The Travel Channel has a new show coming out titled "Madventures." The commercials show host Riku Rantala talking about how he woke up on his 40th birthday and suddenly realized that his life was more than half over. He talks about feeling like the hourglass was running out, which prompted him to shake up everything he knew in the effort to feel like he was sucking the marrow out of life.
The concept of the mid-life concept is, of course, not a new one, but I would like to present a new framework for understanding it, as well as for understanding all the other major changes that a person undergoes in life. The mid-life crisis, especially as Riku defined it, is really the product of realizing that the way a person has always understood things may not be true anymore. Before age 40, a man has an image of himself as someone who is ascendant. He's at the peak of physical and mental health, and the future is bright. At some point, though, he realizes that the future actually involves degeneration, decay, and death. The old concept, of ascendancy and vitality, doesn't match what is actually about to happen to him. His self-image - indeed, his entire worldview - is shattered, and he has to form a brand new one.
I think that the same process happens in many of the other major changes we go through in our lives. The trauma that we experience is not actually the trauma of the experience itself, the physical or mental stress it places on us, but rather it's the trauma of suddenly having a worldview that is inadequate or inaccurate, and having to reorder the entire way we think of the world. Turning 40 is not a traumatic action. It's merely a day. The problem comes from the mental baggage associated with it.
For example, when my parents divorced, that was very painful to me. But the act itself, of my father leaving, cannot have been the source of all the pain, if only because I continued to see him three days a week. It's not as if he suddenly disappeared from my life. No, the pain was not from the mere fact that I was seeing less of him, or that he was living in a different house.
The pain came because I had always viewed my family as a safe place where I was insulated from the outside world. My family had always been mom and dad, working together, taking care of things, creating a safe environment for me to live in. With the divorce, all of that changed. Mom had to go back into the workforce, so she wasn't around as much, and I had to fend for myself. Moreover, I was responsible for watching my brothers while mom was at work, which in my old worldview would never have happened. When I got a few years older, I had to drive my brothers around, which I didn't mind, but which was a responsibility that used to fall to my parents.
I had to completely trash my old worldview and adopt a new one. My concept of myself changed from someone who was reliant on my parents to someone who had people relying on me. It wasn't the physical act of driving my brothers someplace that stressed me, you understand. It was the fact that I was now the kind of person who had to take responsibility for other people, and I had to get used to thinking of myself in that way, because I had never thought of myself that way before.
The same is true of major life changes. People who lose an arm or a leg don't actually lose very much in terms of functionality, not in this day and age. The trauma comes because they have always thought of themselves as someone who is physically capable and physically intact, and suddenly they have to adapt to thinking of themselves in a different way. People who have their first child are under a great deal of physical stress, such as being awakened in the middle of the night by a screaming child, but the greater burden comes because they have never thought of themselves as someone who is responsible for another human being's life, and there is not much that anyone can do to prepare for that prior to actually having it thrust on them. It's a total and complete worldview change. Even people who simply move out of the house for the first time face this kind of change. It is not the actual process of making meals or cleaning the apartment or writing out checks for the bills and stuffing them in an envelope; it is getting used to the idea that suddenly they are the ones who are responsible for all these things, because they have never been that kind of person before.
There are two special ways that this applies to the Christian faith. The first comes shortly before salvation, when we ask a person to realize and understand that he is a sinner who requires salvation. This is a major, traumatic shift in his world view. Prior to this point, he has probably thought of himself as someone who was doing the best that he could, as someone who was basically a good person, who messed up from time to time but at least tried. If he was going to give himself a letter grade for how good he was, he probably wouldn't have the audacity to give himself an A, but would at least go for a solid C, maybe C-plus. However, when we confront him with God's holiness and the depth of man's sinfulness, we're asking him to admit that he has been completely wrong in how he thought about himself. He does not deserve a C-plus, not on God's scale. He deserves an F, an F-minus, an absolute zero. Can you remember in your own life, especially if you were saved later in life, how it felt when you realized that your best was infinitely short of good enough for a holy God?
Obviously it's going to be very difficult for this hypothetical person to admit that his entire worldview needs reordering. Indeed, many people rebel against the idea, adopting whatever philosophy will enable them to continue thinking of themselves as "good people," so that they don't have to completely destroy their worldview and endure the trauma that this entails. Admitting the need for salvation is no less traumatizing, emotionally and spiritually, than having an amputation or going through a divorce. The end result is the same. The old way that a person thought of himself and thought of life is proven to be entirely inadequate and inaccurate, and has to be completely wrecked and rebuilt.
I think we delude ourselves badly if we think that it's as simple as saying the sinner's prayer. The older a person is when he is confronted with the salvation message, the longer his worldview has been entrenched in his life, and the process of parting with it is going to be exponentially more traumatic. How would you like it if, for example, you reached age 60 and then found definitive proof that God does not exist? You probably would not enjoy the thought that your entire life, prior to that point, had been founded on a lie. Yet that is exactly what a person goes through when we confront him with his own sin and his need for salvation.
The second application of this to the Christian life has to do with the way we think of ourselves with regard to God's grace. Often, we as believers struggle with the feeling, usually unspoken, that God must be unsatisfied with how frequently we continue to sin, with how slow we are in achieving spiritual maturity. Whether we realize it or not, we're basically suggesting that God's love for us depends on our own conduct. That's because the rest of life works that way. If I misbehave in school, I get reprimanded. If I fail to perform at my job, I get written up or fired. Naturally, we assume that God must operate the same way, because that's what we're used to. It's extremely traumatic, although in the best possible way, to understand that God's love and approval are completely free and are not dependent in any way on what we do.
It's so traumatic, in fact, that we often find ourselves slipping back into the old way of thinking. I've heard sermons on God's love and grace, read about them in the Bible, read books that explained them in great depth, yet I still periodically find myself thinking as if God judges me based on my performance. Wholehearted love and unconditional grace are wonderful, amazing teachings, but they necessitate a complete shift in worldview, because God does not do those things the way the rest of the world does. They necessitate such a major shift that many Christians continue to cling to the old legalism, or slip back into it after learning the truth.
You can see, then, that the majority of changes in our lives are traumatic for us because of the way they change the way we're forced to view the world. It's difficult to enter a situation where our old thought patterns and way of thinking is no longer accurate or adequate to address the problems that we're facing, yet that is what produces growth. The most important foundation for any worldview, however, is commitment to God and the truth that he communicates. The philosophies and ways of thinking that he has passed on to us have stood the test of time, and will continue to do so, because they emanate from a God who is unchanging. "in this world," said Jesus, "you will have troubles, but take heart, but take heart, because I have overcome the world." That is the foundation for our hope. That is why, in spite of the temporary pain we might cause people by presenting them with a conflicting worldview, we have to communicate to them their need for salvation. If we don't, we're dooming them to life with a worldview that is completely out of touch with the way the world actually operates.
Let us also not permit the trauma and pain to prevent us from adjusting our own worldviews when the situation requires. When we confront something in the Bible that contradicts the way we have always thought, let us be open to God's correction. When we find ourselves treating people in a way that Jesus would not have, let us not rest on the excuses that it's "just who I am" or that it's a habit we can't kick. If we claim that Christ is the answer, let him be the answer first in our own lives, and let us live the worldview that he commands us to live.
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