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Welcome to Midlife

Interview with Jonathan Young, PhD by Kimberly Nichols, Desert Valley Star, April 2010

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Renowned explorer of personal mythology Joseph Campbell once said, "We must be willing to give up the life we've planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us," when referring to a person who is entering a new avenue of their life's journey. Psychologist Jonathan Young, one of Campbell's protégé's and founding curator of the Joseph Campbell archives is bringing that message to all the ladies in the desert who are entering their midlife years.

On Saturday May 8th, Dr. Young will be the keynote speaker at the Welcome Midlife Conference and will encourage valley women entering their wise years to stop, take stock, and embrace one of the most enriching times of their lives. Young will lead the workshop utilizing the myths and metaphors of traditional tales in relation to a woman's older years.

I spoke with him recently about the mythical role aging plays and why we should pay attention to those roles rather than eschewing them for perpetual attempts at stopping the clock of time.

What mythical attributes were historically associated with midlife that were positive?

We are leaders at midlife. In ritual language, this is the time of the shaman or chieftain. We hit our stride. It is the part of the journey when we make our major contributions. We may not dress in ceremonial robes, but the ritual significance of life experience shapes our roles and relationships. Authority deepens as we use what we have learned. There is the possibility of wisdom, usually coming from surviving ordeals.

When did the mid-life stigma occur and why?

It has been a gradual process. As the industrial revolution moved labor from farms and household workshops to factories, the contributions of elders became less valued. Also, through improvements in medicine, the number of people over forty increased radically. Older people used to be rare, so their thoughts were sought out more often. Recently, as media became more visual, youthful appearance gained value. Of course, young performers speak the words of older writers. This creates an illusion of depth coming from a smooth face. In real life, the valuable reflections are more likely to come from those with life experience.

In our valley, we have a large plastic surgery industry. What advice do you have for women in regards to physical aging who utilize plastic surgery as frequently and nonchalantly as they pick out a lipstick?

Looking good is marvelous. A facelift may help how we feel about ourselves, but exercise is more dependable. Working out to stay trim and keep energy up has great psychological benefits. Still, the more important adjustments are internal. Those who are earnest seekers discover inner beauty can increase while the face gains character. Claiming the treasures within isn't necessarily automatic. Personal development involves commitment.

What are some of the archetypes associated with middle age and older in myth that celebrate the aging?

Three come to mind, the explorer, the artist, and the sage.

The Explorer is a longing to see new territories. This agenda may emerge once some of life's basic challenges are met. There may be a desire to travel, or investigate new ideas, or expand self-knowledge. Some are drawn to adventures that push their physical limits. Others go on pilgrimages or take inner journeys.

The Artist is a rededication to creative expression. For many there is a return to a craft long neglected while career and family took over. Others who never thought of themselves as artistic, take up creative projects and find the imagination a rewarding dimension to expand. Whether the goal is mainly for personal satisfaction or sharing with an audience, the efforts tend to be deeply fulfilling.

The Sage is applied wisdom. This energy marks the natural teacher who finds opportunities to mentor others. The teaching may have been a long career or may emerge later in the journey. The desire to pass along guidance is a thing of beauty and the Sage finds great satisfaction is helping others find their way.

In articles posted on your website, you talk a lot about Acceptance as a vital key to the transformative process in aging -- what advice do you have for those seeking it?

There is a great trade-off in midlife. We lose some energy and attractiveness, but gain self-knowledge and wisdom. As we get less nimble physically, our levels of fulfillment can rise, because we know what works for us. Making a list of what we like about ourselves and our lives is a good starting place.

John William Waterhouse, Psyche Opening the Golden Box

What prescription of healing and inner work options would you prescribe to a woman looking for her own authenticity and acceptance?

Radical self-acceptance requires some tenacity. It insists that past choices were made were for good reasons. Perhaps we gave too much, but it was at least partly because it fulfilled some of our own needs. There is a time for challenging ourselves, but, by midlife, we can simply decide we are good enough now and don't need to keep endlessly improving ourselves.

I can only imagine what it was like working with Joseph Campbell. What would you say you learned the most from the experience?

Campbell showed how a life story unfolds on its own. We are each in a journey that has a dynamic to be claimed. We can decide how we will play the cards we have been dealt, but we don't choose all the elements of the quest.

What will you be speaking about at the conference?

It will be storytelling and discussion. We'll use familiar folktales to explore the inner workings of our emerging possibilities. We'll ponder how the dreams of a lifetime create a new sense of self by midlife. There is something new coming into being at this stage. It is time to harvest the bounty of our lives. Talk about eccentricity a little bit and what it does for the soul?

As we shift away from living in the eyes of others, we see all sorts of odd qualities to appreciate. In youth there is a natural desire to be like others. By midlife, our idiosyncrasies can show us what is personally fulfilling. Authenticity tends to emerge. It is partly a triumph of integrity. It is partly exhaustion. We simply don't have the energy to do things the way others think is best. We listen to our own quirky drummers and have more fun, even doing chores.

Tell us how aging is an important part of the true character of life and learning process.

The search for meaning is a long story. Fulfillment is not a single thing. There is an accumulation of layers of significance. Beauty is in the wholeness of a life. We can start to see that even the tragedies have added to the wonder of the story. The satisfactions are worthy of the price. There is a quality of radiance about everyday life that can build up over a lifetime. Finally, we claim our lives with all their flaws. Each of us is in a fine adventure.

© 2010 Desert Valley Star