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Midlife as a Rite of Passage

Thoughts by Bill Roberts about his book
Crossing the Soul's River: A Rite of Passage for Men

Copyright © 1999 by William O. Roberts Jr.


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Bill Roberts was a successful minister and theology professor, husband, father of three sons, and respected member of the community. Then he "threw it all away." He gave up his career and his marriage underwent great strain, because something was missing. His book Crossing the Soul's River: A Rite of Passage for Men (Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press, 1998) tells his story, as the context for laying out the insights, the wisdom, he gained by going through this process. I have yet to transcribe an interview my wife and I did with him. In the meantime, here are some of his own thoughts about the book and the process he went through.

Crossing the Soul's River book cover

You have written this book about the psychological issues men face at midlife. Why did you write it?

Part of the reason is very personal. After many years of talking with other men about their midlife transitions, I went through my own. You can tell from my resume that I made major changes in my work – after twenty five years as a clergyman, I became unemployed; when I made my way back into the workforce, I was with KPMG Peat Marwick (one of the then Big Eight Accounting Firms). That was a very big change – from a respected minister of a local church to a rookie consultant with a gigantic international accounting firm.

But what the resume doesn’t show is that I went through a similarly major – and far more traumatic – change in my personal life. For a period of several years I was separated from my wife and family, and moved something like eleven times in a two-year period as I struggled to know what was going on inside of me.

But even that is not the full story. What really happened when I left my job and I left my family, was that I left my identity. Where I was once a respected person, I was, quite suddenly, an outcast. Most of my friends thought I had gone crazy and, almost without exception, their counsel to me was just to go back to my life.

There is one guy, however, who didn’t say that. I remember seeing him on the street one day. He asked me how I was doing. I began to tell my story for the umpteenth time, and he, instead of running away from me, said, "Stay with your journey, Bill. You’ll figure out what it is really about. Then you owe it to the rest of us to tell us what you learned."

Some two years after that conversation – and after I had re-stabilized my life…..

happily still married to my first wife and reconnected with my children

successfully launched on a new career as a consultant….

I got a call from a man who wanted me to write some essays on the midlife passage. I agreed to do it and began to read the literature in the field. That’s when I discovered that the craziness I had gone through had a purpose – and a certain predictable pattern.

That’s when I decided to write the book. I now believe that if men can really deal with the psychological issues of midlife, they are likely to live the second half of life in a healthier way.

You refer to this midlife passage as one of the two great transitions in a man’s life?

The first is the passage from boyhood to manhood during adolescence. The second is the passage from the first half of life to the second in midlife.

We know that the first passage is important – a boy can’t stay a boy forever. But why is the second so important?

One of the thinkers who has helped me understand masculine psychology is Jung – Carl Gustave Jung, a Swiss theologian, philosopher, psychologist who died in 1961. Jung makes this statement about the midlife passage.

We cannot live the afternoon of life according to the life’s morning; for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at the evening have become a lie.

That insight of Jung’s is ignored by most men – so most men try to live both halves of their lives according to the program of the morning, which is inappropriate as your strength begins to wane. When men can’t keep up with their misplaced notions of what they should be doing with their lives, they become depressed – or worse yet, to quote Thoreau, men live lives of quiet desperation.

Can you describe these programs – the one for the first half and the one for the second?

From the time we are little boys, we males are programmed – both socially conditioned and psychologically hard-wired – to prove ourselves, to make a name for ourselves. Consequently, we experience life in a superficial way, almost inevitably focusing on the surface issues of our lives.

When someone asks us who we are, we instinctively respond at the level that identifies our roles – I am a doctor; I am a Vice President of Human Resources at such and such bank; I work 80 hours a week at my law firm, and, by god, I am going to be a partner by the age of whatever.

After you have answered in that manner for a while – several years or a couple of decades – you begin to think of your self (and know yourself) only in those superficial terms – your public identities.

The image I use in the book is that of a lobster. A lobster is known by the somewhat distinctive shape of its shell. But the lobster is not the shell. There is a living being inside that shell. That’s the lobster. The fact is that, in order to live, a lobster must lose its shell – again and again. Too often we men come to think of ourselves only in terms of our shells.

At midlife, for many of us, we become aware that there is more to life – my life, my only life, the one which is about half over – than just the shell. When we make the first attempt to know that living creature inside the shell then we begin what I call the midlife passage, what society calls "the midlife crisis."

Does everyone have a midlife crisis?


Who does and who doesn’t?

I wouldn’t imagine to be able to predict this. Life is too much of a mystery for that type of certainty. But I do believe that there are two factors that contribute to the midlife crisis – they are success and sensitivity.

