I turned 45 this year, so I guess it’s about time I had a midlife crisis. Mine has been partly self-inflicted and partly forced upon me. I suppose that’s they way they happen though. No one really chooses to go through a crisis of identity.
And identity is what crises of these types are all about. Having a couple of major traumas in my life in the last 12 months has led me to look at just where my identity has lain. It turns out that, to a large extent, I have been building my house on sand as well as on the rock of the love and security of God.
That is not to criticise where my heart has been (for the most part) in the years leading up to these traumas. It’s more that God has been calling me to a deeper level of commitment. As they say, be careful what you pray for, because there’s a good chance it will be answered! And, thankfully, God is not “nice” as we Western Christians often are when we try to deal with things. This is no Sunday School “gentle Jesus, meek and mild, tiptoeing through the meadows.” This is a God who takes the bull by its horns.
If you surrender yourself to this God, you can guarantee that surgery will be performed on your soul. And there are no anaesthetics when God is at the operating table. That doesn’t mean that God is mean; quite the contrary. This is surgery that gets to the root causes and cuts out the cancer for it never to return. This is love at its best, polishing the rough edges of the diamond so it resembles the exquisite beauty that the Master Surgeon originally intended for it.
The year Jesus wrecked my life
So, in one sense, this past 12 months has been the year that Jesus wrecked my life. At least that’s they way you would see it if you just looked at the externals. As we read in 1 Samuel 16:7 though, God doesn’t look at life that way; God looks instead at the heart. Or, as a former pastor of mine used to say, the heart of the matter is the matter of the heart.
While I’m at it, another saying I heard a few times from a good friend many years ago is that anything worth doing is never going to be easy. Well, ain’t that the truth! I’ve cried more tears this past year, and especially this past few months, than I have in my whole life. Through the patient and supportive work of a spiritual director who really knows how to touch a nerve, I’m finally facing emotional pain that I’ve kept inside for most of my life.
One of the reasons that depression and suicide is such an epidemic in men of my age is because we have so much pain inside us that we just don’t deal with. Our culture sells us the lie that success is where it’s at, and of course much of the church has gone along for the ride. In many churches we hear things like “I’m believing for success” and “expecting the favour of God” as if God is happily going to accede to our whims of fancy and grant that our will, not his, be done.
So for many of us, mainly men, we have to go through the pain of growing up by learning to feel the emotional pain that has been inside us for so many years. This is really hard work. Many of us instead act out our pain instead of feeling it. I’ve done it myself, and its meant that I haven’t properly dealt with wounds from unmet needs of childhood. Not dealing with this stuff keeps us stunted in our relationships. This then often leads to addiction to substances or behaviours that leave both ourselves and those we love the most betrayed and rejected. That’s what happens in a culture where feeling good is placed as the highest priority. Addiction runs rampant.
Everywhere Jesus went, he caused a crisis
The fact is, if you want Jesus to be Lord of your life, he will do it, and like he did in the Gospels, everywhere he goes he will cause a crisis. Again, don’t get me wrong on this. This is not to say that Jesus is some sort of sadist or military sergeant who gets us to shape up or else. It is just that our culture and our values are so screwed up that it takes a lot of work to get us on to the path of serenity and inner calm that Jesus wants us to have. That serenity is wildly different from just feeling good. It is deeper and calmer and doesn’t need more and better to maintain its lustre.
Who am I when my foundations are ripped out?
When one or more of the foundations of your life, the things that have given you security, are ripped out from under you, you become insecure and start to question who you are. This is where the soul surgery begins. This is the very work of reshaping where our identity lies, where we get our sense of wellbeing. This is where it gets really painful.
For me, part of my identity lay in my work. Being at a place like World Vision for almost a third of my life was fantastic. It was the ultimate place of work and vocation. It exactly matched where I was at in terms of values and convictions about life. Over the last decade there, my faith and trust in God were strong, so it wasn’t like I was on the wrong track; just that God was calling me to something deeper so I could experience the genuine joy of Christ and become more of the person I really want to be.
