Mid-life has been described as a crisis of the spirit.  While watching television this week (and every week), I see evidence of this crisis – in the news, in the hit movies that promote grown middle-aged hung over men behaving like immature buffoons, and even in our governmental leaders and the ways in which they fail to address our nations trials.  And of course we see it in our homes and in our communities.   

But what can one expect as they enter this stage of life?  What does maturity look like in mid-life?  What events or changes mark entry into this stage, and how does one continue to mature, especially  in relationship with others? 

Phyisical and Cognitive Changes  Though this can be a stage of great productivity, we also begin to experience the physical and cognitive degeneration that accompanies mid-life.  There are several theories that attempt to explain why we age.  One such theory is the Programmed Cell Death Theory.  John C. Cavanaugh, in his book, Adult Development and Aging, says that “Programmed cell death appears to be a function of physiological processes, the innate ability to self-destruct” (Cavanaugh pg. 73).  Basically, after we reach reproductive maturity (mid-life), our genes are activated to self-destruct (Programmed Cell Death) and physiologically we decline.  In other words, no matter how often I go to the gym or how many protein shakes I drink, I only delay the inevitable. 

When we consider the biology of aging, it’s easy to comprehend the physical and cognitive changes we go through, after all – the experience of aging is felt very acutely as we enter our middle and senior years.  We’re more susceptible to illnesses.  The hardening of our artery walls cause the heart and circulatory system to work harder and handle stress less well. 

The senses also experience the effects of aging.  The ability to focus and adjust one’s vision may lessen, and our other senses diminish as well.  And most humbling of all is that we men will begin to lose our hair, and sexual urges will decrease, though God in his foresight saw fit to bless us with viagra.  But I digress.

Women can expect to lose the ability to bear children.  Due to hormonal changes in her body, she might experience hot flashes, chills, headaches, and depression.  Though men not experience a loss of reproductive ability, there is a decrease in sperm reproduction, and the changes in their ability to perform sexually can also have a negative psychological effect, and may cause some to grow depressed or over-compensate in other areas. 

The Upside  So, there are obviously some challenges in mid-life, just as they are in every stage of life, but there are also many wonderful opportunities for growth! Even cognitively.  In the adolescence and young-adult stage, the focus is on gathering information and problem solving skills.  This means developing more abstract cognitive skills.  But in middle age, the emphasis shifts to applying the skill and knowledge one has in caring for others.  In fact I would argue that the lack of ability to love our neighbor and care for others is not only a “political” or “religious” concern, but a sign of immaturity and evidence of a failure to transition into this stage of healthy adulthood.  Referring to K.W. Schaie’s theory on cognitive behavior (1977-1978), Cavanaugh says, “This stage involves learning to appreciate the effects that one’s own problem solutions have on one’s family and friends” (pp. 262-263).  The black and white absolutism of the earlier stage (young-adult) gives way to a process that allows for ambiguity and paradox.  It makes one wonder why so many middle-aged and senior people are still so frighten and threatened by both paradox and ambiguity when the ability to navigate these is actually a sign of mature development – the next stage in becoming a mature adult.  According to Schaie, how one uses what they know, and not simply what they know, shows the cognitive transition into mid-life.

Head and Heart  Another aspect of cognitive development in this stage is the ability to integrate emotion and logic.  In a study by Blanchard-Fields & Camp (1990), younger adults faired less well in solving problems that were high in emotional involvement.  Middle and older adults “showed more awareness of when to avoid or passively accept a situation within interpersonal, emotional domains, whereas younger adults tend to use a cognitive analytic approach to all problems” (Cavanaugh pg. 267).  These changes would be consistent with the social aspect of caring for others found in the mid-life stage, and again makes one wonder at much of the interaction we see in politics and religion on emotionally charged issues and their inability to exhibit skill in integrating head and heart in solving problems.

Social/Relational Possibilities  The major conflict in this stage is that of Generativity versus Stagnation.  In this stage one must choose whether to assume responsibility, and give to society.  Generativity is having a clarity of purpose that brings meaning to life, taking responsible action for the good of others, and preparing the way for the next generation.  Charles L. Slater (2003) says, “The adult stage of generativity has broad application to family, relationships, work, and society.”  If generativity is the process of creatively engaging and making meaning of life, then stagnation is the loss of meaning, the loss of a sense of purpose, and the inability to care for others.  Children rely on the care that they receive from their adult caregivers, so stagnation at this stage has generational implications.  During this stage, there are many responsibilities, and demands placed on the middle-aged adult.  How the person responds to these demands will determine whether he or she will experience the sense of satisfaction and accomplishment that is possible in the stage of life.

Next – In part 2, I’ll present some Biblical categories, as well as an example from the play Peer Gynt to show God’s way of helping us navigate the “Middle Passage” bringing us to greater maturity in our middle years.