  • If you are successful – even reasonably successful – you will be known by your successes. You will be known by your shell. (The term I use in the book is Persona, which is the old word for Mask.)
  • If you are sensitive and especially if you are resolved to be both reflective and creative in the living of your life, you will most likely experience the restrictions of the Persona and will struggle to break out of those restrictions. When there is a Breakdown of the Persona, then you head out into the river and start your midlife journey.

If you are not successful, you can do all the changing you want and no one will notice.

If you are not sensitive – or, to say it another way, if you have been so de-sensitized by being a male, which means by being taught from the time you are a little boy to ignore your pain – then you won’t have a midlife crisis.

And the tragedy of that is that you won’t have the opportunity to CROSS THE SOUL’S RIVER and discover what is on the other side, what is the program for the second half of life.

In your book you talk about four tasks – you call them Soul-Tasks – of men at midlife. One of those tasks is the Encounter with the Soul Mate? Are you actually encouraging men to have affairs or to get divorced to resolve their midlife crises?

No, I am not. In fact the opposite is true. I am saddened that there are so many divorces. And I believe that most affairs are unwise and unhelpful. Men too often have affairs, but don’t learn anything about themselves in them.

But isn’t the Encounter with the Soul Mate just a fancy term for falling in love with your ideal woman?

Once again, the answer is no. So often in the quest to know our Soul Mate, which is really the Mate (the Feminine) that is located interiorally in our Souls, we play out the drama outside of ourselves. We become animated by the sight of some exterior flesh and blood woman, fall for her, lose our wits, have an affair – often do great damage – to her, to our families, to her family (if she has one). But so often we learn almost nothing from the experience. It turns out that we just had an affair. We didn’t have a meaningful Encounter with our Soul Mate.

Maybe we need to get back to basics. How do you define "Soul Mate?" Where does this concept come from?

It comes from the thinking of Carl Gustave Jung. He believed that we are made, not simply male or female, but male and female. He posited that men had an anima (the Latin word for soul, feminine form); women had an animus (Latin word for soul, masculine form).

Rather than using Jung’s technical term – anima or animus – I have chosen to use the phrase Soul Mate. By that I mean that all persons have an idealized notion of the opposite sex in ourselves. To a great extent this notion is hidden from us and, since we frequently lack the gift of introspection, we don’t know it’s there. Then we are surprised and confused when it gets activated.

When does it get activated?

Classically the Soul Mate is most active during the two great transitional stages – adolescence and midlife.

The Soul Mate becomes activated in different ways for men and women. For men, the anima comes alive when we see an actual woman who in some ways resembles that unconscious notion of the feminine that we have within ourselves. It’s the act of seeing her that causes us to become animated. So many moments in movies or songs dramatize this for us. "Some enchanted evening….you may see a stranger… may see a stranger across a crowded room." The advice, "Then fly to her side, make her your own….." That’s the anima at work. The man is animated by the sight of the woman.

For women it is different. The animus becomes activated not so much by seeing a man who resembles that interior notion of masculinity, but by entering into relationship with the man….or more narrowly, by hearing. There are certain resonances, certain cadences, that connect for the woman. You see this in adolescent girls swooning over singers – Frank Sinatra, Elvis, the Beatles – most of those crazed people in their audiences were young girls.

You see this same thing, by the way, in the so-called chick flicks, where feminine modes of falling in love are dramatized. Think of the very popular Sleepless in Seattle. Meg Ryan is in Baltimore, Maryland, listening to the radio. She hears a man – Tom Hanks – talking in Seattle. She listens more carefully, she is moved, she begins to cry. A few nights later she hears him again. Now she is really moved. She goes to the office the next day, tells her best friend – Rosie O’Donnell – that she is flying to Seattle to see this guy. And Rosie, instead of talking her out of it, encourages her. You cannot imagine a man flying all the way across the country to see a woman he only heard talking on the radio. The anima is animated by seeing. The animus, by hearing.

You said that the anima – or to use your term, the Soul Mate – is active during adolescence and midlife. Why at those times?

This is a fairly complicated idea – but very important to understanding the Encounter with the Soul Mate. Jung claimed that the anima – this interior notion of femininity – actually developed over the course of a life time. She took four different forms, which he has associated with four different women:

    • Eve – who is the Mother of all things
    • Helen – Helen of Troy, the Beauty, the face that launched a thousand ships
    • Mary – the Spiritual Companion
    • Sophia – Feminine Wisdom

When we are little boys our notion of the feminine is shaped by Eve, the Mother. Then when we become adolescents, we begin to be drawn, powerfully drawn, to a much more sexy notion of the feminine – that’s the Beauty, Helen. During adolescence as we begin to look at pin up girls and begin to imagine ourselves with a beautiful woman, we live with a terrible tension. The external form of the tension is that our mother is going to come walking into our rooms when we are looking at Playboy. The internal form of the tension is that the anima is transforming herself – our notion of the feminine is moving from the safe figure of Eve to the more risque and exciting figure of Helen.

