by Robert Eagle
Often thought to be the exclusive property of the adolescent, transition is actually found in three stages of a person’s life.
"Yes, dad, but …" I stopped. What was the use? We had been over this ground a half dozen times in the last week alone. My stepmother had died, and I felt my elderly father needed adult foster care. He felt he did not. We were at an impasse. In a few days my family and I would leave for our mission’s furlough orientation meetings, and it was obvious that we would have to take my father along.
Already this furlough had been difficult. My older sister had died, my children were not sure they wanted to return to the field, and there had been a tempting job offer for a ministry at home. I found myself thinking soberly about the past and uncertainly about the future.
My wife and I were 45. Six years before, we had left the security of a district administration job to embark on a career in missions. Now, on our first furlough, we looked forward to returning to the field to which we were certain God had called us. And yet, bewildering obstacles loomed like mountains before us, and knotty problems defied untangling. We were in "transition," and it was not a comfortable place to be.
Often thought to be the exclusive property of the adolescent, transition is actually found in three stages of a person’s life. Daniel Levinson, in his book, The Seasons of a Man’s Life, identifies the stages as (l) an early adult transition between the ages of 17 and 22; (2) a mid-life transition from 40 to 45 years of age, and (3) a late adult transition at 60 to 65 years of age.
Although the problems that surface in each of the three transitions may be somewhat different, they have in common an identification with both the past and the future. "In all transitions," Levinson says, "a man must come to terms with the past and prepare for the future."
We either cope during the time of transition and use it as a stepping-stone to another more fruitful era of our lives, or it becomes a stumbling block to future development.
It is interesting to note that Martin Luther’s steps of faith were taken in the years just prior to and during his mid-life transition. He was 34 when he posted his ninety-five theses on the church door, and he was 42 when he was married. During those important transitional years, he experienced mind-boggling changes-and the church along with him.
Although few of us will experience those kinds of changes during our mid-life transition years, that period is for most people a time of turbulence and upheaval. It is a time when it seems that all of the balances in a person’s life shift-when the familiar becomes strange; when it is no longer possible to anticipate either events or one’s own reactions to events. Life, it seems, turns upside down.
Although the circumstances of people in mid-life transition may vary considerably, their tasks-or the underlying issues they must resolve-are quite similar. Levinson identifies five tasks, or polarites, "whose resolution is the principle task of mid-life individuation."
Young/old. Every person has in him both the child and the aging adult-the promise, vision, and excitement of the young, and the stability and thoughtfulness of the old. "In every transitional period throughout the life cycle, the internal figures of young and old are modified and placed in a new balance," Levinson says. "The task of every transition is to create a new young/old integration appropriate to that time of life."
Mortality/immortality. It is at mid-life that a person begins to understand that he is not immortal. It has been brought home to me recently more forcefully than ever that my body is not what it used to be. I have always enjoyed Softball, but recent games have shown me that my reactions and abilities no longer measure up to my expectations. Such reminders of my mortality point to the fact that more of my life may be past than is ahead.
At such a time, a man begins to desire to create a legacy made up of family, work, or other valued contributions that will ensure his immortality. This desire, says Levin-son, enriches a man’s life in middle adulthood. "He has major contributions to offer as a father, grandfather, son, brother, husband, lover, friend, mentor, healer, leader, mediator, authority, author, creator, and appreciator of the human heritage."
Destruction/creation. The destructive and creative properties of nature-and of mankind-are delicately balanced. During mid-life transition, a person becomes more acutely aware of these forces as the balance shifts and a new destructive/creative integration forms.
During transition, there is an "acute sense of his own ultimate destruction" which "intensifies a man’s desire for creation. His growing wish to be creative is accompanied by a greater awareness of the destructive forces in nature, in human life generally, and in himself."
Masculine/feminine. "Every male selectively draws upon and adopts the gender images of his culture," says Levin-son. "He develops attitudes, wishes, and fantasies about the masculine and feminine in himself and about his relationships with other men and women. Feelings about masculinity and femininity enter into a man’s gender identity-his sense of who he is as a man, who he wants to be, and who he is terrified of being." The transitional period offers a "developmental opportunity to reintegrate the masculine/feminine polarity."
