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The Middle Passage: A Jungian Field Guide to Finding Meaning and Transformation in Midlife

The Middle Passage: A Jungian Field Guide to Finding Meaning and Transformation in Midlife

“In the middle of the journey of our life I found myself within a dark woods where the straight way was lost,” Dante wrote in the Inferno. “The perilous time for the most highly gifted is not youth,” the visionary Elizabeth Peabody cautioned half a millennium later as she considered the art of self-renewal, “the perilous season is middle age.”

In The Middle Passage: From Misery to Meaning in Midlife (public library), Jungian analyst James Hollis offers a torch for turning the perilous darkness of the middle into a pyre of profound transformation — an opportunity, both beautiful and terrifying, to reimagine the patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior acquired in the course of adapting to life’s traumas and demands, and finally inhabit the authentic self beneath the costume of this provisional personality.

Art by Mimmo Paladino for a rare edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses

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 — a “fearsome clash,” Hollis writes, leaving one “radically stunned into consciousness.” A generation after James Baldwin contemplated how myriad chance events infuse our lives with the illusion of choice, 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.

Haunting this conditional life are our psychic reflexes — the coping mechanisms developed for the traumas of childhood, which Hollis divides into two basic categories: “the experience of neglect or abandonment” or “the experience of being overwhelmed by life,” each with its particular prognosis. The overwhelmed child may become a passive and accommodating adult prone to codependence, while the abandoned child may spend a lifetime in addictive patterns of attachment searching for a steadfast Other. These unconscious responses adopted by the inner child coalesce into a provisional adult personality still preoccupied with solving the emotional urgencies of early life. Hollis observes:

We all live out, unconsciously, reflexes assembled from the past.

One of Gustave Doré’s 1850s illustrations for Dante’s Inferno

Carl Jung termed such reflexes personal complexes — largely unconscious and emotionally charged reactions operating autonomously. Most of life’s suffering stems from the unexamined workings of these complexes and the conditioned choices they lead us to, which further sever us from our true nature. Hollis writes:

Most of the sense of crisis in midlife is occasioned by the pain of that split. The disparity between the inner sense of self and the acquired personality becomes so great that the suffering can no longer be suppressed or compensated… 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.

The summons often begins with a call to humility — having failed to bend the universe to our will the way the young imagine they can, we come to recognize our limitations, to confront our disenchantment, to reckon with the collapse of projections and the crushing of hopes. But this reckoning, when conducted with candor and self-compassion, can reward with “the restoration of the person to a humble but dignified relationship to the universe.”

This, Hollis argues, requires shedding the acquired personality of what he terms “first adulthood” — the period from ages twelve to roughly forty, on the other side of which lies the second adulthood of authenticity. Bridging the abyss between the two is the Middle Passage. He writes:

The second adulthood… is only attainable when the provisional identities have been discarded and the false self has died. The pain of such loss may be compensated by the rewards of the new life which follows, but the person in the midst of the Middle Passage may only feel the dying… The good news which follows the death of the first adulthood is that one may reclaim one’s life. There is a second shot at what was left behind in the pristine moments of childhood.

Art by Giuliano Cucco from Before I Grew Up by John Miller

Hollis envisions these shifting identities as a change of axes, moving from the parent-child axis of early life to the ego-world axis of young adulthood to the ego-Self axis of the Middle Passage — a time when “the humbled ego begins the dialogue with the Self.” On the other side of it lies the final axis: “Self-God” or “Self-Cosmos” — the kind of orientation that led Whitman, who lived with uncommon authenticity and made of it an art, to call himself a “kosmos,” using the spelling Alexander von Humboldt used to denote the interconnectedness of the universe reflected in his pioneering insistence that “in this great chain of causes and effects, no single fact can be considered in isolation.” The fourth axis is precisely this recognition of the Self as a microcosm of the universe — an antidote to the sense of insignificance, alienation, and temporality that void life of meaning. Hollis writes:

This axis is framed by the cosmic mystery which transcends the mystery of individual incarnation. Without some relationship to the cosmic drama, we are constrained to lives of transience, superficiality and aridity. Since the culture most of us have inherited offers little mythic mediation for the placement of self in a larger context, it is all the more imperative that the individual enlarge his or her vision.