Very often we move out of adolescence with this internal tension still in process. Very often we marry and bring that tension into the relationship with our wives. She is, of course, sexy and beautiful, which is to say she is the external reflection of our Helen. But she also carries some of our infantile notions of femininity – Eve, the Mother – and this is especially true if we actually have children and she begins functioning primarily as the Mother in the family and not the Beauty in the bed.

What happens in early adulthood in its classic form, is that the two of you – husband and wife, mother and father – raise your children and start your careers. You are so busy that you have little time left over for psychological development.

But in midlife, that changes. And one of the first signs that it is changing is that the anima becomes activated deep in the male psyche. And when she does, she often puts new energy into the old adolescent conflict – the one between Eve (Mother) and Helen (Beauty). Men start flailing about to get some resolution to this conflict, and, too often they resolve it by projecting the undesired feminine onto their wives – she is experienced as a controlling mother – and the desired feminine onto the so-called "other woman "– she is bliss itself.

I’ll interrupt simply to say….That’s the affair. Right?

Exactly. When the unconscious is so forceful but so little understood, then you will act out the drama, which should be an interior drama, in the exterior world. And, too often, that is when terrible damage gets done to relationships.

I have the sense you are not finished with this. Please go on.

That is almost all that I want to say to men. PLEASE GO ON. Please don’t stay stuck at this stage of the anima’s development – the transition from Eve to Helen. There are other stages. There is the stage when women can be friends – to Jung the figure of Mary captures this possibility for male-female friendships.

And most importantly, there is the final stage, where we men begin to know Sophia. The word is the old Greek word for Wisdom – Feminine Wisdom. And the real goal of the Encouter with the Soul Mate is not simply having an affair or getting a new wife (almost always a younger wife), the goal is to become a Philosopher……literally, a lover of Wisdom, Feminine Wisdom.

So much of the mythopoetic movement uses material from other cultures – frequently Native American, exotic places like Asia, or exotic times like the middle ages. Frankly, we don’t know anyone else who uses the scriptures. Why did you choose to do that?

At the simplest level, it is because I know those stories. I was a minister for twenty-five years.
Every week, I studied scripture to prepare my sermons.

More than that – week after week I met with groups to read and reflect on the oldest stories of our faith. One of those groups was founded by a group of ten men in 1976. We got together on a little experiment – a six week commitment to share lunch and read stories of the lives of men in the Hebrew scriptures. That group still meets every week. Those men taught me much about the richness of the biblical tradition.

Any other reasons for using the scriptures?

Yes. In Western culture – even if we never went into a church or a synagogue – we know the biblical figures. But so often we know them only at a very superficial level. We know the sweet stories, the dramatic successes, which are frequently the successes of adolescence or young adulthood. We don’t know the stories which talk about life’s trials. We don’t know about the failures and the frustrations, many of which come in the second half of life.

For example……

A perfect example is the story of David, the greatest King of Israel.

Almost everyone is familiar with the story of David and Goliath. It’s such an important paradigm that we constantly assume everyone knows it. It’s the story of a young man – really a boy – slaying a giant by the use of his wits – selecting just five smooth stones and putting them in his sling shot and killing this gigantic threat. It’s a story of victory. It’s pleasant. It’s sweet. And it’s not complicated. And it teaches us almost nothing about what life is really like.

But if we had read the rest of David’s story, we would come to other moments in his life, which aren’t so sweet, but do teach us something about what life is really like.

A few of us know about the great midlife story – David and Bathsheba – when David spies this gorgeous woman bathing on her roof, takes her, gets her pregnant, and then has to arrange for the death of her husband. The story of David and Bathsheba is much more complicated than the story of David and Goliath.

But even that story is nothing compared to the real story of David at midlife, a story almost none us know. That is the story of David and Abishag. And it dramatizes how poorly David managed his midlife passage.

Tell us the story of David and Abishag.

When David is old and his power is waning – his political power, his personal power, and, in an only slightly veiled way we are told, his sexual power. In fact, it has waned. As the bible says, "He is cold. He cannot get warm." Since I am afraid you will think I am making this up, let me simply quote the scriptures.


