearing the often quiet knowledge of what you can become as a human being—in Jungian terms, individuation.
“The goal of individuation is wholeness, as much as we can accomplish, not the triumph of ego,” Hollis said.
“The capacity for growth depends on one’s ability to internalize and to take personal responsibility. If we forever see our life as a problem caused by others, a problem to be “solved,” then no change will occur.”
That such a transition is often accompanied by negatives–boredom, anger, irritability, sexual affairs, decreased ambition, increased ambition, a sense of failure—only increases the importance of a conscious movement through it, Hollis says.
So sit still for a moment. For surely, captain, it’s time to seize the wheel.