Revealed: The Ugly Truth Behind My Midlife Crisis


Call it what you want. The desert. The wilderness. A dry season. Sidelined. Hiddenness. Benched. Fruitless. Invisible. Void.  –Whatever you call it, it’s those periods of life when any semblance of significance appears to be only a distant memory or some desperate fantasy. I’ve been there. I live there.  For at least the past decade, this has been my dungeon.

I’m not one who enjoys bearing their soul. Yet, after reading Alicia Britt Chole’s Anonymous I felt like somebody had finally articulated my Anonymousstruggle. Reading it plunged me to a new depth of repulsive self-awareness. It’s been a couple of months since I completed the book and I have yet to get it out my mind. I’ve embraced it, debated it and challenged it. I’m anonymous and my prideful self doesn’t like it. I want to be somebody—a real (important) somebody.

It came to me osmosis-like. Without debate, I latched onto “Be all you can be.” I demanded and expected a purpose-driven life. I aimed high. I searched for significance. From the earliest stages of conscious desire I set in motion the pursuit of meaningful goals. I purposed to live a consequential life. I purposed to live a life that would achieve much. I had plans—mammoth plans. With seven years of higher education behind me I was ready to lead, impact, revolutionize and succeed. I would be somebody …for God, of course.

Well, at least I thought I would be somebody. Now, with every September comes an annual reminder of not measuring up to my potential. Turning 32 was tough; for by this age Jesus had become all He would be—certainly I would be well on my way by then too. But no. Therefore, my “arrival” was postponed. The goal changed: “When I get in my forties I will reach my prime!”  By forty I was a little smarter and could run a 10K, but significance was nowhere to be found.

I use to think “hell on earth” was hyperbole. I still do, yet it pretty well sums up my view of turning fifty and the recurring realizations of dashed dreams that have followed. Regrets abound: Failure in parenting. Failure in husbanding. Financial failure. Overweight and under-accomplished. This is a mid-life crises in overdrive.

For nearly twenty years I served in the capacity of a minister. Slowly and methodically I was progressing up the ladder of significance, (at least in my mind and in the denominational hierarchy). Regularly I would receive verbal and written commendations. “Thank you, pastor.” “That made such a difference for me.” “Thank you for being there for us; I don’t know what we would have done.” I kept the cards and notes for years. There was a sense of accomplishment in making a difference.

It’s been nine years since I made the career change and left full-time ministry. A friend recently asked, “Do you volunteer at your church?” Ouch! I didn’t want to answer that question. Twenty years of pastoral ministry, a B.A. in ministry and a Masters of Divinity. And what am I doing with all that experience and the credentials? Zilch! I’m not teaching, leading or sitting on boards sharing tidbits of wisdom. I’m not even stacking chairs, serving coffee or helping people find a parking spot or seat at church. Nada. No mentoring. No influence. No supporting of those causes and ministries passionately linked to my heart. No obvious value or contribution.

I’ve never been one to fall for the misconception that ministry only happens “in ministry.” There are plenty of us non-clergies who are making an impact in the lives of others. Sadly, I’m not one of them. My zeal for missions mobilization lies dormant and, except for an occasional tweet or blog post, my passion for apologetics is entombed. I’m not on the sidelines; I’ve missed the bus to the stadium.

I watch others around me “enjoying” opportunities for impact. Even the greedy, selfish, and egotistical are given opportunity to “be used.” But, here I am.

Fellow Christian businessmen talk about Halftime, Bob Buford’s counsel to move from success to significance in this stage of my life. What success? Books like that only twist the dagger already lodged deep inside the gut. No siree, Bob!, your model for life only fits a narrow segment of huMANity. Halftime? You’re in a game; I’m in desperation.

Chole calls it being “Anonymous.”

Anonymous? Yes, or call it obscurity. For me, it’s a lack of noticeable significance.  In the words of Plumb, I ask the question, “How did I end up standing on this road I didn’t plan?

The Journey to Obscurity

There are a multitude of reasons why we find ourselves firmly planted in obscurity. “Hidden years are marked by a loss of some control in our lives.” Chole continues, “We enter hidden years involuntarily through illness, grief, relational crisis or tragedy.” These seasons may come from unexplained losses or being forced to acclimate to a new job. Other times it is the result of purposeful decisions like stepping aside to go back to school. Yet, it can also be the result of unwise choices we make—choosing to walk into a wrong relationship, or spending beyond our means to satisfy our greed or straying from purity.

Whether we find ourselves on the anonymous road due to personal decisions or circumstances beyond our control, we can decide how we will respond. Therefore, we sometimes need to move from asking “Why?” to asking “What now?”

What Now?

I couldn’t help but ask myself this question. In response, Chole uses the bulk of her book extolling the overriding purposes of God in this season of anonymity. It can be time of purposeful preparation for future opportunities of service. She likens it to lessons learned in dendrology: “In winter, are the trees bare? Yes. In winter, are the trees barren? No.”

Chole uses Jesus as the ultimate example. For twenty years, from age 10 to age 30, Jesus was anonymous. He wasn’t healing the sick and lame, telling fishermen where to catch a boat-load, raising the dead or making swine run off cliffs. For over 90% of his life Jesus wasn’t attracting crowds or dying on a hill “for the glory set before him.” For twenty years he simply blended in as the son of a carpenter—preparing for that moment when he would walk into the Jordan River to John the Baptizer. Rarely, as Chole suggests, when we voice our desire “to be like Jesus” are we referring to those anonymous years.

