Life Begins at Forty

The average human lifespan in medieval England was alarmingly short by today’s standards. At twenty-five, you’d be lucky if you were still standing. By the turn of the twentieth century, life expectancy had grown to forty years, and over the last few decades it has increased dramatically around the globe: eighty is the new forty. Advances in medicine, sanitation and general standards of living have undoubtedly been big players in the extension of our lifespans. In the ‘good old days’ (when times were bad) a scratch from a rose thorn could mean the end of you. It’s hard to imagine. I think of the scratches I sustained as a child from playing with my cat and running too close to the holly tree. If I’d been born in, say, 1234, would I have made it to adulthood?

New industries have emerged producing products and services to mitigate the effects of our physical decline, a decline that we generally didn’t live to experience centuries ago. On the face of it, living longer sounds like a good thing, however we might ask what there is to do with all our time; those extra forty years.

In 1932, the American psychologist Walter Pitkin published his book Life Begins at Forty. It was a popular self-help manual lauding the fruits of life after forty; of not being so bound to drudgery once the children have grown and we’ve acquired enough savings to enjoy more leisure time. To reach middle-age is to reach middleclass. At least, that’s the idea: if you can afford the modern gadgets that take the labour out of household chores, then you can spend your free time keeping yourself physically strong, healthy, and entertained — the prevailing definition of ‘the good life’.

Pitkin’s idea of life after forty has some hedonistic appeal. And there is of course benefit in trying to keep ourselves active; to ‘use it’ so we don’t ‘lose it’. Being mindful is better than neglect. However, if life beyond forty is just about staving off the inevitable and enjoying ourselves while we still can, then, using terminology from Carl Jung, the afternoon of life sounds like ‘a pitiful appendage to life’s morning’. There must be more to the second half of life than playing golf and fine dining. As Jung wrote: ‘A human being would certainly not grow to seventy or eighty years old if this longevity had no meaning for the species’ (CW 8, P:787).

In the Beginning

To understand the meaning of the second half of life, it’s helpful to first understand the meaning of life’s morning. The first half of life is about finding our feet in the world, and from a purely biological perspective, it’s an impressive achievement. As helpless newborns we’re immersed in a world of sensation of which we can make little sense. With every month that passes our senses and motor skills become more refined, our brain’s neural pathways more firmly established. The world impinges on us, shapes us, guides our learning, and we grow up, attuned to its ways and challenges. 

Part of this development involves establishing a personal identity — of emerging out of a somewhat amorphous bundle of sensations into a distinct ‘I’. Central to establishing this identity is our management of the conflict between our instinctual urges and the demands and restrictions of society. We don’t want to become so uptight that we can’t move, or so impulsive that we can’t control ourselves. Relatively good ‘ego strength’ as psychologists generally use the term, means that we have come to terms, more or less, with the demands of society and how we can function within it. Through our entanglement with life’s necessities, we develop a particular character, gain perspective, and mature.  

It’s fair to say that in the first half of life our attention is devoted to the world and the body. In infancy, we’re acutely aware of our primary care givers — their presence or absence, their responsiveness to our needs. This attachment gradually incorporates the wider world — we look to it for guidance, sustenance, and reassurance. We then step into life with hopes and ambitions of what engaging with it can give us. A career, romance, travel, becoming a parent, making money: it’s only natural in life’s morning to look outward for satisfaction. But there comes a time when we need to shift the direction of our gaze, if only because we can’t sustain the kind of activities we’re used to, or their intensity.

Many people try to cling to the ambitions and values of their youth because the future seems empty of promise. But clinging to the old ways creates problems of its own:

‘No wonder that so many bad neuroses appear at the onset of life’s afternoon. It is sort of second puberty, another “storm and stress” period, not infrequently accompanied by tempest of passion — the “dangerous age”’ (Carl Jung, CW 7, 114).

If only we knew of a truly positive meaning and purpose to the second half of life, we could approach it with less trepidation, perhaps even with open arms.

Act Two: The Inner World

Jung coined the term ‘midlife crisis’ and divided the typical lifespan into two halves — a morning and evening of life — each with specific tasks related to psychological, emotional and spiritual development.