These shifting axes are marked by several “sea-changes of the soul,” the most important of which is the withdrawal of projections — those mental figments that “embody what is unclaimed or unknown within ourselves,” born of the tendency to superimpose the unconscious on external objects, nowhere more pronounced than in love: What is so often mistaken for love of another is a projection of the unloved parts of oneself.

Drawing on the work of Jungian psychologist Marie-Louise von Franz, Hollis describes the five stages of projection — a framework strikingly similar to the seven stages of falling in and out of love that Stendhal outlined two centuries ago. Hollis writes:

First, the person is convinced that the inner (that is, unconscious) experience is truly outer. Second, there is a gradual recognition of the discrepancy between the reality and the projected image… Third, one is required to acknowledge this discrepancy. Fourth, one is driven to conclude one was somehow in error originally. And, fifth, one must search for the origin of the projection energy within oneself. This last stage, the search for the meaning of the projection, always involves a search for a greater knowledge of oneself.

The Lovers II by René Magritte, 1928

In consonance with Joan Didion’s piercing insistence that “the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life is the source from which self-respect springs,” Hollis considers the ultimate payoff of this painful turn from illusion to disillusionment:

The loss of hope that the outer will save us occasions the possibility that we shall have to save ourselves… Life has a way of dissolving projections and one must, amid the disappointment and desolation, begin to take on the responsibility for one’s own life… Only when one has acknowledged the deflation of the hopes and expectations of childhood and accepted direct responsibility for finding meaning for oneself, can the second adulthood begin.

The vast majority of our adult neuroses — a somewhat dated term, coined by a Scottish physician in the late eighteenth century and defined by Carl Jung as “suffering which has not discovered its meaning,” then redefined by Hollis as a “protest of the psyche” against “the split between our nature and our acculturation,” between “what we are and what we are meant to be” — arise from the refusal to acknowledge and let go of projections, for they sustain the persona that protects the person and keep us from turning inward to befriend the untended parts of ourselves, which in turn warp our capacity for intimacy with others. Hollis writes:

We learn through the deflation of the persona world that we have lived provisionally; the integration of inner truths, joyful or unpleasant, is necessary to bring new life and the restoration of purpose.


The truth about intimate relationships is that they can never be any better than our relationship with ourselves. How we are related to ourselves determines not only the choice of the Other but the quality of the relationship… All relationships… are symptomatic of the state of our inner life, and no relationship can be any better than our relationship to our own unconscious.

It is only when projection falls away that we can truly see the other as they are and not as our need incarnate, as a sovereign soul and not as a designated savior; only then can we live into Iris Murdoch’s splendid definition of love as “the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real,” and be enriched rather than enraged by this otherness.

Defying the dangerous Romantic ideal of love as the fusion of two souls and echoing Mary Oliver’s tender wisdom on how differences make couples stronger, Hollis writes:

When one has let go of the projections and the great hidden agenda, then one can be enlarged by the otherness of the partner. One plus one does not equal One, as in the fusion model; it equals three — the two as separate beings whose relationship forms a third which obliges them to stretch beyond their individual limitations. Moreover, by relinquishing projections and placing the emphasis on inner growth, one begins to encounter the immensity of one’s own soul. The Other helps us expand the possibilities of the psyche.


Loving the otherness of the partner is a transcendent event, for one enters the true mystery of relationship in which one is taken to the third place — not you plus me, but we who are more than ourselves with each other.

Art by Shel Silverstein from The Missing Piece Meets the Big O — his allegory of true love

Ultimately, healthy love requires that we cease expecting of the other what we ought to expect of ourselves. In so returning to ourselves from the realm of projection, we are tasked with finally mapping and traversing the inner landscape of the psyche, with all its treacherous terrain and hidden abysses. Hollis writes:

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.


Our task at midlife is to be strong enough to relinquish the ego-urgencies of the first half and open ourselves to a greater wonder.

In the remainder of The Middle Passage, Hollis goes on to illustrate these concepts with case studies from literature — from Goethe’s Faust to Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground to Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” — illuminating how personal complexes and projections play out in everything from parenting to creative practice to love, and how their painful renunciation swings open a portal to the deepest and most redemptive transformation. Complement it with Alain de Botton on the importance of breakdowns and Judith Viorst on the art of letting go, then revisit Ursula K. Le Guin’s magnificent meditation on menopause as rebirth.


