The gift of passing the midway point in our lives is the call, that becomes increasingly louder, to grow down. Whatever we have or have not achieved, we are on an undeniable downhill trajectory – and therein lies relief. We no longer have to pursue the relentless uphill slog, the pushing striving and achieving, for the pull now inexorably, is down. Our bodies attest to this. Like gathering rainclouds, we are being humbled, prepared to return to the Earth again. Exhaustion heightens our longing to lie down on the Earth, to connect with humus. Or, as Mary Oliver invites us, “to fall down into the grass… to kneel down in the grass… to be idle and blessed” and to, “let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”
The invitation of midlife is to turn around and give up striving for our moment in the sun. To press pause on our ongoing, and often seemingly futile, attempts to meet the needs of so many around us and to listen instead for the wisdom that lies in darker places. In a recent commencement speech Bayo Akomalefe exhorted that, “It is time to go down, to explore our failings and their myriad intrasections as porous places, to experiment with approaching the more-than-human. Here’s a map: listen to your failures, don’t cover the cracks up, go deep in there. Whatever you do, don’t try to make the world a better place; instead, consider that the world might be trying to make you a better place. Listen.”
Indeed, there are maps, as ancient as Time itself. Joseph Campbell, the mythologist, assures us that, “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek” and he offers us this model to assuage our trepidation:
The times that we live in are deeply unsettling and grief provoking. Set in our ways as we are, we tend to consider what does not fall in line with our plans and hopes as hindrances, obstacles and maybe even tragedies. But what if we considered the disturbances, losses and failures that we encounter as invitations from our Soul? Love letters from the underground. Furtive yearnings to become wider, deeper and more generous than we can currently imagine? Would you turn around then? Would you be willing to grow down?
The word grief is derived from gravitas, it has substance and heft. It pulls us down and no one I know arrives at the midpoint of our lives without the weight of deep sadness and pain, though this is often hidden from view and even from ourselves. The sadness we carry can be for many reasons and in his gorgeous book ‘The Wild Edge of Sorrow’, Francis Weller outlines five gates to grief:
• 1. Everything We Love We Will Lose – To accept this fact, is to come to terms with Life
• 2. The Places Untouched by Love – These are the parts of ourselves that we cannot love or accept, the ways we have hurt and been hurt, the places where shame lives
• 3. The Sorrows of the World – The daily evidence and experience of social inequity, the plunder and pollution of the life-giving ecology, the desecration of Mother Earth
• 4. The Unrealised – This is what we expected or hoped for but did not experience for example, the unborn baby, the wilted relationship, the unrealised sense of purpose, belonging and connection
• 5. Ancestral and Collective Loss – These are the traumas that were too overwhelming or systemic for our forbearers to ‘metabolise’. The long shadows of addiction and abuse, the repressed feminine, apartheid, wars, genocide, slavery…
Most of us have spent our lives trying to outrun feelings of pain, to short circuit this, to numb ourselves, to dance around the edge of the terrifying abyss that these gates continuously and relentlessly open up. In our modern society, we are required by necessity to live cut off from each other and ourselves, striving mostly to “earn” our living and keep our children “happy”. But the vortex is inescapable. To be human, and to love, is to be pierced, to be crucified and Weller’s gates point to another reality where we are infinitely more connected. The pain within each of us calls us, re-minds us, that we are more intimately connected to our childhood self, to the Earth, our ancestors, the numinous and to each other than we have come to believe. We know this in our bones.
We are being called, by a brutal confrontation with our failures as a species especially, by the prospect of humankind’s demise, to recognise our kinship with all Life, with others (human and animal) and their children too. The Covid pandemic has illustrated this so powerfully to us all. In Bayo Akomalefe’s words these times call for subscendence, not transcendence. He observes that we find ourselves, “Caught up in patterns of behaving that prohibit and are insensitive to the imperatives of loss, of dying well, of losing ground, of becoming-other, of being disturbed, of being met and defeated by things that exceed us. We cannot risk smooth sailing from here. We cannot risk arriving; we can’t risk being saved if transformation is our longing. Our failures must be let into the room. Our work is intergenerational. To be saved is to restore the recognizable, and reinscribe the formula of the same. To notice the sacred, to sense the playful indeterminacy of things, one must be sufficiently pierced. It is only with the wounds granted to us by these shifts at large that we become stranger.”
Campbell counsels that what we are all seeking, “…is an experience of being alive so that our life experiences of the purely physical plane will have resonances with our innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.” To realise this, I propose that we need to be willing to stop climbing, pursuing “progress”, and the promise of perfection or salvation. Are we ready to turn around and embrace ourselves, as imperfect as we are? To admit defeat and be humbled enough to start learning again, adopting stars, butterflies, rain, children and heaven forbid – our enemies and those who provoke discomfort – as our unlikely teachers?
My mentor told me a beautiful story recently. He said he asked Nelson Mandela if he was able to pinpoint what it was that had changed him during all those lonely years in jail. How it was that he had come out of twenty-seven years in prison preaching such a magnanimous message of reconciliation? Apparently, the question surprised the great man, and he had to think for a while. And then Mandela responded, “It was my warder, a young white Afrikaner man. He epitomised everything that I despised, and I for him. In the beginning we butted heads on everything and then, one day, I turned to him and said there must be another way. Both of us found ourselves thrust into this difficult situation and we needed to get along. And over time, we became friends. He knew that what I missed most was contact with children and he would arrange for me to spend time with his. I changed him and he changed me.”
The call to grow down, to let the weight of our failures and our grief pull us to the ground and humble us – to accept the unacceptable – is a path of initiation. When we decide to turn around, to embrace our pain and that which seems impossible, we are undertaking an age-old rite of passage into the Underworld. We are stepping across the threshold into the unseen world, the terrain of Soul. Here we will be turned upside down and emptied. Here we will touch death and encounter Mystery and, for a long while, everything will seem strange. Nothing will make sense. Here the shattering will continue and, ultimately, we will be remade, but not as a seamless whole. We emerge rather as a mosaic, our cracks and scars visible on the outside now – a new and more beautiful artwork. A better place.
The Underworld can be a fearsome, terrifying world – the very place we have spent at least half of our lives avoiding – but if we turn around and let ourselves go there we discover, and return to our community with, the gifts that lie hidden deep within our Soul. We walk out of the darkness and our personal prison lighter, freer and wiser for having allowed ourselves to fall. We embody gravitas, the solidity of those who have journeyed to wild places and borne unimaginable things. Our eyes evidence the steadiness of one who is no longer afraid. We are now the ones who can hold the hands of others.
This is the path that I choose at the midpoint in my life and maybe you will, or already have, too. My wish for us, to paraphrase Bayo Akomolafe’s beautiful blessing, is that in so doing we may, “Come alive so richly that we would need to invent new words to describe the grace and gravity of (our) dancing in the village square. May (our) road be rough, and may the disturbance be (our) sanctuary.”
And so it is.
05 July 2021