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Mid-Life Malaise

I never used to believe in mid-life crises, especially for Christians. As long as you get better it doesn't matter if you get older. That's what I used to say. But suddenly, sometime during my 41st year on earth, I got weird.

The crisis didn't start like I thought it would. There was no navel gazing and anxiety about life passing me by. No conscious angst about the future or overt temptations to chase twenty something women around. I wasn't anxious about balding or turning gray. It was worse than that. Much worse.

For me it started with drinking too often and too much. Subtly, quietly, I just began to over indulge, so much so that my occasional glass of wine with dinner morphed into a drink every day, or three, or four, or more. Whether that started the arguments with my wife or just fueled them, I don't know. It doesn't matter. I just know that soon hostility began to destroy our family tranquility -- my hostility. I had always taken my wife out to dinner each week. Soon every night out ended in a bitter argument. It got so she didn't even want to go out with me, and who could blame her?

I found myself doing other things to excess also, overeating, watching too much TV, just generally living compulsively. And there were ubiquitous temptations. Porn, attractive clients who could easily form unhealthy attachments, strip clubs -- something always seemed to beckon me to go somewhere or do something I knew I shouldn't.

I needed to do something to get to the bottom of it and fast. I had a friend who was a therapist. I took him to lunch so I could discuss my situation. I remember telling him, "I just feel like leasing a Porsche, driving to Vail, becoming a ski bum, and hanging out with ski bunnies." He laughed and said, "No, you got it all wrong. You need to find a ski bunny who already has a Porsche." His ability to help me laugh at my pain helped a lot. It was a welcome relief from the shallow, judgmental advice I was afraid I'd get from the religious community. But it didn't help nearly enough.

Finally, I called FAITH AT WORK ministries and asked if they knew of any events I could attend that might help. They led the first retreat I attended years earlier, the one that started me on my journey for personal growth and healing, so they were a logical place to turn for help. They suggested a two week intensive healing retreat to be held at a monastery in Nebraska. I mentioned it to the men who helped me lead our church. They felt it would be a great idea. I asked my wife what she thought. Though she was too kind to say so, I think she was relieved to be rid of me for two weeks. So in fear and trembling, I packed my bags and went.

Too many things happened for me there to fit into a newsletter. I had a powerful vision that contained coded clues about what I needed to heal. I also learned about a whole new world of inner tools that could assist me on my quest for greater wholeness. I experienced two remarkable healing sessions, and discovered a wealth of sources to further assist my own personal growth and healing. I learned so much that when I came home, I designed a whole new retreat called THE INNER JOURNEY. I wanted to share with others the things that helped me so much.

But honestly, the crux of the matter for my own personal healing was found in a wonderful book I read there called HE, by Robert Johnson. It's a skinny little paperback, but it was so full of relevant material it took me a week to read it. I slowly savored every page.

HE is a psychology of masculinity. It's amazing how little is written to help men heal and grow. We think that's a woman's thing. This reminds me of something the great missionary Walter Trobish once quoted from an African proverb: "Man is hurting, but woman don't know it."

Johnson says all men go through three phases in life. The first he calls 'Unconscious Perfection,' the second, 'Conscious Imperfection,' the third, 'Conscious Perfection.' He uses the word perfection not in a behavioral sense but rather more like the Bible defines perfection: 'wholeness, being who you really are, being compete.'

In phase one, childhood before we are socialized, the infant is unconsciously just living exactly as who he is. When he hurts he cries, when he's happy he laughs, when he needs he demands, when he wants he gets.   Socialization, that necessary painful process that parents, school, church and society use to teach us to be responsible adults, changes all that.   We eventually learn to sit quietly in straight rows of desks doing boring tasks for many hours each day. We learn to suppress our desire to pull the little girl's hair in front of us and fart whenever we feel like it. We also learn to be mature, responsible, and ... thoroughly sublimated. Usually, we learn something else. Though no one actually says these words to us, we discover that how we are isn't good enough.

Something else happens during phase one. At some point during prepubescence or early adolescence, boys on their way to manhood also receive what Johnson calls the Fisher King wound. (The fascinating Robin Williams movie, The Fisher King, was modeled after Johnson's insights in HE.) This wound usually affects us sexually. In the ancient myth of the Fisher King it's a wound on the thigh, symbolizing this. This wound ultimately drives us even deeper inside ourselves, crowning society's attempts to render us socialized, sealing our fate throughout young adulthood and early manhood. It remains a subliminal buried pain, gone and blissfully forgotten. Until middle age.