Attachment/separation. An intense desire to win, to be right, to achieve the noble dream is a characteristic of the adolescent and young adult. He desires to be highly regarded by those who matter, or actually by everyone. "With further development in middle adulthood, some of those desires fade away," says Levinson. "Those that remain have a less urgent quality. They can also be realized more fully. He can be more loving, sensual, authoritative, intimate, solitary-more attached and more separate."
Although the resolution of these five polarities is at the heart of mid-life transition, they are worked out by individuals in the context of daily life experiences, both good and bad. Each person brings unique circumstances to his experience of mid-life transition, but those who are missionaries additionally face a special set of potentially stress-producing factors.
Often, by the time missionaries are entering mid-life transition, their children are becoming old enough to express their feelings about missionary life. Many parents must make difficult, "no win" decisions when their children are determined to remain in the United States at the end of a furlough.
Others watch their children growing up with "identity problems," feeling truly "at home" neither in the host culture nor in the United States.
The emotional stress of sending a child to a boarding school many miles away is balanced by the pressures of home teaching with its potentially straining effect on family life.
Not only do missionaries in mid-life transition confront various crises involving their children-some of whom may be going through their own adolescent transition- but they face the dilemma of dealing with aging parents. What do you do when you are half a world away from a parent who has just had a stroke? Or how does a missionary who has primary responsibility for his parents carry out that responsibility from 6,000 miles away?
There are the cultural pressures of serving in a foreign country among a sometimes bewildering people. And there is the equally stressful experience of reentering the homeland after a long absence.
Once at home, missionaries often experience a period of nearly rootless wandering as they reestablish contacts with churches, friends, relatives, and the mission organization.
If the missionary decides to stay at home for a period of time, perhaps while the children are in high school, he faces a significant vocational change during what are some very vulnerable years. There are the usual frustrations of a job search by a man in his middle life, but the missionary has the additional disadvantage of having to admit his intention to resign in two to five years. Under those circumstances, it may be difficult to get a really challenging and worthwhile job.
Meanwhile, there is the memory of a fulfilling and productive work on the field. By this time, he has facility with the language, knows the customs, understands the culture, has credibility with the national, and has established goals and a strategy to reach them. At a time when he may be able to make his most valuable contribution on the field, he is "sitting at home" in the United States, waiting for his children to graduate from high school.
Missionaries who return to the field without their children, once they are old enough to be on their own, find they must deal with loneliness and a helpless concern for offspring who are now thousands of miles away.
Without the children in the home, the husband-wife relationship undergoes significant changes. And, perhaps for the first time, the wife is able to become deeply involved in service and ministry outside of her home. It can be not only an exciting time, but a period of real trauma and adjustment for both husband and wife.
Mid-life transition-it can sound like a fatal disease. Yet, for those who weather the storms of those vulnerable years and make the necessary adjustments, that period can be a launching pad into the most creative and productive years of a person’s life.
One of a person’s most valuable resources during the time of transition are those who make up the "support group network." Although a person needs friends throughout his lifetime to whom he can turn when he is hurting, during mid-life transition (or any other transitional period) those friends become critically important.
Who are these friends? They are people in whom you have total confidence, and with whom you can share the depths of your heart.
Jess Lair, in his book, I Ain’t Well, But 1 Sure Am Better, identifies the personal support system as (1) a wife who loves you; (2) a job that challenges you; and (3) the five friends whose faces light up when they meet you.
Most of us have a support group in the homeland- people who have promised to pray for us; those to whom we know we can turn when we need help or counsel. Such relationships should be carefully nurtured so that time and distance do not diminish their significance in our lives.
Every missionary, however, needs to build a support group not only at home, but right on the field. Some of those in the support group may be fellow missionaries from your mission-perhaps a "grandpa" or "grandma" who has experienced what you are going through now, or someone else who has befriended you and helped you to feel loved or wanted.
There are the nationals-the men and women to whom and with whom you have been sent to minister. If God has helped to build a strong relationship, don’t be afraid to use it. The confidence you show in baring your heart should strengthen the relationship and help to build a valuable friendship.
Another source of solid friendships may be found in the missionaries from other missions in your area. Sometimes, we may be able to talk more freely simply because they are not members of our own mission, and yet they understand the problems and crises unique to missionary life.
