In Midlife

Forty-one years ago, Murray Stein gave an eight-part course for the Jung Institute of Chicago called “The World of Hermes and the Experience of Liminality,” a title, he confessed, that would probably scare off potential readers if put in book form to the public at large.

What later became the book In Midlife, is really a monograph on the archetypal figure Hermes, written during a time when the ancient Greek Gods and Goddesses were at the core of James Hillman’s emerging Archetypal Psychology and occupying Stein’s attention at the time. Hillman was the founder of Spring Journal as well as Spring Publications, Stein’s publisher for the book. Stein had also submitted provocative essays on Hephaistos and Hera to Hillman’s journal. But, clearly his obsession at this time is with Hermes, a kind of patron saint of alchemy and hence of Analytical Psychology itself.

While this particular text lands him in the school of Archetypal Psychology, one should not underestimate his classical Jungian roots. Stein co-founded two Jungian Training Institutes as well as Chiron Publications, exclusively promoting Jungian titles. He co-hosted the Ghost Ranch conferences and published the papers of the conferences as co-editor with Nathan Swartz-Salant under the title of the Chiron Clinical series. He has published 20 books of his own in Jungian psychology, and edited multiple volumes including two editions of Jungian Analysis and four volumes of papers on The Red Book for Modern Times. He was an honored presenter of the Fay Lectures in 1998 (subsequently published under the title Transformation: Emergence of the Self), and has held multiple offices in Jungian organizations worldwide. He has been instrumental in taking Jungian psychology to Russia and China and has been living in Zurich for the last 18 years, teaching and supervising analysts-in-training for the International School of Analytical Psychology (ISAPZurich).  

And yet, in some ways, I think the seed book to it all is this little book under review.

So, what was Stein up to here? And, what does this book have to offer us after all these years?

Stein is describing the midlife crisis from an archetypal perspective, using amplifications from Greek mythology, primarily those stories in which the god Hermes features prominently…as guide, as thief, as trickster, as protector, as friend and companion. He relies on the mythic imagination that saw all this “hermetic” activity as engaging “the experience of radical liminality” (p. 112) that so characterizes the betwixt and between period of midlife. 

What is the midlife crisis? It is described in detail in Stein’s book, but here are some selections that will resonate with most everyone.

“The ego is a has-been and a not yet. Time warps: the fixed edges of memory blur and fade…the past juts forward in surprising and peculiar ways; the future has no particular image or contour. The ‘I’ is not anchored…Unattached, the ‘I’ floats and drifts and wanders across many former boundaries and forbidden frontiers…there is an unusual degree of vulnerability to sudden emotional drafts originating either within or without…the prevailing feeling is one of alienation, marginality, and drift” (p. 9).

How does one take this “crisis” and revision it as a transition meant to be worked through for the sake of the whole personality? In other words, what then are the midlife “tasks?”

Jungian psychology, primarily due to Jung’s own midlife crisis, is often thought of as a “midlife” psychology. While this is perhaps too reductionist, it is not entirely untrue. The midlife tasks require a decisive turn inward toward shadow, soul, and Self, and seeing through the persona and ego structures.

The tasks in Stein’s treatment of the midlife crisis are as follows:

Separating from an outmoded (“dead”) persona/ego-identity.

Acknowledging the loss, grieving it, and putting it away (burying it). With this psychological act, the painful fact of aging and eventual death is directly encountered.

Confronting repressed and suppressed dominants in what are often pathological or regressed forms (one is now, after all, in “the land of the dead,” i.e. the deep unconscious). This is heavy going “shadow-work.”

Dealing with anima/animus entanglements. These challenging archetypes demand conscious attention, both from the inside and often from the outside in projected form.

Opening up to the wisdom of the Self and your foundational truth. This involves encounters with the superordinate aspects of the psyche that seek to balance, integrate, and regulate libido for the good of the whole personality.

It sounds like a program for Jungian therapy. It is. Midlife however kicks it all up a notch, or ten, or a hundred.

Finally, what do Stein and Jungian psychology have to contribute to the conversation around the midlife crisis that would be important for consideration today?

First, and most importantly, the midlife crisis is a religious event of great emotional intensity. This does not mean a superior moral judgment is imposed on what happens during midlife from an outer, privileged, or dogmatic position. It is an acknowledgement that midlife drops us into the underworld, the depth of the collective unconscious, in which the ego is no longer in charge and, in Stein’s major metaphor, consciousness is “asked” to “float” in a sea of archetypal energy, where the energy of the Gods and the Goddesses (i.e. archetypal forces) as well as the archetypal Self reign supreme. Midlife therefore as a transition period or life crisis takes us into an experience of what is psychospiritually beyond the ego and ultimately at the root of our very Being. During the midlife transition, Hermes ultimately initiates us into the value of radical liminality as a permanent condition of the psyche. It asks us to in effect “be open, be aware and be with” what the psyche has to offer at all times. This is tantamount to living with a religious attitude toward the psyche and toward consciousness itself, in which the ego is transformed into a vessel and a servant of the archetypal Self, the “greater than” that is there before the ego existed and will be there after the ego is gone.

In Midlife, book cover

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