Saturday, November 20, 2004

I’ve been thinking some lately about my overall mid-life experience. I don’t like to label it a crisis, as that brings to mind the self-indulgent, hedonistic, yuppie-from-hell phenomenon known as the mid-life crisis. I haven’t left my wife and kids, and I haven’t bought anything more exotic than a used Altima to drive around in, so I’m not experiencing a stereotypical mid-life crisis. I did take up scuba a few years ago, and I recently purchased a Nirvana CD, but that’s about it in the hedonistic pleasure category.

My crisis (there’s that word!) has been an internal, spiritual and mental one. I slid into it not really understanding what was going on, and I seem to be emerging from it much more comfortable in my skin than I ever have been.

As background, I was pretty happy-go-lucky growing up. I took everything and everybody pretty much at face value, and I had little interest in probing any deeper than that. I worked hard in school and made good grades, even without developing particularly sharp critical skills. I was painfully shy and I experienced the death of a parent at age 14, but I thought that I got over that very quickly by simply blocking it out. Otherwise, I had a good childhood, good grades, and a good attitude.

I grew up LDS, which wasn’t that big a deal one way or the other as a kid. Most people in Oklahoma thought we were an oddball church, but they left us alone. I always resented the negative emphasis put on things, but to be fair that was mostly my mother’s doing. My father was not LDS –- I think he was agnostic -- but he left religion up to my mother, so he had no influence on my spirituality. Years later, after law school, I rediscovered my old faith and became very active in it.

From the perspective of an outsider, I suppose Mormonism looks like a mish-mash of puritanism, reimagined Old Testament Judaism, and 19th Century American mythology. From the perspective of an insider, however, none of that matters. What matters is that Joseph Smith restored the Church of the New Testament in its original form following a long apostasy, and that the LDS Church is led by a living prophet, whose inspiration can supersede and even reverse the doctrines and policies of previous prophets.

As I grew older, I noticed a few internal demons that I blocked out just like I had my father’s death – or so I thought. I was always aware of things I considered to be inadequacies, and I always felt somehow inferior to others in my circle of friends and acquaintances. I never consciously thought of that as a big deal, particularly as I gained their respect and affection in other arenas. I realize now that those internal demons and inadequacies gave rise to a searing self-hate, but that realization came only very recently.

A few years ago, the happy-go-lucky kid who took things as they were began to disappear. First came the neurological issues with other family members. DW had a nasty bout with postpartum depression after our first son was born; our first son was diagnosed as autistic/MR in 1999; and our second son was diagnosed as autistic/MR in 2000. As I had done with my feelings about my father’s death and my inner demons, I suppressed my emotions immediately. I was going to fix eveything single-handedly and defeat autism and depression head-on by myself. I ignored anybody who said I would burn out; I figured if I can’t be a husband and father, then what good am I? I have learned from watching my children exhibit self-injurious and outwardly violent behaviors and from their odd learning patterns that I understand very little about the human brain and about what motivates human behavior. That’s not to say that I’ve suspended all judgment about conduct, but I do think that some behaviors I considered deviant or sinful or whatever are brain-based and therefore natural. Also, I have learned from the efforts we have made to cope with our family situation that rigid rules must be thrown aside for the sake of survival.

At the same time all of this was going on, I began to reevaluate my faith. I was teaching a Sunday school class for the first time in ages, and really for the first time I thought about doctrinal and historical issues. I have always disagreed with the hard line the Church has taken on many gay and feminist issues, but for me the bigger problems were spiritual, historical, and theological. I have no problem with mysticism and theology generally, but the Church has a problem with the discipline of history. Perhaps this helps to explain the pronounced anti-intellectualism of some of the current Church leadership. Moreover, the increasing absolutism on nitpicky little things by church leadership really started to bug me. Why should it matter how many earrings people wear or what color shirt men wear to church on Sunday? Finally, I hadn't felt spiritually uplifted inside the Church for several years. I was going throught the motions, with little or no return. All of my mental issues with the Church were going on against a backdrop of my DW finding excuses to dodge church meetings and my children being somewhat unwelcome in the local ward. So I just walked away.

Around the same time I walked, I became clinically depressed. I suppose I pushed myself too hard, stayed up too many nights, etc. Somehow it all changed my brain chemistry. I started in therapy and on antidepressants. I felt better once I was on antidepressants, but there were some underlying issues I needed to work on. And one huge new issue arose early this year, when we decided to place our oldest son in a residential facility. It is a good place for him to be right now, but I was crushed by having to make that decision.

I began to tinker with yoga during 2003, and my therapist suggested I study the moral principals of that practice. I poked around in a couple of books, and for whatever reason I didn’t take to Hinduism. I really enjoyed meditating at the end of yoga workouts, so I picked up a book by the Dalai Lama one night at Target. As I read that book, I thought, "finally! Someone is telling the truth about my life!" I didn’t go with the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan tradition, which struck me as too complicated and church-like. Instead, I ended up at my local Zen center. Zen is radical in its simplicity, and I think that drives some folks away. I noticed after a short time that my zazen practice was opening my subconscious and was popping open the locks on the places where I had stored away all those emotions, feelings, and demons that had been suppressed for so many years. Also, I’ve had a series of bizarre dreams in the past 18 months or so, the gist of which is that I cannot escape from my subsconscious, so all of these things must be addressed.

I suppose a lot of what I’ve experienced is existential in nature. Who am I? What in the hell is going on inside me? Does this happen to everybody after age 40?


Just Me said...

IMO, FWIW, I think we reflect deeper the older we get. We allow things to make sense, sometimes demanding it.

I enjoyed your comments regarding meditation and Zen. My oldest son and his wife are encouraging me to visit the Buddha Temple with them on Sundays for meditation. I think meditation is priceless. When I was younger I used to meditate on a regular basis and it allowed me to release emotions I didn't even know I had. Plus it seems to shine light on my own abilities to conquer challenges, etc. I hope it works out that I can start attending with son and his wife. It is near impossible to meditate at home. I just don't get enough alone time.

Nice post, thanks for sharing.

Phoebe said...

I'm glad you wrote this. Knowing you better gives me more respect for you than I already had.

In answer to your last question: It sure happened to me at around 40, though the circumstances precipitating that weren't as many or as severe as yours. I have learned one thing, Randy, and that is the people who finally go out of their way and try to understand who they are, are the ones who I think are in the end kinder, deeper, and more interesting than the ones who continue diddling around in the same intellectual mode they were in as teenagers. Understanding one's self seems to help one deal better with their challenges, even though it doesn't necessarily change them.

Ann said...

You can really tell from this post that you write for a living. There's so much clarity, and you let the story tell the story. I'm glad you're doing so much better now (at least, I think you find the meditation helpful).

Why do therapists push spirituality, d'you think?

none said...

Thanks for writing this. I don´t think it´s related to age. I´m sure there is some good explanation on why this happens to most humans around that time, but I think it´s supposed to happen and events are more likely to trigger this than age.

My father-in-law had his mid-life crisis at 60 and mine peaked this year and I´m still have some time till 40.

I also think, that depending on how resistant a person is to change and spiritual growth, it can be a long-term or a short-term crisis.

Because the moment I decided to be more flexible and more accepting, was the turning point for me.

I also noticed an attitude change to life drama. Now I´m more apt to say... ok, I know there is a lesson in this, just have to find out what it is. Cause the sooner I learn, the sooner the whole ordeal will be over.

Another neat side-effect was the re-birth of spirituality. I think it´s really unimportant how you achieve this. (zen, traditional religion, philosophy, voodoo...) The result is important and a very basic stone to further spiritual growth.