The midlife breakdown happens like clockwork. A systemic collapse. So they say. I never thought it would really happen to me. My faith in Christ was rock solid, could never be shaken. I knew the Bible inside and out, and felt like I knew God the same way. I had been face-to-face with grief, suffering, and evil. I had been disappointed, treated unjustly, and peed on by people whose acceptance and affirmation I craved. I thought I understood why God allows suffering and evil and how he transforms us into a Christ-like image of Him.
And then one day, five months ago, the impossible happened. My belief left me. I had believed in some invisible world and a God who watched over me – and I went along with all this nonsense that turned out to be a hoax. The things I learned (and taught) in Sunday school were stupid. My whole life had been built on lies. It was like looking in the mirror and seeing a silly costume on me and asking, “who picked this out for me?”
Without Jesus, my faith, and my religion, I had no idea who I was because He had been my everything, or so I thought. I filed spiritual bankruptcy, and for five long months, I struggled. The operating system that I had been equipped with from birth malfunctioned with a fatal virus, and I had no idea how to fix it. Or if I needed to replace it.
Psychologists say our ‘operating systems’ are programmed to reach our peak power, and then to crash. If this spiritual breakdown happens to ‘everyone’ in mid-life, I’d like to meet them. Just one person. Since I know no one personally who has experienced this, I have been reading spiritual memoir books like crazy to understand the experiences of others in hopes to understand myself. About the fourth month into my spiritual/identity crisis, I picked up David Anderson’s book Losing Your Faith, Finding Your Soul: The Passage to New Life When Old Beliefs Die, and he helped me to begin to make sense of all this. It resonated with my current feelings.
In the early stage of faith, it’s all about our achievement through religious or spiritual performance. In our early adulthood, we spend most of our time attending to the outer shells of our lives, according to Anderson, an Episcopal minister and graduate of Yale Divinity School. He explains that we are defined by our family, our jobs, our parenthood, our churches and how we serve, our neighborhoods, our inherited political parties. The world tells us how we are doing in both subtle and blatant ways. We know our status and how we are doing, but it is difficult to get a read on our souls. After we have played the game for 30-40 years, we come to the point where we decide ‘No more!’.
The gift of the midlife crisis, according to Anderson, is that it dethrones the pretender self and welcomes the ascent of the real self. As we start to separate from the worn-out system, we discover we can take charge of our own lives, let go of the “you should’s”. We step out, stand apart, and plant our flag, uncovering what is inside and not creating something externally anymore.
The strangest rule of spiritual growth is that it begins against your will. You undergo the stripping, and when you’ve endured the pain without resorting to your usual escape routes, you find a new kind of joy. It’s the kind that comes from nothing. It’s a happiness that is not contingent on any thing; it just is. You didn’t gain it, and you can’t lose it. This happiness has nothing to do with your circumstances. (page 153)
Anderson explains that as we do the early work of separation, firming up the core of our being, we find we are no longer dependent on other people to change so that we can be free. We no longer depend on other people to be less depressing or judgmental so that we can be happy. We no longer depend on them to act like mature adults so we can too.
But where he says we start of find our own authority and our own power – this is where I digress. Only in my complete nakedness was able to realize what was lacking. I didn’t want to rely on my own authority and my own power. I truly wanted to give it to Jesus. While my belief had left me, my faith never did. While I rambled down roads of atheism and then agnosticism, then universalism, in the end, my faith in Jesus was what I chose, even after I questioned it. It is because of Jesus that I found my true identity.
I’m not at the same place I was at the beginning, though. I’m still in the process of gradual transformation, but it no longer feels like a crisis. I no longer feel like I have God figured out or that I have the answers, and I am embracing the mystery of it all. I am letting go of criticism and judgment. I didn’t even know it was possible because it was part of the ‘old’ me. In letting them go, my heart opens wider as I simply let life have its say, let God have His say in whatever form He wants, and let people be who they are.
If your faith has failed you at some point in life, if you used to believe, or if you are pretending to believe and going through the motions, if you feel like your faith has been snuffed out by evil or suffering after a life surrendered to God, then I would recommend David Anderson’s book. He will not lead you to evangelical or even Christian conclusions. Like me, you may not agree with everything he says. But he will help you articulate the journey, make sense of it, and lead you through the stages of doubt and re-discovery, pointing you toward where you are headed. He will help you change your crisis into a journey. (Thank you Blogging for Books and Convergent Publishing for providing me a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.)