That strange beckoning may not be a call to freedom after all.

If i hear the term “midlife crisis” one more time, I may have one. The phrase expands in common parlance to encompass any struggle of the soul that occurs between the ages of 31 and 55. And if love covers a multitude of sins, the redoubtable midlife crisis disguises a multitude of the same. People no longer commit adultery and break up their marriages; they “go through midlife crises.”

I have heard the same monologue from so many of my male friends that I am contemplating printing up cue cards to save them the trouble of having to formulate rationalizations. The code words, which seem to occur whether the marriage has lasted 5 years or 15, go like this: “I have changed. I am a different man today than when I married her. I must be true to myself, and follow who I really am as far as that leads me. I can see why I used to love her, but I am now bound to follow my new dreams and expectations, which she simply can’t fulfill.”

Often a hormonal complication comes out during the conversation: a deep, abiding attraction to “another woman who truly understands me” (who usually happens to be 10 years younger and 15 pounds lighter than the wife, and untrammeled with the responsibilities of motherhood). The husband plays out the scenario with great earnestness, his facial muscles expressing the blend of deep pain and poignancy over “a force bigger than I that I simply cannot resist.” I do my best to follow the wise-listener rules of keeping quiet and nodding sympathetically. I try not to flinch when I hear that this experience is wholly unexpected and unique, possibly something new in the history of the world. (In truth, I feel like throwing at my friend a copy of Anna Karenina, which says everything worth saying about such “unique” experiences.)

Because my care for my friends will endure despite the outcome of their midlife crises, I strive to understand even when they reject my advice on the matter. After listening three, four, and five times to the same script, however, I must confess sheer bafflement at two trends. They seem utter enigmas to me, yet these trends keep cropping up in those wrenching conversations.

1. My friends who seek professional counseling usually spend much time examining themselves, in order to ascertain precisely what will make them fulfilled, self-actualized, happy (or whatever the current buzzword happens to be). Here is an odd thing: a self, the observer, scrutinizes a self, the observed, which also happens to be the same self! How indeed can I observe myself to find out what I really want if I the observer am also the one who is wanting it? Maybe I am missing something here, but I have the distinct impression that some a priori rule of logic is being tossed aside. The laws governing physics confirm that the very fact of observing introduces distortions into the event observed, changing its nature. Is not the Law of Indeterminancy complicated in the extreme when the observed and observer are the same entity?

Philosophy and physics aside, let me put the conundrum more bluntly: can a person who is actively lusting objectively examine himself and make a judgment about the future direction of his life without being affected by the lust itself? I understand better why the Bible avoids fuzzy psychologisms and says simply to the thief, “Steal no more,” and to the tempted, “Flee temptation.” Not very sophisticated-sounding advice, but then some of our modern advice gets so sophisticated it seems to soar beyond the realm of rational coherence.

2. Once the observing self learns what will make him happy, fulfilled, and actualized, an amazingly powerful kind of determinism switches on. He feels bound to follow the inner voice that assures him Miss B is the solution to his life, not timeworn Mrs. A. This determinism is a force of the highest order, higher in many cases than paternal instincts and marriage vows to state and God, as well as all ethical codes. We have all seen husbands and fathers (or wives and mothers) leave spouse, children, and often church and faith in order to follow this strange beckoning from within. “I have to,” they say. “This is something bigger than I am. I cannot resist it.”

Many of these same people would violently oppose the notion of Calvinistic determinism or the merest hint of legalism. Their actions, for example, flout the Ten Commandments as restrictive and freedom-stifling. Yet what could be more deterministic than being bound to follow such intangibles as feelings, personality, predisposition, and magnetic attraction?

I hope some enlightened Christian psychologists will give attention to what I consider a tyranny of psychological determinism that is spreading like plague throughout our churches. In the meantime, I hold up for consideration an appropriate analogy explored by Dorothy Sayers in Begin Here, an obscure book written during World War II. She resolves the dilemma this way:

“It is true that man is dominated by his psychological make-up, but only in the sense that an artist is dominated by his material. It is not possible for a sculptor to carve a filigree brooch out of granite: to that extent he is the servant of the stone he works in. His craftsmanship is good precisely in so far as he uses granite to express his artistic intentions in a manner conformable to the stone’s own nature. This is no slavery, but the freedom of the sculptor and the freedom of the stone working together in harmony. The better the sculptor understands the true nature of his raw material, the greater is his freedom in using it; and so it is with every man, when he uses his own mind and emotions to express his conscious intention.”

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Sayers goes on to describe the difference in murdering one’s mother-in-law and writing a detective story about such a murder. Both acts may spring from the same unconscious impulse, she says, so that each activity begins with the same raw material. But the difference lies precisely in the fact that the unconscious impulse is translated by the conscious into two wholly different activities.

We are getting better and better at identifying what Sayers calls “the raw material” of unconscious or subconscious impulses. Maybe it’s time for an equally strong emphasis on our human freedom that gives opportunity to respond to that raw material in opposite ways. Fidelity, which lacks unconscious appeal, may mean conscious salvation.


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