“Defining Life Realistically” is Carl Jung’s third task of his Seven Tasks of Aging. Speaking of a reality check, I can’t imagine being brought more back to earth than I have been over the last decade. Yikes! I think I’m still trying to find my balance.
When we “cling to illusions that are contrary to reality, then problems will surely arise”, according to Jung. We come into the aging process attached to so many illusions. Most of us are in no way prepared for the first intrusion of reality, whether it be the sudden death of a loved one, a broken marriage, children run amok, a health crisis, a lost job or any number of other life challenges.
These may very well strike long before midlife, but when they occur in our youth we still believe to some extent that our life will go on forever. At midlife we very much begin to see the end and a sense of urgency descends. I was 19 when my father very suddenly and unexpectedly lost his job. He was sixty. Too young for retirement, too old to be hired by someone else in his field. He sent out over 200 resumes and received nothing. (Fortunately this is less true now.) I watched him crumble, his lifelong pursuit of a good, secure and stable life fall by the wayside. My belief in corporate America was shattered. I was able never able to recover my confidence in it and have been self-employed ever since.
I carried forth with the illusion for the next twenty something years that I could create my own independent, successful lifestyle. I did not have to be controlled and dependent upon something or someone outside of my control. My midlife awakening was that I was wrong about that as well. I had faced endless obstacles trying to create an independent, successful lifestyle. I had encountered circumstances and events beyond my control. I had not been able to accomplish what I set out and worked so hard to accomplish, and I was running out of time and energy to keep trying.
I had been living in a dream world. I had not faced reality, and because of that I was simultaneously driven and living in a self-destructive state of mind. I had to let it go. I had to let the illusion go. I had to face reality.
There are so many things that wake us up as we age. Our bodies are another never ending source of reality checks. Weight loss becomes harder. Building strength and endurance becomes a slower process. The damage we’ve done through fad diets, too much stress, indifference to our needs is harder to repair. We are no longer on the same track of trying to look a certain way. The illusion that we will one day, if we work hard enough, become a perfect size 6, or 8, or 10, or 12, slips through our fingers as middle age sagging and bulging and softening begins.
This is all as it should be. A problem arises only when we cling to our illusions, cling to the idea that we can at sixty obtain the body of a thirty year old woman, that we can or should achieve complete control over our careers, that we are, in fact, not subject to the laws of the universe. Beliefs such as “I deserve, or am owed a happy marriage”, or “I have to have youthful skin at sixty” leads us to resentment, despair, anger and frustration.
Coming to terms with what is, in a culture that wants us to believe we can have and do whatever we desire, is a challenge. It is, however, our challenge to embrace as we age. It is our task to take on and, it is in our best interest to do so. When we ignore this task and cling to our illusions we remain stuck and unable to step into the awakening of our inner life.
What have been your wake up calls as you age? How have you navigated them? Are you aware of other illusions still needing attention?
Task 1 Facing the Reality of Aging and Dying
Task 2 A Life Review