When vulnerability meets vulnerability

Men Sharing Faith at Mid-life by Michael Smith sj

It is often assumed that women express their faith more easily than men, that they are more 'at home' in the Church and more comfortable being vulnerable with one another. Men, on the other hand, are perceived as only happy 'doing' things in and for the Church - and rarely taking part in occasions when anything significant is shared. Are these generalizations true? Since 1989 a team of Jesuits and lay men at Campion Retreat Centre in Melbourne, Australia, have been running weekend retreats for men at mid-life, and our answer is an emphatic 'No!' Our experience shows that men respond wholeheartedly to the invitation to reflect, pray and share their stories with one another.

Two stories of men at mid-life

One man who attended a mid-life retreat at Campion told me the story of an acute crisis he experienced as a 47-year-old: 'I can remember sitting in my office one Saturday morning, crying. I was so exhausted with the whole struggle. I was exhausted with marriage, I was exhausted with the career-oriented, push-hard, work hard, pay-the-mortgage, bring-up-the-kids style of life that had previously energised me and motivated me.' He sat in his office all morning weeping and wondering what to do. From early adulthood he had lived out of a 'functional identity' judging himself solely in terms of his competence as a businessman. Prior to mid-life, consolidating his career was, understandably, para­mount because he had a wife and children to support. But he had become almost totally identified with his work. His identity was functional: he was what he did.

As he told his story it became clear that his functional identity had helped him avoid confronting his vulnerability, his limitations and the radical contingency of his very being. Functionality had pro­vided, for a while, a defence against feelings of failure and intima­tions of mortality, but this could not be sustained. Major forces began to converge on him at mid-life. Firstly, he became less able to deny his own mortality, particularly after the death of his father and the onset of his mother's senile dementia. He had lost physical vigour and muscle tone, he was losing the battle of the bulge and he just did not have the energy he had had in his twenties and thirties. Secondly, partly as a result of such physical changes, his self-image suffered. He began to realize that some of the goals he had set him­self earlier in life were not going to be achieved. Moreover, he realized that his workaholism had taken him away from his family and he mourned the fact that he barely knew his teenage children. Thirdly, he lived in a culture which told him youth was good and age was bad. Consequently mid-life had become a time of grief dur­ing which he mourned the passing of the first half of his life as he tried to fashion a new perspective on the second. The functional identity that had predominated during early adulthood began to disintegrate, and feelings of disillusionment, exhaustion and failure set in. He told me, 'I had to eat failure'. Failure was his constant companion.

He sought help from a spiritual director and began a long period of reflection on his life. Over a number of months he grieved for himself and his lost opportunities. Little by little his grief subsided. He found new energy as he determined new priorities in his life. He found new values by which to live and he set himself new goals. His relationship with his wife and children deepened; most Sunday mornings he involved himself in pastoral work at a prison; he attended daily mass when possible; he joined a Christian Life Community; there was a noticeable increase in his creativity at work. He also began to pray early most mornings. The God he had learned about at school seemed distant and punitive, and he felt he had to abandon the judgemental God of his youth. He wanted to know the God who loved him as he was, and he hungered for friendship with Jesus. 'I started to think a lot about God,' he said; 'I yearned for a relationship with God, and Jesus in particular, where I could just sit down and feel that he was a part of what I was feeling.'

At this time of profound reshaping he was fortunate he did not lose his way. One of his friends did. At mid-life his friend too underwent an acute crisis. He began to feel 'out of sorts' and depressed without knowing why. Even though his job was secure, his marriage seemed happy, his children were doing reasonably well at school and he had good health, he began to feel bored and irri­table. He was constantly tired and woke up in the morning feeling that way. His life seemed out of control, meaningless, uncertain. In an effort to keep his feelings of self-doubt at bay he began to drink heavily. Denying his age and condition, he purchased a sports car, and, as a fifty-year-old, adopted the lifestyle of a man of twenty-five. He refused to confront his mortality and could not own up to the patterns of egocentricity in his life. Instead he had an affair with a younger woman, divorced his wife, married the other woman, and was genuinely mystified that his ex-wife and adolescent children were hurt by his choices. In acting out sexually and in buying his low-slung car he was looking for answers outside of himself, whereas he needed to seek the answers within. What would have been ultimately more fruitful, although probably more personally painful, would have been a period of reflection on the first half of his life and the discovery of a new perspective on the second half. Instead he avoided the inner journey and opted to try to live out the second half of life according to the agenda of the first.

These two stories are examples of acute mid-life crises. While not all men experience mid-life as a time of crisis, it is certainly a time of transition for all men. Somewhere between the ages of thirty-five' and fifty, every man finds himself in a psychological, emotional and spiritual transition from the first to the second half of life.

Mid-life, individuation and spirituality

Mid-life can be a time of spiritual awakening or it can be a time of foreclosure on the spiritual journey. The pioneer of the study of mid-life was Carl Jung. In his book Modem man in search of a soul, which was first published in 1933, Jung claimed, from observ­ing his patients at mid-life, that psychological health in the second half of life is attained by regaining a religious outlook on life:

Among all my patients in the second half of life - that is to say, over thirty-five - there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life. It is safe to say that every one of them fell ill because he had lost that which the living religions of every age have given to their followers, and none of them has been really healed who did not regain his religious outlook. This of course has nothing whatever to do with a particular creed or membership of a church.

What constitutes a religious outlook on life? How does a person lose that which the living religions of every age have given to their followers? Why would losing that which the living religions of every age have given to their followers cause a person to fall ill psychologically? How does regaining a religious outlook on life heal a person? Jung suggests that regaining a reli­gious outlook on life has nothing whatever to do with a particular creed or membership of a church. What does it have to do with then? Prayer? A sense of the transcendent? A sense of mystery? Does it involve grappling with the problems of human existence and mortality? Spirituality?