All this losing of our real self serves a higher purpose. It enables us to get educated, find a wife, start a career and family, and generally perpetuate the species responsibly. But somehow, between the late 30's and early 50's, something changes. This begins phase two.

In phase two, we become conscious of how imperfect we are. Not in a guilt-laden, brow beating, religious sense, you understand. It just gradually dawns on us that we don't really like our life. We have become someone different from who we are. All the years of conforming, and sublimating, and suppressing, and smiling and brown-nosing and butt-kissing, and study, and work, and paying bills, and diligence, and lawn mowing, and snow shoveling and car buying, and mortgaging, and doing our duty finally takes its toll.

It's then that we discover something very frightening. We have also mortgaged our very soul. We've become someone we aren't, and quite probably someone we don't even really like.

This is when guys buy sports cars, and have affairs. It's when they unbutton their shirts too far, struggle to get into better shape, and wear silly gold chains. It's too often when they divorce, or become alcoholic, or take cocaine, and tell off their bosses, and get fired, and generally start to sabotage everything they've worked their whole lives to do, to have and to be.

At this juncture they have a few choices. They can ruin their lives, reinvent themselves, repent and sublimate some more OR ... they can enter phase three.

Conscious Perfection refers to the capacity to self actualize, to become who you really are, to find yourself and a way to become whole. It's also when you can find and fulfill your highest destiny. But phase three is more about who you ARE than what you DO. After all, we aren't called to become human doings! Mid-life crisis affords us an opportunity to learn what it means to just BE. It's a chance to finally become comfortable in your own skin.

In the middle of my two week Nebraska retreat I borrowed a car and drove to the nearby shopping mall. It was wickedly hot outside and I enjoyed the air conditioning in the mall. But more importantly, I began to enjoy the rare experience of just BEING. I know that sounds touchy feely and new age and kinda strange, but it was perhaps the first time in my adult life I had visited a mall with no agenda and no time table. I had nothing to buy, no one to meet, nothing to do but just wander the mall and experience what it was like to exist in my own skin.

I people watched, I looked at display windows, I ran my fingers through luxurious fabrics, I felt the cool air on my skin. I breathed deeply, I acted with uncharacteristic kindness to clerks, smiled at total strangers, but mostly I just WAS.

A bathroom wall in a jazz joint had this profound message. "'To be is to DO.' - Immanuel Kant. 'To do is to BE.' - Jean Paul Sartre. 'Do-Be-Do-Be-Do.' - Dizzy Gillespie."

What a concept. You see, we can easily lose our life, destroy our perfection and miss our destiny in phase two. Following Kant's dictums we can truly become little more than robotic human doings. The other extreme is not good either. Life is empty and very hollow for those who become obsessed with their BEING. Nothing is lonelier or more unsatisfying than having everything and doing everything we want all the time. Somehow there must be a balance between doing and being, between vacation and work, between meaningful effort and energized existence.

It's here that a mid-life crisis can help. It can enable us to discover who we really are, how we want to live the rest of our lives, and how to live consistently with our God given purpose. Properly understood and resolved it can help us become truly all we can be. When I typed the word consistently I mistyped it 'Sonsistently.' Perhaps that was no error.

Once I understood it, my mid-life crisis allowed me to totally change the direction of my life. To be sure it took a while. I had to find the courage to discover what I wanted to do. To my surprise I soon discovered I most wanted to write fiction. Then I had to start doing it. Then I had to cut free from the moorings of all that was familiar to me and leave my work, my home, my security, and friends. I sold everything and moved all the way across the country to "follow my bliss" -- to try something with a high probability of failure, to attempt to become a successful novelist and film maker.

I still don't know if I'll succeed. I've already experienced some spectacular failures, but it's been one heck of a journey and I'd never go back. Life is way too short to be bored -- or to miss our greatest destiny. We only have one chance to get it right.

Somehow, I believe God had led me this far. Some lives have been permanently touched already as a result, and I know more are yet to follow. I can honestly say that there's nothing more exciting than doing God's will, following His Spirit, becoming His person.

Ultimately, for me, that's what life is all about. Truly the journey, IS the destination.


Ken Unger is President of and founder of, where you can learn more about him and his transformative ministry. click here ,
 "Ken's new book, The Ultimate Breakthrough, goes beyond self help to self healing. You can preview it at  The Ultimate Breakthrough "


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