The Ecstasy of Eternity: Richard Jefferies on Time and Self-Transcendence

The Ecstasy of Eternity: Richard Jefferies on Time and Self-Transcendence

This is the great paradox: that human life, lived between the time of starlings and the time of stars, is made meaningful entirely inside the self, but the self is a mirage of the mind, a figment of cohesion that makes the chaos and transience bearable. A few times a lifetime, if you are lucky, something — an encounter with nature, a work of art, a great love — sparks what Iris Murdoch so wonderfully termed “an occasion for unselfing,” dismantling the cathedral of illusion and rendering you one with everything that ever was and ever will be. Because time is the substance of being, past and future meld into one, then vanish altogether. For a moment you become one with the absolute — not a self islanded in time, but an oceanic particle of eternity.

The psychologist Abraham Maslow termed such moments of timelessness and selflessness peak experiences — “the most blissful and perfect moments of life” — and placed them atop his seminal hierarchy of needs, in the realm of transcendence. He believed that every religion arose from them — from “the private, lonely, personal illumination, revelation, or ecstasy of some acutely sensitive prophet or seer.” After interviewing thousands of people about their peak experiences, Maslow uncovered the core common denominator — a profound sense that the universe is a harmonious totality to which one belongs and of which one is an indelible part, as essential to the integrated whole as any other, existing outside time.

Art by Dorothy Lathrop, 1922. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

I know of no more beautiful or deeply felt account of such contact with eternity than the one Richard Jefferies (November 6, 1848–August 14, 1887), patron saint of modern conservation, relays in his altogether breathtaking spiritual autobiography The Story of My Heart (public library).

In the final years of his short life, Jefferies touched transcendence while climbing a hill he climbed regularly. (This is part of the mystery we are — why peak experiences unfold when they do, often in the midst of something familiar, something encountered countless times before without this shimmer of the miraculous.) Crowning his magnificent account of the experience is the revelation that presence — this prayerful attention to the here and now — is the supreme portal to eternity. A generation after Kierkegaard insisted that “the moment is not properly an atom of time but an atom of eternity” and a century before Mary Oliver drew on Blake and Whitman to observe that “all eternity is in the moment,” Jefferies reflects:

Realising that spirit, recognising my own inner consciousness, the psyche, so clearly, I cannot understand time. It is eternity now. I am in the midst of it. It is about me in the sunshine; I am in it, as the butterfly floats in the light-laden air. Nothing has to come; it is now. Now is eternity; now is the immortal life. Here this moment, by this tumulus, on earth, now; I exist in it. The years, the centuries, the cycles are absolutely nothing; it is only a moment since this tumulus was raised; in a thousand years it will still be only a moment. To the soul there is no past and no future; all is and will be ever, in now.

And yet it is only through the body — this perishable reliquary of life — that the mind can grasp the abstraction of timelessness; it is only through absolute presence with the aliveness of the moment that the soul can sing with the ecstasy of eternity. Jefferies writes:

I dip my hand in the brook and feel the stream; in an instant the particles of water which first touched me have floated yards down the current, my hand remains there. I take my hand away, and the flow — the time — of the brook does not exist to me. The great clock of the firmament, the sun and the stars, the crescent moon, the earth circling two thousand times, is no more to me than the flow of the brook when my hand is withdrawn; my soul has never been, and never can be, dipped in time. Time has never existed, and never will; it is a purely artificial arrangement. It is eternity now, it always was eternity, and always will be.

Complement these fragments of the wholly soul-slaking Story of My Heart with two centuries of ravishing reflections on time, from Borges to Nina Simone, then revisit Jefferies on nature as a prayer for presence and his contemporary Hermann Hesse on discovering the soul beneath the self.


