Rereading One of My Favorite Books, “The Middle Passage: From Misery to Meaning in Midlife”

April 8, 2024

Rereading One of My Favorite Books, “The Middle Passage: From Misery to Meaning in Midlife”

May 29, 2023

Part of the reason I decided to write “Learning to Love Midlife” (https://bit.ly/48ag4FH) was because I didn’t feel there were many mainstream books that told the modern midlife story. But, I recently cracked open James Hollis’ insightful first book, “The Middle Passage,” and was reminded of just how influential this work of art was on my early thinking on midlife.

Writer Maria Popova suggests, one has entered the Middle Passage when the demands of the true self press restive and uprising against the acquired persona, eventually colliding to produce untenable psychic ache, what James Hollis calls a “fearsome clash…leaving one “radically stunned into consciousness.”

Hollis considers our unexamined conditioning as a root cause of this clash:

“Perhaps the first step in making the Middle Passage meaningful is to acknowledge the partiality of the lens we were given by family and culture, and through which we have made our choices and suffered their consequences. If we had been born of another time and place, to different parents who held different values, we would have had an entirely different lens. The lens we received generated a conditional life, which represents not who we are but how we were conditioned to see life and make choices…We succumb to the belief that the way we have grown to see the world is the only way to see it, the right way to see it, and we seldom suspect the conditioned nature of our perception.”

This gem of a book helps us to realize just how unconsciously we’ve reacted to life through our childhood lens. This is part of the reason we’ve enjoyed our collaboration with the Hoffman Institute with their programs focused on family of origins patterns. Most of our suffering comes from the unexamined and unresolved trials and tribulations of childhood. Being able to free yourself from these patterns liberates you to live a freer life. 

For many, the midlife crisis is just a midlife reckoning ball meant to smash the edifice of our acquired and cultivated personality in order to free the inner sense of self that’s been trapped inside. Hollis writes,

“The person continues to operate out of the old attitudes and strategies, but they are no longer effective. Symptoms of midlife distress are in fact to be welcomed, for they represent not only an instinctually grounded self underneath the acquired personality but a powerful imperative for renewal. In effect, the person one has been is to be replaced by the person to be. The first must die… Such death and rebirth is not an end in itself; it is a passage. It is necessary to go through the Middle Passage to more clearly achieve one’s potential and to earn the vitality and wisdom of mature aging. Thus, the Middle Passage represents a summons from within to move from the provisional life to true adulthood, from the false self to authenticity.”

He goes on to say that around 40 (today, given increased longevity, this might be 50), we can start to experience a second adulthood that can only occur once we’ve started to dispose of our carefully-composed personality. There is much pain in this loss and this is why it’s important to ritualize it and share one’s experience of this passage.

I like to think of this as a helium balloon, with our face plastered on it, that springs a small leak such that it falls from high in the air to being on the ground once again. This deflation of the ego allows us to rest on the ground with all the egos of our compadres on this journey. For those of you who’ve experienced an MEA workshop, this is where we are at the end of the first day. 

Hollis goes on to write, 

“It takes courage to face one’s emotional states directly and to dialogue with them. But therein lies the key to personal integrity. In the swamplands of the soul there is meaning and the call to enlarge consciousness. To take this on is the greatest responsibility in life… And when we do, the terror is compensated by meaning, by dignity, by purpose.”

-Chip

Go deeper with a workshop, in person or online.

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