The idea that we are genuinely unique individuals at our core is a great and useful one. But if we follow along with this idea in terms of self-actualizing our uniqueness, by midlife we can see that it doesn’t happen by accident; it involves a process. And this process requires our conscious participation.
The word individual comes from the Latin word individuus, meaning undivided, unfragmented, or whole. Carl Jung’s idea of Individuation can be described as the lifelong process of becoming who we were meant to be as individuals. Through our life experiences and our conscious awareness of the import of those experiences on our psyche, we are on a constant journey to wholeness. Jung saw this as a natural, universal process, taking place to whatever degree in everyone and everything. When we were born, we were our unique selves in seed form, and everything that happens to us is in some way meant to help the seed grow into its fullest potential.
By the time midlife arrives, we have had innumerable life experiences that have affected us on countless levels of our existence, and the ways in which we have reacted and responded to those experiences can be said to have shaped our identities up until this point. So far, so good, so to speak. However, another dimension to our experience is required at midlife to continue the individuation process. It is not simply about having outer experiences shape our personalities any more. As we reach the second half of life, we must inwardly engage the individuation process as an active participant, bringing our awareness and attention to the endeavor; we become co-creators of our path to wholeness. Willingly applying our conscious effort to see both the light and dark aspects of who we have become up until now, we will need to develop the capacity to willingly embrace and integrate them into our identity. So the first half of life is about embracing an ideal of who we want to be and where we are going. This is to embrace the singular. The second half of life is to embrace the dual; both sides of the reality of who we are now. This task is more complex than the first because we are required to abandon the sense of safety that clinging to an ideal can bring. For the sake of uncovering ourselves as genuine human beings, complete with flaws, shortcomings, and persistent habits, we will need to admit that we have fallen short of our youthful ideal somewhere along the way. What at first glance may appear as a failure of achievement turns out to be the perfect situation to deepen and ripen as individuals, which is the hallmark task during the second half of life. We have not failed; we have learned the true nature of an ideal- that in following its light, creates a shadow in us that we now will have to integrate into our self identity if we are to continue to grow and truly individuate.
I remember having lunch with the director of a halfway house for emotionally disturbed children where I was working in my early 20’s. She was showing me a pair of expensive sunglasses she had bought in Europe on a recent ski trip. The lenses were noticeably scratched and scraped. Her daughter, sitting next to her had a pair of the same sunglasses and pointed out to us that her lenses were still in pristine shape. I remember thinking of how unfortunate it was that my boss’s sunglasses were damaged. The director, seeing my look of disappointment simply said: “Ah, yes. I’ve had to learn to live with myself!” This small remark and the way it was said left an indelible mark on my psyche that I was only able to comprehend when I reached midlife. It now means to me that life is not a perfect situation to be reached someday by keeping a shiny ideal consistently intact, but a journey made more interesting by including our flaws, shortcomings, and failures as parts of ourselves that carry their own intrinsic importance.
The focus of our younger lives is to live the ideal of self, work, family, and accomplishments; in other words living for the goal at the end of the path or journey. The orientation of the second half of our lives is on the journey itself. By now we hopefully have learned that the journey is where all of the interesting stuff happens. We are living and breathing for the moment to moment experiences along the way, having realized that the ideal that was necessary before is to us at midlife a phantom and an illusion that never delivers the goods. It is simply not acceptable any more to postpone our lives because we haven’t reached an imagined magical situation. We’re only right here, now, roots in the earth, branches in the sky. And it’s good.