The Autumn of our Lives: Making Meaning in our Middle Years

Seasons provide powerful metaphors for our mental, emotional, financial and spiritual states. The end of Summer portends the end of young adulthood while Autumn symbolizes the turn toward the mature years of mid-life. More specifically, the Fall season represents a time of harvest; we hope to reap what we have sown. Likewise, in our middle years we hope to reap the rewards of our hard work.

In our young adulthood, we invested in our education, slogged and strived in our careers, labored to raise our children and nurtured significant relationships. In our Autumn years, we hope to yield returns. We reflect on what we have gained and what we have lost. As we look around, our financial harvests or our children's successes often bring us pride. However, we’re also quite humbled by our aging bodies and we begin to pay a little more attention to our mortality.

Jungian scholar and analyst, James Hollis, states in his book The Middle Passage, “During the Middle Passage it is useful to see how one’s successes have also been imprisoning, constrictive to the whole person.” Our time in Autumn may bring outward success, yet we may also notice boredom, sadness, terrible disappointment and high anxiety. That is why this time is often referred to as a mid-life crisis.

In mid-life, we symbolically grieve the end of summer. The sun doesn’t seem to shine as brightly as it did in young adulthood; wrinkles, high blood pressure, fatigue, age spots, eye glasses, and children’s graduations all remind us that summertime does not last forever. Moreover, the fear that we may have chosen a seemingly inescapable path is a common anxiety as we mature. During this transitional season, Hollis encourages us to consider any disheartened or worried states as profound invitations from our soul to ask meaningful questions about how our life has unfolded: What childhood dreams may have been lost? What hopes were never realized? Do I enjoy the identity that I have formed for myself? What is missing from my life?

Mid-life tempts us to run back toward Summer at full speed; sports cars and affairs, face-lifts and Botox, divorce, younger spouses, alcohol and substance abuse are common seductions in our middle years. Instead of making meaning out of our present circumstances, we attempt to avoid or replace our current reality. When Autumn has arrived, however, we can’t simply bring Summer back. Temperatures drop, leaves fall and we are reminded of the wisdom of preparing for Winter.

But how can we enjoy Autumn when there is so much to fear? It will take courage. But the joys that come as we embrace a new chapter reward that courage. The challenge is to stop running toward Summer and to savor this new season. Grief may come, but as it does, something powerful and empowering occurs: as we take personal responsibility for our life choices, our desire to return to youth transitions into the longing for – and search for – purpose and substance. Mid-life can be an awakening! The Autumn of our lives can be a time to honestly examine what will truly nurture our souls. If you are willing, the harvest of Fall can be a bounty of self-forgiveness, self-compassion, authenticity and joyful meaning.

-Brenda Gesell, Ph.D., MFT