The Other Significant Others: Living and Loving Outside the Confines of Conventional Friendship and Compulsory Coupledom

The Other Significant Others: Living and Loving Outside the Confines of Conventional Friendship and Compulsory Coupledom

We move through the world largely unaware that our emotions are made of concepts — the brain’s coping mechanism for the blooming buzzing confusion of what we are. We label, we classify, we contain — that is how we parse the maelstrom of experience into meaning. It is a useful impulse — without it, there would be no science or storytelling, no taxonomies and theorems, no poems and plots. It is also a limiting one — the most beautiful, rewarding, and transformative experiences in life transcend the categories our culture has created to contain the chaos of consciousness, nowhere more so than in the realm of relationships — those mysterious benedictions that bridge the abyss between one consciousness and another.

When we hollow the word friend by overuse and misuse, when we make of love a contract with prescribed roles and rigid, impossible expectations, we become prisoners of our own concepts. The history of feeling is the history of labels too small to contain the loves of which we are capable — varied and vigorously transfigured from one kind into another and back again. It takes both great courage and great vulnerability to live outside concepts, to meet each new experience, each new relationship, each new emotional landscape on its own terms and let it in turn expand the terms of living.

Art by Sophie Blackall from Things to Look Forward to

That is what Rhaina Cohen explores in The Other Significant Others: Reimagining Life with Friendship at the Center (public library) — a journalistic investigation of the vast yet invisible world of unclassifiable intimate relationships, profiling pairs of people across various circumstances and stages of life sustained by such bonds, people who have “redrawn the borders of friendship, moving the lines further and further outward to encompass more space in each other’s lives,” people who have found themselves in finding each other.

What emerges through this portrait of a type of relationship “hidden in plain sight” is an antidote to the tyranny of the “one-stop-shop coupledom ideal” and “an invitation to expand what options are open to us,” radiating a reminder that we pay a price for living by our culture’s standard concepts:

While we weaken friendships by expecting too little of them, we undermine romantic relationships by expecting too much of them.

A generation after Andrew Sullivan celebrated the rewards of friendship in a culture obsessed with romance, Cohen writes:

This is a book about friends who have become a we, despite having no scripts, no ceremonies, and precious few models to guide them toward long-term platonic commitment. These are friends who have moved together across states and continents. They’ve been their friend’s primary caregiver through organ transplants and chemotherapy. They’re co-parents, co-homeowners, and executors of each other’s wills. They belong to a club that has no name or membership form, often unaware that there are others like them. They fall under the umbrella of what Eli Finkel, a psychology professor at Northwestern University, calls “other significant others.” Having eschewed a more typical life setup, these friends confront hazards and make discoveries they wouldn’t have otherwise.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from a vintage ode to friendship by Janice May Udry

Noting that her interest in the subject is more than theoretical, catalyzed by her own expansive relationship with another woman in parallel with her marriage, Cohen considers these category-defying bonds as a countercultural act of courage and resistance:

I began to see how these unusual relationships can also be a provocation — unsettling the set of societal tenets that circumscribe our intimate lives: That the central and most important person in one’s life should be a romantic partner, and friends are the supporting cast. That romantic love is the real thing, and if people claim they feel strong platonic love, it must not really be platonic. That adults who raise kids together should be having sex with each other, and marriage deserves special treatment by the state.

With an eye to the long lineage of people who have defied the categories of their time and place — the kinds of people populating Figuring, which I wrote largely to explore such relationships — she adds:

Challenging these social norms is not new, nor are platonic partners the only dissidents. People who are feminists, queer, trans, of color, nonmonogamous, single, asexual, aromantic, celibate, or who live communally have been questioning these ideas for decades, if not centuries. All have offered counterpoints to what Eleanor Wilkinson, a professor at the University of Southampton, calls compulsory coupledom: the notion that a long-term monogamous romantic relationship is necessary for a normal, successful adulthood. This is a riff on the feminist writer Adrienne Rich’s influential concept of “compulsory heterosexuality” — the idea, enforced through social pressure and practical incentives, that the only normal and acceptable romantic relationship is between a man and a woman. Some of the first stories we hear as children instill compulsory coupledom, equating characters finding their “one true love” with living “happily ever after.”


It can be confusing to live in the gulf between the life you have and the life you believe you’re supposed to be living.

In the remainder of The Other Significant Others, Cohen relays the stories of people who have sliced through the confusion to build lives that serve them through tailor-made relationships that reward the deepest and truest parts of them, relationships that reimagine what it means to love and be loved, to see and be seen — relationships like those of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman, Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller.