Jung himself equated the regaining of a religious outlook on life with the process of individuation. Individuation involves the inte­gration of the outer conscious world and the inner unconscious world of an individual into a whole Jung termed the Self. Our men's retreats at Campion work on the assumption that developing an inti­mate relationship with Jesus, in which all aspects of a man's life - the noble and good as well as the shameful and base - are laid open to his love, is one way of finding a religious outlook on life, and we see mature discipleship as necessarily involving individuation.

Developing an appropriate spirituality

1. Conversion
Mid-life is a time of crisis for many men, and, as so often happens in times of personal crisis, an opening to God can come. As a man is forced to redefine himself at mid-life his personal redefinition may be accompanied by conversion. Previously held religious per­ceptions may begin to change. Slowly he may come to a truer understanding of God in the light of his mid-life experience. Crisis and religious conversion often occur together for a man, particularly if the crisis events are so overwhelming that they do not fit his pic­ture of God. When this happens he is forced to redefine his image of God. Essentially, the process of individuation requires that a man remove his ego from the centre of his universe - a painful process - and put God there. Individuation demands of a man that, if he is to become truly mature, he purge away his egocentricity and become centred on God. One man described the process of his passage through mid-life as, 'the crucifixion of my ego, and I was on the cross'.

2. Integration of unconscious elements
This element of individuation involves a man exploring: his unconscious feminine dimension, which Jung termed the Anima; the masculine archetypes - namely the Father, the Warrior, the Seeker and the Sage - which provide a man with an inner geography for self-understanding; and his Shadow - the psychological concept which refers to the dark, feared, unwanted side of the personality. When a man cannot accept something in himself he tends to demonize that aspect of his personality. For example, if a man has been brought up to regard anger and aggression as unacceptable, they are usually relegated to the Shadow. We find that men need to talk with other men about their feelings of anger and share constructive ways to channel their aggression. If he has a secure, non-judgemental place in which to do this, a man will often report experiencing a sense of 'wholeness' and will be less likely to act out Shadow material. It seems that the fullness of life comes when a man gently confronts and befriends the shadows of his heart - those parts of himself that he is inclined to put down, reject or disown - and brings them into the light of Christ so that he can transform them. In this way a man grows to accept himself more, and bring more of himself into the service of God and God's people.

3. The development of a spirituality
We find that many of the married men who come to our retreats have left the spiritual side of life to their wives. In fact, in many cases the men disclose that it was their wives, knowing that they needed to grow spiritually, who encouraged them to attend the weekend retreat. Individuation requires of a man that he begin to cultivate a spirituality that helps him integrate his faith and his daily living. It requires that he wrestle with religious questions: the prob­lem of evil, personal sin, death and afterlife, the hunger for mean­ing. It also asks of him a willingness to encounter the mystery of a personal God who touches his life, and a preparedness to journey into the unknown, where answers and certitude must be surrendered in humility.

4. Mission
The call to mission is an important aspect of the new life beyond mid-life. When a man has been touched by God the Spirit leads him to mission. But, because each man's character and life circumstances differ, each man's mission will be different. Our hope is that each will find a strong, personal love of Jesus Christ, each will see their lives as a following of him, and each will be sensitive enough to the prompting of the Holy Spirit to be able to discern the call of God in his daily life.

While mission takes a variety of forms we view generativity as a crucial aspect, particularly for the men who are fathers. According to Erik Erikson, the psychological task which unfolds in middle adulthood involves the achievement of generativity. Generativity is expressed in a commitment to nurture and guide the next generation. Ideally fatherhood is generative. However, in some cases the men we work with exhibit the negative pole of this developmental stage - stagnation. Many fathers find themselves unable to invest emotionally in their children. Some fathers, because their lives have been impoverished through their own lack of fathering, tend towards a self-preoccupation that precludes ongoing interest in their sons and daughters. A father's abdication of his generative role in his children's development may perpetuate a generational problem. The likelihood is that his children will probably abrogate their responsibility to their children in middle adulthood.

When vulnerability meets vulnerability
There is a saying about relationships that goes like this:
When power meets power, you get a power struggle;
when power meets vulnerability, you get alienation;
but when vulnerability meets vulnerability, you get intimacy.

What we mean by vulnerability is self-disclosure. Appropriate self-disclosure is essential for personal growth. When men share their stories with one another in small groups an atmosphere of trust and intimacy grows. The men come to own their experience, and come to accept themselves. Self-acceptance is the fruit of being accepted by others. Also, the experience of self-disclosure in the small group parallels the experience of heartfelt prayer. Just as intimacy grows in a small group by way of self-disclosure, so it is with God. By talking to God and revealing to God what is on his mind and in his heart a man grows in intimacy with God.

Now there are pitfalls in asking men to share in small groups. Men can easily slip into discussing 'issues' rather than sharing per­sonal experience. They can take a lawyer's approach and advocate a line of argument rather than be vulnerable and open. They can score points rather than share. They can lecture rather than receive another man's story. They can try to dominate the conversation rather than listen. So it is important to get this part of the process right. Sharing and receiving vulnerably is a contrasexual thing for a man to do. It is, in Jungian terms, an expression of his feminine side.

First printed in THE WAY 38/4 October 1998 | Abridged with author's permission

Michael Smith sj is currently Director of Campion Retreat Centre in Melbourne, Australia, where he works as a spiritual director and pastoral counsellor. His professional interests include masculine psychology and spirituality, and the father-son relationship. He has recently published Between Fathers and Sons (Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1997). The book outlines a six-week program for fathers and their sons which is designed to help strengthen the father-son bond and to help them share faith as the adolescent sons grow into mature manhood.
  • Created: 24 August 2008
  • Modified: 23 April 2009