In Mysterium Coniunctionis, Jung describes the crisis at midlife as when our identification with our persona — the masks we have identified with related to roles embedded with cultural values (wife, mother, boss, son, teacher, entrepreneur) — and its associated sense of purpose, esteem, and security, comes undone. As we’ve seen, this process is often initiated by a dramatic loss — of position, loved ones, or the unmasking of people we’ve idealised, or beliefs we’ve held dear.

Many elite athletes experience a similar reckoning after the completion of major competitive events. The investment of time and physical and mental energy that goes into the preparation for those major competitions, means that, even if they achieve incredible success (perhaps especially if they achieve such success), adjusting to normality is often very difficult. ‘What now?’ is the question that haunts them. They’ve devoted so much to one event that they don’t know what to do when it’s over. Depression often ensues. Or worse. Chess champion Bobby Fischer suffered a psychotic break after he won the World Championships in 1972, an event that had absorbed his focus for the preceding eight years. Though he had already shown paranoid tendencies and anti-social behaviour, Fischer’s win may have contributed to the overt psychosis that almost immediately followed his penultimate achievement.

As devastating as it can feel, the midlife crisis marks the first stage in what Jung calls the individuation process, a process whereby we embody the wholeness of our personality. For Jung, communication with a transcendent, spiritual aspect of our being, the Self, is both a means and end in this process.

Jung experienced his own midlife crisis when, at age thirty-seven, his intense six-year collaboration with Freud came to a bitter end. Jung had idealised Freud, and to break with Freud meant to break with his own ambitions amongst the dominant psychoanalytic circle of the time. In The Red Book, Jung’s journal documenting his inner process after the split, he writes of the time before his crisis: ‘I did not live, but was driven; I was a slave to my ideals’. In the desire to do great things we often compromise ourselves. For example, in letters between Jung and Freud during their collaborative period, Jung affirmed some of Freud’s theories he didn’t really accept, and adjusted some of his own, to stay close to Freud.

Even intellectual endeavours can keep us from our inner guide, our Self, if in service of the ego, the ‘I’ which wants to achieve something great. The call of life’s evening is to let our Self live through us. We move from a focus on the biological, mundane, horizontal plane of time and space, to developing a greater appreciation for, and openness to, the vertical, spiritual plane where our Self abides. We appreciate what is beyond the body.

A Course in Miracles likewise describes a crisis point that calls for a radical shift in orientation on the path to embodying a sense of wholeness. It relates to no longer having faith in the ego’s offerings. Instead, we’re called to trust in a power ‘in us but not of us’ to guide and help us in practicing the Course’s process of forgiveness, and to trust that this process is a means for experiencing peace and wholeness. But the thing that induces us to make the shift is often an experience of loss:   

‘This need not be painful, but it usually is so experienced. It seems as if things are being taken away, and it is rarely understood initially that their lack of value is merely being recognized. How can lack of value be perceived unless the perceiver is in a position where he must see things in a different light? He is not yet at a point at which he can make the shift entirely internally. And so the plan will sometimes call for changes in what seem to be external circumstances’ (M-4.I.A3:2-6).

It’s not that a person, career, or some other aspect of life has no value, but that we have overinvested in it as a means of providing us with security and meaning. Our love hasn’t been without fear of losing its object, and so, if we are to move past despair, we must learn where we can find a true sense of security; one that can’t be lost. Without this, inner peace remains a dream.


In Jung’s stages of individuation, after our persona is challenged in the crisis, we need to look at our shadow, the aspects of ourselves we disowned when we were accommodating ourselves to the demands of society to feel secure. If we felt we needed to appear bullet-proof, then our sensitive nature went out the window. If it was important that people approve of us, then our caring nature may have gone into overdrive, and our creative nature put on the backburner. Says Jung of meeting our shadow:

‘There comes the urgent need to appreciate the value of the opposite of our former ideals, to perceive the error in our former convictions, to recognise the untruth in our former truth, and to feel how much antagonism and even hatred lay in what, until now, had passed for love’ (Carl Jung, CW, 7. 115).

To incorporate the positive aspects of ourselves that have been neglected, we need to forgive those we hold responsible for our lopsidedness. Who made us afraid of our sensitivity? Who made us feel that our security depended on the approval of others, and that this depended on how much we did for them? Through forgiveness, we let go of the shame and guilt associated with what we’ve supressed, and naturally begin to let those underdeveloped yet positive aspects of our personality through.

