If I were to have to choose the single most disruptive element of the midlife transition, it would have to be an irreversible transformation in core values. There's a certain inevitability about that seismic shift, since the essence of the midlife transition centers around the breakdown of childhood beliefs, assumptions, and behaviors. Even for a person who may have been deeply grounded in reasoned ethical principles, the loss (gradual or sudden) of foundational principles will necessarily result in disorientation. For someone whose entire ethical belief system may be based on nothing more than a Sesame Street belief system, the transition may be devastating. Suddenly, in such a world, the old rules no longer apply, and there may be little or nothing from the mature world to take its place.
I'm a great fan of Lawrence Kohlberg's stages of moral development: from pre-conventional morality, through conventional morality, to post-conventional morality. Pre-conventional refers to a morality based on the old pleasure principle: seek pleasure, avoid pain. Conventional morality refers to conformity to social and community standards: don't rock the boat. Post-conventional morality refers to a dependence on stand-alone ethical principles that enable - or require - the individual to take a stand even when it's against community standards: stand up for your principles. The midlife transition represents the passage from conventional to post-conventional morality. That's all fine and dandy, so long as the individual has tested and firmly-held personal ethical principles on which to base his or her behavior.
When the old principles from childhood start to erode under pressure from the realities of mature decision-making, sooner or later it becomes clear that ethical decisions are incredibly more nuanced than we had been led to believe. That's one of beauties of the teen-age world: that decisions can appear to be so cut-and-dried. Right and wrong seem evident and obvious. Bad behavior seems inexcusable. Even into adulthood, when things get a whole lot more nuanced and the shift in principles begins, it's more a matter of self-interest taking precedence over rules and regulations (virtual parental authority) than a real breakdown in the decision-making process itself. You can conceivably move from a belief as a youngster that ‘sex before marriage is wrong’ to ‘having sex is OK so long as we really love each other’ as a young adult without abandoning a belief that ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ actually exist.
Into the behavioral stew that makes up the midlife transition also intrudes an erosion of self-esteem. You will inevitably discover, along the way, that you've made some incredibly bad - even stupid - decisions. Seeing yourself in the harsh light of the consequences of your past decisions can be very damaging to your self-trust. You may even ask yourself, “Is a righteous, virtuous, authentic life even possible?" “Does it make sense, " you wonder, “even to try to be ‘good'?" In addition, you've probably also experienced the disturbing truth of the old saying, ‘No good deed goes unpunished. ’ If the results of your decisions and actions are going to turn out to be random anyway, why try? If, in the end, it doesn't really matter whether or not you play by the rules, why should you?
Once you head down that path (and just about everyone does, to some extent or other), you'll have taken a backwards turn. To look at it in Kohlberg's terms, that means turning back to pre-conventional morality (pleasure vs. pain), only this time the pain has lost its motivational power. By this time, you've experienced rather a lot of pain and disappointment and survived, and so having to deal with more of it isn't nearly so frightening as it once may have been. What we may recognize as a moral giant step backward often feels to the person taking it as though s/he's lost his or her faith. It might be a lost faith in God, in the church, in humanity, or in goodness itself. The temptation to adopt a foundational moral cynicism becomes very real. What, after all, stands in your way from getting ‘yours'?
This ethical collapse might appear as the great calamity of midlife; however, it's also the gateway to the greatest possible personal growth. With the internal fear of external ethical constraints removed, the last vestiges of parental authority slip away. Now the pathway is open for you to accept the full responsibility for establishing your own meaningful, purposeful core values that will ultimately serve to align you with your better, ideal (or ‘higher') self: the person whom you most want to become. Until the trappings of conventional morality fall away (the painful ‘gift’ of the midlife transition), you'll never be free to build an independent, meaningful ethical system for yourself. In the center of that struggle between ethical anarchy (pre-conventional morality) and ethical authenticity (post-conventional morality), lies what ethical theorists call your fundamental option. On one side, you have what amounts to virtual depravity; on the other side, you have solid authenticity. In the midlife transition, the choice is entirely yours. What'll it be?
H. Les Brown, MA, CFCC
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