"Look for one or more support groups," Ray Ragsdale urges in his book, The Mid-Life Crises of a Minister. "It will help you greatly to understand and deal with your particular situation if you can share with others of like mind and state."
Because stress is one of the major characteristics of the mid-life transition, a person who learns how to deal constructively with stress can reduce the trauma of the transitional period. Much of the stress we experience can be reduced through the application of common sense and prayer. There are, however, some helpful principles for reducing stress.
Read one or more good books that give practical suggestions for coping with mid-life transition.
Work out a program of regular physical exercise to offset the effects of an increasingly sedentary lifestyle. An active, trim body not only promotes good physical health, but contributes to good mental health as well.
Undergo regular physical examinations, including the "stress test." A physician can identify potential problems and give good advice designed to lengthen your life and improve its quality.
Attend a stress management seminar like the one offered by Missionary Internship in Farmington, Mich., February 13-17, 1984. The practical suggestions, printed materials, and testing within a framework of positive interaction are helpful. If possible, husband and wife should attend the seminar together, in order to derive the greatest benefit from the experience.
Maintain a healthy spiritual life, being careful not to neglect the disciplines of regular prayer and Bible study. Take all problems into the Scripture, bathing them with prayer, and examining them in the light of God’s Word.
Learn how to praise God in every circumstance. Practice offering praise to God and cultivate a quiet confidence that rests in the omniscience and omnipotence of a loving and faithful God.
Practice making right choices. We really do have a choice in all relationships and in all circumstances. We can choose to react, to love, to become involved, to cooperate, or to retreat.
One important choice to be made is in the area of sex. It is during these vulnerable transition years that many have fallen. James Sparks, in his book, Friendship After Forty, writes: "We do have choices. To have sexual intercourse within the context of a friendship is one choice, but it’s not the only one. A person can also choose not to. The capacity to make a different choice in friendship, or in other areas of life, is one of the God-given gifts of being human."
Focus on the power of God. God is greater than our mid-life transition and all the crises it may precipitate. Bring your problems to him in prayer, but don’t focus on those problems. I find when I am deeply hurt or oppressed by a situation or experience that I tend to focus my attention on the problem, examining it from every angle as I pray about it. And the longer I pray, the bigger it grows. Instead, we need to focus on the power of God and his ability and resources to supply our needs, asking him for wisdom to see the creative alternatives.
Because the mid-life transition is a critical time of vulnerability for the missionary, the mission organization and its administrators should be aware of those who are struggling and be ready to offer appropriate help.
Often, the missionary will be unable to share openly and in-depth with the person(s) to whom he is responsible through the chain of command. However, the field chairman and other supervisory personnel on the field can give caring attention to missionaries who are experiencing a period of transition and point the way to help. They can search out appropriate books, tapes, and other helps, and direct the missionary to appropriate counseling help.
The mission organization can also help people who are experiencing the crisis of mid-life transition while on furlough. The furlough period is a significant time for the missionary family. Many who come home on furlough during mid-life transition experience indecision about their return to the field and their future involvement with the mission.
It is in the best interest of the mission organization to provide as much help as possible during this difficult period. Many mission organizations have furlough orientation meetings that reorient missionaries not only to life in the United States, but to the mission and its personnel. On such occasions, the mission could make available to its missionaries the services of a psychologist, pastor, or layman who is skilled in listening and counseling.
Mission organizations could require an informal introductory counseling session for each returning couple, where they would meet and talk with the counselor and begin to develop a relationship that would be expected to continue throughout the length of the furlough.
One morning near the end of our furlough, as I bounded out of the door for my daily jog, I was awed to see that my familiar neighborhood had been transformed by a heavy fog into a shadowy stage with shifting images. The effect was beautiful-and bizarre. I could see less than 50 yards ahead, and as I jogged down the street, my eyes probed the trees, houses, fences, and cars. As I approached one landmark after another, the shadows turned to outlines, and then the familiar substance of the reality I knew to exist.
Most of mid-life transition seems like that morning run in the fog. The familiar is shrouded in a shifting cloud, and only one issue at a time may be focused on and dealt with, while shadows clothe the rest of the surroundings, and the whole is never quite clear until finally the "Son" shines through the haze and our blanket of fog is lifted.
Copyright © 1984 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.