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Another Perspective

A Man's Mid-Life Crisis: Death of the Hero/Birth of the Soul

In the news recently have been stories of famous men who at midlife have been caught having an affair. Nothing new, really, but why does it keep happening? I have some thoughts I want to share with you.

A colleague of mine, Dr. John A. Robinson, wrote a book with the title Death of the Hero/Birth of the Soul*. It describes a man’s middle age emotional struggles and his potential for a fuller, richer psychological life. I want to borrow his wonderful title to share with you my understanding of this transformative process.

A young man, one in his teens to his 30s typically, though later for some, needs his ego to identify with the hero archetype in order to assert itself into existence, to crave out a place for itself in the world. Joseph Campbell’s classic, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, describes the hero archetype if you are not familiar with it. Strength, power, honor, success, and achievement are the appropriate ambitions for the early life of a man’s ego.

Beginning in his late 30s or early 40s for most, for some at 50, all this changes – or should. Often a dark night of the soul brings with it the limitations of the hero. The older, wiser man lets go of his attachment/identification with the hero and learns to accept his weaknesses, limitations and suffering. Doing this allows a man to access and experience the deeper dimensions of himself: his soul. When a man can do this an enhanced quality of life begins to unfold.

Letting go of our identification with the hero involves accepting what was previously regarded as weak, inferior and shameful. It means looking anew at what previously engendered self-condemnation. It means opening vulnerably to what previously was denied. Instead of ego ascendency being the focus of a man’s life, expressing the vitality and values of the soul becomes paramount. A simple expression of what this can look like is this. Men who were too busy getting ahead, being providers, to have much time or involvement in their children’s lives now make being involved in their grandchildren’s lives a high priority. Death of the hero, birth of the soul.

The essence of this mid-life transformative process involves a man awakening to the fact that when his ego assertion was primary he projected his soul on to others, demanding that they carry it for him. Thus the extra-marital affairs. [Young women delight in the flattery of a man's projected soul; wiser women refuse to participate.] Learning how to withdraw and integrate these projections so that a man can identify and accept his soul is the required task at mid-life. Living out the demands of the soul is the psychological responsibility of the second-half of life, just as living out the demands of the hero consumed the first half.

The death of the hero is frequently first experienced as a depression. The excessive weight of responsibilities and self-expectations that the hero demands weighs a man down. Self-condemnation can reach overwhelming proportions. Healing and transformation do not come with greater effort but with letting go of the narrowly focused demands of the hero and accepting one’s limitations, weaknesses and suffering. This new attitude opens the door to a man’s neglected parts, ones that bring with them the possibility of wholeness. Exploring, accepting and giving expression to the neglected dimensions of himself not only connects a man to his soul, it transforms, enlivens and brings a richness and depth heretofore unknown.

* John C. Robinson, Death of the Hero/Birth of the Soul[Sacramento, CA: Tzedakah Publications, 1995].

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