And with the need to forgive comes a need to recognise our hate, anger, envy — you know the gang. Did I mention rage? That might well be there too. While it might be nice to just let the good, underdeveloped aspects of the personality out without having to deal with the dark stuff, that’s just not the way it goes. The darkness maintains its potency because it is hidden. Only by looking at it can it be healed and fade into dust.

Dante Alighieri’s poem The Divine Comedy provides some wonderful images expressing this need to look at the darkness (indeed, Jung saw a description of the individuation process in it). In the opening stanza, Dante finds himself lost in a dark wood (the midlife crisis), and sees a hill in the distance, its crown bathed in sunlight. He heads towards the hill, but is blocked by three fearsome creatures: a lion, symbolising pride; a leopard, symbolising lust; and a wolf, symbolising envy, avarice and greed. These beasts represent forces still operating within Dante, blocking his progress toward the light.

Desperate, alone and anxious, Dante is saved from his predicament by the appearance of the deceased poet Virgil’s soul, sent to him on command from Heaven. Virgil explains that to reach the light they must take another road, one that isn’t for the faint-hearted:

‘There you shall hear shrill cries of desperation,

and see those spirits, mourning ancient pain,

who cry out for death to come once more.’

And Virgil wasn’t exaggerating — the souls they meet on the descent into hell (for that is where their road leads) endure intense suffering related to their sin.

The unrepentant sinners in hell represent those who resist the shift in orientation from the body and the pleasures of the world toward the spirit. In meeting each type of sinner, Dante is meeting his own shadow and sees how he (who is still alive) can change his ways. Though the ego is laid bare in all its unattractive glory — the prideful, envious, wrathful, slothful, avaricious, gluttonous, and lustful are painted with broad strokes — the challenge for the reader is to see how they too express these sins in perhaps more subtle ways. For example, the roles associated with our persona are likely to have been a source of pride — one reason why they are difficult to let go of.

Dante’s descent into the inferno shows that there are no short cuts to the top of ‘Hope Hill’. We have to look at the shadow, and transforming it involves sustained work: since our persona and habitual ways of functioning are so ingrained, they are resilient to change, and letting go of them is often painful. ‘Better the devil you know’, our ego cautions us, ‘Besides, do you really want to look at all that stuff?’

Because it is a difficult path, we can be tempted to put on mental and perceptual blinkers, imagining we’ve already reached the light. We convince ourselves (and others) that we have leapt straight to enlightenment. However, at some stage we’ll be called back to stage one. But we won’t have to go on alone. We all receive a Virgil in some form or another who will help us along the way. Something, such as the Course, that teaches us what is helpful or harmful, ego-based or right-minded. Something that shows us what’s really going on.

Lightening Up

From the innermost circle of hell, Dante and Virgil — through a feat of Dante’s imagination too detailed to recount here — end up back at the earth’s surface, at the foot of Purgatory Mountain. The mountain consists of seven terraces, each housing souls guilty of a particular sin. But unlike the souls in hell, these souls are repentant and committed to transformation. And Dante is too. Before beginning his ascent of the mountain, an angel guarding the threshold uses the tip of a sword to inscribe seven ‘P’s on Dante’s forehead. Each ‘P’ stands for ‘peccatum’, a Latin word for transgression or sin. ‘When you’re once within,’ says the angel, ‘make sure you go and wash these scars.’

The souls Dante and Virgil encounter are transformed by purifying trials, symbolic of shadow confrontation, and each vice is replaced by a corresponding virtue: humility for pride; generosity for greed; mercy for envy. Dante empathises with the souls as he realises how he too has been guilty of each vice, and the marks on his forehead are healed progressively as he passes through each terrace and learns. As he leaves the first terrace of Pride, and an angel has wiped away one of the P’s, Dante feels like a weight has been lifted from him. ‘Tell me, sir’, he says to Virgil, ‘what weight has now been lifted from me, so I almost feel no strain in walking on my way?’ Virgil replies:

‘When the “P”s that mark your brow,

remaining still, though growing now more faint,

have all (as is the first) been sheared away,

your steps will then be conquered by good will

and, being thus impelled towards the heights,

will feel no strain but only sheer delight.’