So, when that was taken away from me, it was like part of my very self had disappeared. At World Vision I was popular, I was well-known, I was respected and I was loved. With that no longer part of my everyday life, I felt lost, to the point that, at times, even when I was amongst good friends and former colleagues from World Vision, I felt “less than”, like I somehow wasn’t as valuable as them. It wasn’t rational, because of course my friends at World Vision still loved me, but it was how I felt, and I’ve had to remind myself of that pretty regularly.
The road to life is hard, but the point is that it is the road to life
It is said that while the truth will make you free, first it will make you miserable. The road to life feels like the road to death. Narrow and hard is this road that leads to life, but the point is that it leads to life.
What these months have shown me is that there are no guarantees in this world. Life is hard, and it might not get easier, but that’s not the point. God is more interested in our character than our comfort. There’s nothing we can control in life, so it’s about how we deal with life on life’s terms.
While the tears, though painful, have been healing, I haven’t always handled this season well. The last few months have seen depression and anxiety return as I have had the rug of my soul pulled out from under me. There was still a fair bit of sand and not enough rock to keep me afloat at times.
Falling for cultural lies
Our culture tells us that when we don’t have certain things, either possessions or a certain status, we are “less than.” For example, if you don’t have a “real job” or if you’re not in a relationship, there’s something wrong with you. Well, it turns out that I had been seduced by the siren song of our culture, and I had fallen for it hook, line and sinker. Without realising it, part of me had believed the lie that status is what makes you important.
Countering the lies
So what have I done about this (like any good Aussie male, I have to have a solution for my problem!)? Well, talking to people has been invaluable. People like my spiritual director and a couple of other life mentors have listened as I’ve poured out my heart and cried with them.
I’ve also been taught that it’s perfectly ok for me to go through this season and not do the things I have normally loved doing. Some of you will notice that this is the first article I’ve written since I left World Vision. It’s only in this last week that I’ve begun to feel in the head space again to write. It also helps that, when you have a sense of calling to something, people need to receive your gift. So I feel the call again to give people what I’ve been gifted with, and it’s a call I want to respond to again.
Journaling has been another invaluable asset in my armour of fending off the flames and arrows of outrageous accusation that tell you that you’re not worth it if you don’t live according to what the world says is important.
What journaling does is help you to be still and to think. In my home town of Melbourne, we have just been blessed with a weekend of magnificent weather. So yesterday afternoon, I sat in the backyard, MacBook at the ready, and started journaling. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and I was glad I was getting some Vitamin D on my face to get the good chemicals in my body flowing.
As I sat there though, I became more aware than usual of the thoughts that accused me, thoughts that said everyone else is out with friends and family taking advantage of a magically beautiful day, laughing and having fun, and you’re at home by yourself. Clearly, people wouldn’t want to spend time with you.
It was only the stillness of the day, sitting there in the back yard, listening to the birds chirping away, that allowed me to counter the lies by firstly reminding myself that I was seeing people later on that day, and it was just for these few hours that I was by myself. But moreso, I realised that there is nothing wrong with spending hours by yourself. Another lie that our culture feeds us is that we always have to be doing something, that if we’re not active, we’re wasting our lives. We can’t handle being bored or just smelling the roses, metaphorically or literally. And if you’re not spending the day with anyone, then at least check your phone and get that sense of connection that being online gives you, however removed from the more real face-to-face contact it is.
Remembering a lost art
Being still is an art form we have lost in our constantly wired culture. I was with a friend recently who was going to show me a YouTube clip. It went for five minutes, and we both didn’t feel we had the time to spend a whole five minutes checking out this clip.
Maybe it’s time we threw away our smart phones and remembered again the enormous benefit of being still and doing nothing. We don’t need to feel guilty when we’re not doing something. Life is better when we sometimes allow ourselves to just “be”.
As it turns out, when I went and saw one of my mentors later that day, I was feeling good. It was probably a combination of being out in the sun, being still and pondering the reality that life is not found in status, in doing.
Life is found instead in the incredible realisation that, no matter who you are and what you are or are not doing with your life, you are loved beyond measure. You are a person of invaluable dignity, made in the image of an outrageously affirming and generous Creator. Just pondering that will go a long way to countering any mid-life crisis!
Your friends at World Vision still love and respect you Nils!! Beautiful writing – enjoyed your blog.
Thanks Mariska. It’s funny how our minds play tricks on us to convince us of the opposite.