Complement it with poet and philosopher David Whyte on love and resisting the tyranny of relationship labels, then revisit Coleridge on the paradox of friendship and romantic love.


Jonathan Franzen on How to Write About Nature, with a Side of Rachel Carson and Alice in Wonderland

Jonathan Franzen on How to Write About Nature, with a Side of Rachel Carson and Alice in Wonderland

I grew up loving Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. My grandmother read it to me before I could read. I read it to myself as soon as I could. I loved the strangeness of it, and the tenderness. As a child mathematician, I loved knowing that a grown mathematician had written it. But what I most loved about the story was Alice’s fearless curiosity and compassion as she encountered all the creatures populating Wonderland. I loved the White Rabbit and the Cheshire Cat and Bill the Lizard because Alice loved them.

This is what makes Wonderland Wonderland: To its denizens, it is just their world, mundane as life. “This is water.” What confers wonder upon it for the reader, what makes the story a story and not a vignette of ordinary life in an ordinary world, is the view through Alice’s wonder-smitten eyes as she moves through it, and wonder is the mightiest catalyst of care.

We care because she cares.

Art by Tove Jansson from a rare 1966 edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

In the century and a half since Lewis Carroll, a lineage of writers — Richard Jefferies, Henry Beston, Rachel Carson, Robert Macfarlane, Richard Powers — have applied that method to this world, reminding us that we too are living in a wonderland, as real as it is improbable, for nowhere else across the inky vastness of spacetime strewn with billions upon billions of other star systems is there another world lush with life, as far as we yet know.

“Nature writing” and “environmental writing” are odd terms, one intimating that we ourselves are not nature (which Denise Levertov captured poignantly in her poem “Sojourns in the Parallel World”) and the other casting nature as something that surrounds us, in turn implying our centrality. Those writers who have gotten humanity to care about the natural world — which is the world — have done so because they themselves have moved through it with a sense of wonder, each of them an Alice making a Wonderland of Earth.

Art by Salvador Dalí from a rare 1969 edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

This is what Jonathan Franzen affirms in a passage from his foreword to Spark Birds (public library) — a lovely Orion anthology of essays and poems celebrating the wonder of the feathered world, featuring such beloved voices as Mary Oliver, Terry Tempest Williams, and J. Drew Lanham, co-edited by Franzen himself.

With an eye to the basic A-to-B structure of a story propelled by a sense of purpose along the axis of its plot, he considers the challenge of creating a dramatic narrative around creatures whose primary purpose is basic survival, creatures “driven by desires the opposite of personal” and free from “ethical ambivalence or regret” — those marvelous, maddening complexities that make for the human drama. He writes:

Absent heavy-duty anthropomorphizing or projection, a wild animal simply doesn’t have the particularity of self, defined by its history and its wishes for the future, on which good storytelling depends. With a wild animal character, there is only ever a point A: the animal is what it is and was and always will be. For there to be a point B, a destination for a dramatic journey, only a human character will suffice. Narrative nature writing, at its most effective, places a person (often the author, writing in the first person) in some kind of unresolved relationship with the natural world, provides the character with unanswered questions or an unattained goal, however large or small, and then deploys universally shared emotions — hope, anger, longing, frustration, embarrassment, disappointment — to engage a reader in the journey. If the writing succeeds in heightening a reader’s interest in the natural world, it does so indirectly.

Art by Jackie Morris from The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane — a visual dictionary of poetic spells resisting the erasure of nature’s language from our cultural lexicon.

Rachel Carson — who awakened the modern ecological conscience by making of science a magnifying lens for the inherent wonder of the natural world and rendering that wonder in the poetic language of universal emotion — conveyed this indirect enchantment in her magnificent National Book Award acceptance speech: “If there is poetry in my book about the sea,” she said at the ceremony where she shared a table with the poet Marianne Moore, “it is not because I deliberately put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.” In consonance with Carson’s credo that “the more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us the less taste we shall have for the destruction of our race,” Franzen celebrates the power of writing with feeling, with wonder, with reverence for life:

We can’t make a reader care about nature. All we can do is tell stories of people who do care, and hope that the caring is contagious.

Complement with marine biologist Andreas Weber on poetic ecology and the biology of wonder, then revisit Rachel Carson on writing.


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