Since each vice stems from overidentification with the body, each transformation weakens attachment to the body, and strengthens attachment to the spirit and its joy. This is represented by Dante no longer casting a shadow as he is cleansed of the seven sins. His body becomes a subtle body, transparent and not subject to gravity, as his mind unites more firmly and consistently with his spirit. At this stage, Virgil says to him:

‘No longer look to me for signs or word.

Your will is healthy, upright, free and whole.

And not to heed that sense would be a fault.

Lord of yourself, I crown and mitre you.’

Virgil is telling Dante that he can trust his own instincts now because they’re no longer ruled by his body/ego, but by his spirit.

Beyond the Body

Dante’s progression from a dense, physical body to a gravity-defying spiritual one is symbolic of our escape from a limited, time-bound self-concept based on accumulated stories of shame and guilt. The chains of the past disappear and we feel lighter as we process the shadow, forgive, and further embody our wholeness. We tap into the vertical dimension of the Self. 

To the ego, however, the body is the great hero of our lives, the be all and end all. It is therefore heavily invested in us remaining strongly identified with the body. What better way to entrench our attention there than to co-opt the process of aging? Our aches, pains and limitations are a constant reminder of our decline, vulnerability and inevitable death when we perceive them with the ego. Says the Course: ‘the body’s vulnerability is its own best argument that you cannot be of God’ (T-4.V.4:2). That the body’s decline is our decline, the body’s vulnerability our vulnerability, is the ego’s emphasis.

In the first half of life it’s easy for the ego to convince us that the world and body are the source of and answer to our pains and insecurities. Our developmental limitations as infants and children mean that we don’t have the ability to see things differently. And the world promises so much in the way of what relationships, children, or careers can give us. Perhaps around midlife and beyond, the ego is more threatened than in life’s morning because we do have the cognitive abilities and benefits of experience to reassess our values and what the world offers. So, the ego brings out the big guns by trying to get us to focus on our mortality, physical vulnerability, and how to stave off the inevitable. Anything so long as we don’t go within.

What the ego is really afraid of, is that we’ll realise our power: the power of our mind to choose forgiveness, thereby remembering our eternal Self and freeing ourselves of limitation:

‘Only [true forgiveness] can give rememberance of immortality, which is the gift of holiness and love. Forgiveness must be given by a mind which understands that it must overlook all shadows on the holy face of Christ, among which sickness should be seen as one’ (S-3.I.3:2-3).

Christ is a symbol of our holiness and wholeness, and the process of forgiveness is how we ‘overlook all shadows’. If, for example, we perceive people as weakened or damaged because their body is weakened or damaged, we are reinforcing our own identification with the body, and this will lead to fear in some form. We have also placed a limit on our helpfulness, because our mind isn’t offering either of us the healing that comes from remembering our essential reality. The encounter hasn’t been used as an ‘opportunity to gladden’ ourselves (T-4.IV:8).

As we accept our guiltlessness through practicing forgiveness, the fear of aging and death diminishes. Though our bodies might be less active in life’s evening (it’s all relative), our aim is more direct, our energies more finely tuned, less dispersed. And from a spiritual point of view, knowing we’re accompanied in our tasks can provide energy and strength. As the medieval theologian Meister Eckhart wrote: ‘What is impossible for our lower nature is customary and natural for our higher nature.’

Referring back to Jung’s assertion that the evening of life must hold some value for the species, a quote from Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead provides a succinct answer in line with this discussion. The book is written as a fictional autobiography of the Reverend John Ames, an elderly, Calvinist pastor in a small town in Iowa called Gilead. Seventy-six years old and slowly dying of a heart condition, Ames explains that he is writing an account of his life for his seven-year-old son. Amongst his recollections is the following advice: ‘It is worth living long enough to outlast whatever sense of grievance you may acquire. Another reason why you must be careful of your health.’

Image: Keeping Physically Fit: Common sense Exercises for the Whole Family, by William Cromie, 1916, via Wikimedia Commons

Books by Stephanie Panayi

The Farthest Reaches of Inner Space

Alchemists of Suburbia

Above the Battleground: The Courageous Path to Emotional Autonomy and Inner Peace

Reflections on ‘A Course in Miracles’: Volume One

Reflections on ‘A Course in Miracles’: Volume Two

Reflections on ‘A Course in Miracles’: Volume Three

Reflections on ‘A Course in Miracles’: Volumes One to Three

2 thoughts on “Life Begins at Forty”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s