King David was old and advanced in years; and although they covered him with clothes, he could not get warm. "Therefore," his servants said to him, "Let a young maiden be sought for my lord the king, and let her wait upon the king, and be his nurse; let her lie in your bosom, that my lord the king may be warm." So they sought for a beautiful maiden throughout all the territory of Israel, and found Abishag the Shunammite, and brought her to the king. The maiden was very beautiful; and she became the king's nurse and ministered to him; but the king knew her not.

I Kings 1: 1-4

Now that is not a pretty story. But it is part of the story of life, especially the second half of life.

When we are young and virile and can slay Goliath, we also perform, as they say, "in boardroom and bedroom." But if we are still trying to act like adolescents when we are grown men, we in for immense frustration.

David teaches us that.

In your book you argue that men need a Rite of Passage to help them with their midlife passage. Why is this important?

To say it simply, the potential for major transformation is so great that anything less than a Rite of Passage can’t realize that potential.

That’s a mouthful. Maybe you need to break it down. First, what is the midlife passage?

The midlife passage, when it is understood in its fullness, is a change in consciousness which reorients you to the tasks that are appropriate for the second half of life.

  • In the first half we men focus on our identities, on being successful, on making a name for ourselves. And, inevitably, we end up knowing ourselves only in superficial ways.
  • In the second half, if we have made a successful transition, we balance that external orientation with a greater consciousness of our selves, our deepest and truest selves.

That shift is so great that we need help to accomplish it. And the best type of help is a Rite of Passage.

What is a Rite of Passage?

All primitive cultures, which is to say, all cultures that are still in touch with deep human wisdom, have Rites of Passage to assist in moving from one stage of life to another – birth, marriage, death – plus the passage from childhood to adulthood.

Some cultures also have a Rite of Passage, generally just for men, to assist them to become elders – the wise, accomplished leaders of the tribe.

What does a Rite of Passage accomplish?

The classic purpose is "to impart entry level knowledge of the techniques and mysteries" of the next stage of life.

How does it do that?

There is a set structure. Every Rite of Passage has three moments – they begin with a Rite of Separation; then there is the long transitional time when important information and wisdom are imparted; they conclude with a dramatic Rite of Incorporation.

In addition to the structure, the content is punctuated with rituals. You can’t just talk your way through these transitions. You must do something. This is particularly important for men. Women have something that helps them with their major transitions – they have first menstruation to mark the passage to womanhood and they have menopause to mark the passage to the second half of adulthood. Women learn naturally about the seasons of life. Men don’t have that advantage. There has to be some way for men to experience the changes of life, to embody the changes of life.


So in your Rite of Passage men do things. They act out the changes of life through these mystery rites that you have created. Can you give an example?

Probably the best example is the Rite of Separation.

The rite is adapted from a Native American tribe in the Pacific Northwest (the Kwaikutl). These people are spiritually gifted with elaborate myths and rituals. They had developed a Rite of Passage for those men who were selected to make the passage to become elders – the wise old men of the tribe. These men were different from ordinary men. Therefore, they were taught to sing different songs, to learn different myths, to experience deeper notions of themselves. The Kwaikutl began this transition with a very dramatic ritual.

The ritual is a midlife variation of the Masking Ritual they used as part of their Initiation to Adulthood. During the adolescent rite the Initiates were guided in creating masks for themselves, images of themselves which used the animals and birds and fish and other life from the natural world. When the Initiates had carved their masks, they put them on and began to talk through them, to relate to their society through them.

For men in passage to the eldership, the Kawaikutl took this act of making masks, which was familiar to all of the men, and made it appropriate to midlife. Now the men carved not simple masks, but Transformation Masks, which are masks within masks.

In our ritual we have modern men making Transformation Masks. After a period of preparation and reflection, we are transported back to an earlier time in life (like a second grade classroom with its little chairs and little tables). On those tables we set out all types of material for making masks.

  • We start creating our most exterior masks, the ones we put on every day to go to work and to live our lives as successful men. Generally, these masks have symbols to connect them to our work and our families – stethoscopes for doctors, paint brushes for artists, pencils for architects, drawings of children and spouses.
  • Then we create a mask which is hidden inside the superficial mask. These more interior masks are rarely as simple as the first; they are sometimes dark, often childlike or clownlike, occasionally, scary.
  • Then, for those who choose to go this far, we go all the way to the familiar contours of our own faces and create a statement of who we are and who we are going to be.
  • Once we have created our Transformation Masks, we put them on, one hidden inside the other, and we speak to the group from several different levels and invite the personal metamorphosis that the masks portray.

It is a very powerful experience. If gives you a dramatic sense that you are en passage. It empowers you to break out of the masks that have limited you. It invites you to become your fullest self.

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