My friend, Peter, came to me one day and said, "Bill, I just wrote a poem. Do you want to read it?" It would not have been an unusual thing but he was 45 years-old and had never written a poem during his adult life. Peter had been married for two decades, was actively involved in the lives of his two children, and worked in the computer field in a highly analytical career.
The poem was quite interesting. It was an anthem to the freedom of America and it had a clear punch line that made the message easy to grasp. I was impressed with his talent and courage to venture into a new area of growth, so I encouraged him to show it to his friends. Everyone I talked to who read the poem responded with words such as, "This is really good. Peter has some real talent here. We never knew he had this in him."
The most telling statement was, "We never knew he had this in him." I didn't realize it at the time, but what we were witnessing was one of the battle fronts of midlife. The contributing factor to midlife that creates the most turmoil is developmental stages that weren't completed earlier in life. They come back at midlife like time bombs and scream for our attention. They are relentless in their demands to be addressed and will lead us to sacrifice just about anything to get them fulfilled.
In its most basic form, there are five developmental stages that each of us must navigate to reach maturity; Early Childhood, Childhood, Adolescence, Early Adulthood, and Adulthood.
Early Childhood – This includes the time of our lives from birth to entering school. The primary approach to life at this stage is dependency since we cannot take care of ourselves. During this time, we learn how to emotionally bond as we determine who is safe and who we need to guard ourselves from. This is also the time of life when basic character is formed. Concepts such as telling the truth, sharing, being considerate, sacrificing, self-discipline, respect for authority, etc. are established as core values through diligence and repetition. If this stage is interrupted, a time bomb is planted within a person’s conscience; causing an individual to "wake up" at midlife and realize they don’t know how to trust people. People who are close in proximity appear to be dangerous while people who are relatively uninvolved in their real life appear to be safe and compassionate. Basic character traits, which seemed so solid 10 years prior, now prove to be only preferences that can't withstand the onslaught of emotional needs. Commitment gets squeezed out by passion. Integrity gives way to personal fulfillment.
Childhood – This includes the time in between entering school and the onset of puberty. The primary approach to life at this stage is exploration as we discover our strengths and weaknesses. It is during this period that we try out many areas of life to determine proficiency. It was during this stage I discovered I was much better at sports than singing. It was during this stage Peter discovered he liked art and writing. He spent free time drawing pictures, making up songs and inventing lands of fantasy. His mom told him one day, "There is no money in art. You need to focus on math and sciences." He was a compliant child so he shut the artistic side of his life down to pursue a technical education. Then some thirty years later – KABOOM – the “desire to express himself” time bomb exploded with a vengeance. Instead of getting to work on time, he wrote poetry. Instead of taking care of home responsibilities, he wrote poetry. Rather than stay involved in his kids' education and activities, he wrote poetry. He is talented in both analytic skills and artistic expression, but because he wasn't able to "find himself" during the exploratory phase of childhood, and had to complete that phase in midlife.
Adolescence – A time period when large doses of hormones get "dumped" in the body to cause dramatic physical changes. Usually between ages 13 and 18, social development takes center stage. Teens get emotionally charged at this stage and tend to experiment with different identities to see which ones "feel" right. They spend time with one group and take on their identity. Then they move to another group to experiment with another identity. They can do this with blinding speed so that an adolescent can be one person in the morning, another in the afternoon, and a completely different person at home with the family. Socializing is vital to teenagers as they need to try out different identities in order to conclude who they are and what they are most proficient at. When a healthy social life gets interrupted in this stage, or if heavy demands squeeze out social interaction, a time bomb is created and will sit dormant until midlife. Suddenly, the need to get out, have fun, find friends, experience life, and find "true love," takes over the life of an otherwise responsible midlife adult. Fast cars, loud music, late night activities, and exciting friends become priorities rather than amusing memories.
Early Adulthood – During the adolescent and young adult phase, people come to a conclusion about what kind of person they are and apply that decision to a career, relational life (married or single), family responsibilities, and community involvement. This stage of development is usually successful because life’s responsibilities forces people into making decisions. The one time bomb from this stage is when an individual commits to an unfulfilling career. In midlife it will feel as though the job demands the majority of his or her time, boredom will set in causing a dramatic reevaluation during midlife. These are the people who want to quit their jobs to start a business, or get rid of their businesses to work for someone else, or go back to college to start a whole new career path. These are not bad goals in themselves but they can throw the family system into turmoil.
Adulthood – The goal of all these stages of growth is to arrive at adulthood with the skills and maturity needed to enjoy our best years. Adults know how to be interdependent and respect the contributions of others. Adults know how to outlast obstacles and pursue strategic opportunities. Adults maximize their strengths and plan around their weaknesses so they can focus on the pursuits that will have the biggest impact. If the previous stages of development have been effectively "finished," an individual will arrive at adulthood ready for his greatest years of influence. If any of the stages have not been completed, the maturity and influence of adulthood is sacrificed by the time bomb of trying to "feel" younger.
Well, Peter had shut down his development during the childhood phase. His artistic side was dormant until midlife when the time bomb woke up the sleeping giant. His family had a hard time encouraging his new found love of art so he began looking elsewhere. In a frenzy he left his wife for a woman who seemed to be more encouraging and fascinated with him. He eventually came back to talk to me to say, "It seemed so right at the time but now things aren’t any different, except my life is more complicated. My 'new' family wants just as much from me as my 'old' family did and there doesn't seem to be much time for the art that I love. Looking back, I wish I had stayed and figured it out."
The lesson for all of us is that personal growth is key. If you are committed to growing at every stage of your life, you tend to avoid the trauma that comes from doing things out of order. Even if one stage got "messed up" because of circumstances beyond your control, your commitment to personal growth will address those needs along the way rather than creating a crisis in midlife. Read a book and apply what you learn. Join a small group that is focused on personal growth. Stay involved with a chat room that is helping you move forward in life.
"But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." (2 Peter 3:18)