Someone once suggested that we have two great struggles: The first half of life is spent struggling with the sixth commandment, the second half struggling with the fifth. We spend half of life as a prodigal son and half as an older brother.
This isn’t always true, but it often is. Very often, in the earlier years of life, we struggle with pleasure, hedonism, greed, sensuality and sex.
Just as often, in the later years of life, there is a struggle with anger, paranoia, bitterness and with the incapacity to forgive. In the second half of life, far tougher than the prohibition on adultery is the commandment: “Thou shalt not kill!”
It is not easy to grow in mellowness as one grows in age. The rule is normally the opposite. Almost invariably, as we grow older, our childhood wounds constellate into full-blown neuroses and dysfunctions. We tend then to spontaneously fill with bitterness, anger, jealousy, a sense of having been cheated, and with disappointment about the choices we have made (or that have been made for us) regarding our lives, our marriage partners, our vocations and our careers.
With the onset of this, begins our ultimate religious, moral and emotional struggle. This struggle is not, in the first place, the struggle with sex, lust, greed or blindness to the area of social justice, but the struggle of the older brother or the prodigal son, that is, the struggle to live out of a heart that is warm, honest, full of gratitude, able to forgive and able to enter into celebration and love.
But how do we do that? How do we keep warm, mellow and honest hearts when our natural inclination is towards bitterness, distortion and the feeling of having been cheated?
Traditional Christian spirituality suggests that the way beyond bitterness, hurt and the incapacity to forgive is to move more radically into self-forgetfulness, charity and martyrdom—live an unselfish life and you will be happy. Popular psychology submits that the road beyond an angry heart lies in more adequate self-expression and creativity—live in such a way so that your life is genuinely an expression of who you really are and you will be fulfilled.
There is wisdom in both of these, but there is also something important missing. To move from bitterness, self-pity, anger and hurt to the type of self-forgetfulness and self-expression that comes from a warm heart, involves, before anything else, the gift of tears, grieving.
Alice Miller, in her ground-breaking work, The Drama of the Gifted Child, shines a flashlight into the plumbing of all of this and what she shows is that middle-age bitterness is, at its root, the failure to grieve. If we are bitter, angry, unable to celebrate and feel like life has cheated us, we need, before and more than anything else, to grieve.
Contempt, rage and anger, she says, cease when we begin to mourn “for the irreversible that cannot be changed.” In her view, the first task for middle age is grief—”the whole decayed building must collapse and give way to true, deep and defenceless mourning.” (The Drama of the Gifted Child, pp. 104, 89)
What does she mean by this? To oversimplify her complex insight, what she suggests runs something like this: We are born into this world gifted, special and meant to be loved and valued simply for who and what we are. However, from our conception onwards, life itself and others around us—especially those closest to us, our mothers and fathers—are inadequate to the task.
Already as very young children we quickly pick up that we are loved and valued only to the degree that we meet others’ expectations of us. But we cannot meet those expectations, regardless of our talents and efforts. Daily, deep inside of us, this sinks in and, by the time we reach the second half of our lives, we tend spontaneously to fill with rage, bitterness and with the sense that we have been cheated.
And the truth is that we have been cheated, all of us. What we are spending all of our anxious energy in trying to prevent from happening has already happened. We have already been wounded at the core of our being.
But blaming others, lashing out, acting out or rationalizing our wounds under high symbols is not helpful. The prerequisite work of middle age is grief. When we properly mourn the radical inadequacy of our lives we can again find the strength and health of our youth.