contemplative spirituality

Midlife Wisdom & the False Self

Rothman-The-Philosophy-of-the-Midlife-Crisis“Midlife is the time to let go of an over dominant ego and to contemplate the deeper significance of human existence.” -Carl Jung

One thing turning 40 has meant for me is coming to terms with who I really am, owning my true self regardless of what the world around me thinks or makes of it. Richard Rohr, in his introduction to the Enneagram, a personality typing system we’ll be exploring this Fall at MainStreet, says we spend the first half of our life constructing and maintaining a false self, the persona we’ve concocted to make our way in a threatening world. The false self is is a necessary defense and coping strategy we all need to indulge (a bit) to survive in school, relationships, career building, etc.

However, real spiritual maturity requires we eventually come to terms with the false self and acknowledge it for what it is — a constructed shell, a convenient mask, a survival strategy — and daringly begin to befriend the True Self hiding shyly beneath. This process usually begins in our 30s and often comes to a head around 40. This is certainly my experience.


Around 40, one begins to grow tired of the rat race, of being squeezed into the world’s mold, of playing all the games to get ahead or fit in to this or that group. At 40 years old, most have had 20 years of getting established in a career, a family system, a faith tradition, etc. Your knack for playing the game has resulted in either success or repeated failures by now; but either way, you’re ready to wave the white flag and say, “I’m done with all that. This is who I am; so deal with it.”

This can be a very liberating moment — an opting out of a game you really never asked to join in the first place.

I’m not saying at 40 you’re done taking chances, done starting new careers, done pursuing relationships, or done striving to become a better, more mature and healthy version of yourself. Far from it. You hopefully just approach all those things with a new sense of calm resignation, a bit more self-compassion, and even a small dose of stubborn self-awareness saying things like:

“So, I haven’t found ‘the one’ yet, but singleness also has its advantages. And, really, it’s their freakin’ loss because I’m a damn good catch.”

“Look, I’m never gonna have a clean and tidy house, so deal with it.”

“Maybe I’m not going to write the great American novel, but I can still enjoy writing.”

“Chasing dreams can be intoxicating, but holding down a stable job and raising a family is an honorable life.”

Or, in my case, it’s letting myself be okay with the kind of pastor I am. Allowing myself to own my unique gifts while being okay with all the gifts I don’t have and never will. Trying to live up to a false self-image you think you should be is exhausting and, worse, just another way to avoid coming to know and love the True Self you really are — the authentic self that God smiles and does cartwheels over daily.

This is a long and winding way to say, I will be spending a lot of time exploring our deep and rich Christian heritage (and beyond), and I will regularly share some of this timeless wisdom that has stood the test of time. This is central to who I really am as a pastor. I will call these ongoing, regular posts something like “Wise Words” or, possibly a new corner at Daily Illumination called “The School of the Wise.”

My fear (or should I say my Ego’s fear) is that my efforts to dust off ancient diamonds of wisdom to put on display in this blog will be met with yawns and indifference, but this fear of rejection is also rooted in a false self that craves being seen as wise and helpful.

Still, I hope these words will little by little work their way into the soil of our souls, and eventually bring forth new shoots of something real, something rugged and time-tested, something truly worth building our lives upon. Either way, I’m having fun digging them up and sharing them, and being faithful to the call of God on my life in the process.

Today, let me leave you with an invitation from one of the early rabbis:

“Let your house be a gathering place for sages, wallow in the dust of their feet, and drink in their words with gusto.” (m. Avot. 1:4)

Let all who have ears to hear, listen. Let all who don’t, yawn and keep walking.

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