“The anonymous years may be unapplauded, but they are not unproductive. They may be unseen, but not unimportant.”

“The anonymous years may be unapplauded, but they are not unproductive. They may be unseen, but not unimportant.” God may use the seasons of anonymity to develop us. As it was with the silent years of Jesus, there can be a season of preparation for future purpose. These desert years can be periods of great growth.

Chole answers her own question, “What grows in anonymous seasons?”

  • The anchor of God’s Word
  • Self-control
  • An accurate portrait of God
  • Unshakable identity
  • Our trust in God’s timing
  • A disciplined imagination
  • Submission-based authority

So if there is a purpose of God in this season, the answer to “What Now?” is twofold.

The Answer to “What Now?”

Embrace the obscurity

Whether I find myself on this road due to ignorance and poor choices or through developments outside of my control, I am to embrace it as an opportunity for God to do “His thing” in my life. I must embrace the obscurity with an entrenched trust in God. God may be using this season to prepare me for some greater visible impact. If so, I need to embrace this season in order to be fully ready. However, there is no guarantee that I, or anyone, will emerge from the desert into headlining purpose. As Chole writes, God “has led many truly great souls into long seasons of anonymity. Some emerged into eminence. Others remained relatively unknown.”

Therefore, an embrace of the season of anonymity is not complete without a full submission to the will and purposes of God…even if it means never emerging from anonymity.

Shed the Conceit

It’s painful to acknowledge how vain I can be. Perhaps as you read “Anonymous” your response is ho-hum—that might be because you don’t drown yourself in vain imaginations. But for people like me who lust for a sense of self-worth confirmed by the applause of others, Chole magnifies the nauseating pride residing in the heart. “What is under investigation here,” she writes, “is our vain imaginations—those thought patterns that puff us up from the inside out or invite us to escape from reality and experience a more affirming existence in our minds.” “Vain imaginations make us discontent with our current realities.” (I hate that mirror!) Only those desiring to succeed, lead, impact and influence would even recognize a season of obscurity. Yet, what is now clear is that I need to be willing to play whatever role God desires for me. If God chooses me to be a leading actor, wonderful. And if He chooses me to be an “extra” walking quietly through the scene or mouthing imagined conversations at the distant table behind the key players, so be it.

One of my struggles is a misunderstanding of value—of what makes me, or anyone, valuable. It’s not being known, famous, celebrated or recognized. It’s about fitting in exactly where God desires to place me. Not everyone gets to be the quarterback; some of us get to wash the uniforms after everyone else has gone home. I may want to live a life in the dessert of accolades, but my calling may to be to content in the desert.

A Choice

Toward the conclusion of the book, Chole writes, “Unseen and uncelebrated, in the thick of anonymous seasons we must choose between one of two paths: we can become resentful and cynical, or we can become respectful and submitted.” That’s the daily choice before me                                                                                                                                           …and perhaps, before you.

____________________

I enthusiastically recommend Anonymous by Alicia Britt Chole. The book began “a little slow” for me, but then became one of the most meaningful books I have read.

See also an earlier post taken from Anonymous: I’ve Got the Power.

 

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11 responses to this post.

  1. Jack – that was such a powerful post and all of us benefit from your gut-honest vulnerability. One of the best sermons/messages I have ever heard that addresses the challenge you describe was delivered by Louie Giglio about 10 years ago and he talked about the notion that we are not the main actors in this “movie” called “life.” Since that message sunk in I am enjoying watching what God reveals in the movie instead of feeling like I was the central actor. I look forward to comparing notes with you on this common struggle.

    Peter

    Reply

  2. Posted by jackwbruce on October 6, 2013 at 7:23 pm

    Thanks Peter. I appreciate your kind words and encouragement. See you at the Y – Jack

    Reply

  3. Thank you for this post. I’m a 51-year-old midlife, ministerial wreck. Things did not turn out as planned. I identify with you in your feelings of failure. But, thanks for the good word of obscurity. Puts things in perspective. Think on!

    Reply

  4. Posted by Jimmy crane on November 5, 2013 at 9:34 am

    I found your post this morning after I finished my devotion. I haven’t seen you since Alliance Christian and haven’t talked to Ronnie as much as I would like. I find myself feeling much as you wrote about. I am now 50 with a wonderful wife and 3 wonderful children, the oldest of whom passed away unexpectedly 2 & 1/2 years ago. In many ways I feel as though I am going through the motions. I’ve stopped living and am sitting idly by waiting on The Lord to return. I have made many mistakes and have many regrets but am thankful for a loving, merciful, gracious Father who sent His Son for me. I am going to read this book. Thanks for sharing from your heart … You are not alone.

    Jimmy Crane

    Reply

    • Posted by jackwbruce on November 5, 2013 at 9:49 am

      Jimmy, it’s been a looooonnnng time. Good to hear from you. So sorry to hear about the death of your child. I hope Anonymous will play a role in your journey toward healing and meaningfulness. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. -jack

      Reply

  5. Posted by Beth Berch on May 21, 2014 at 8:11 pm

    Jack, you may not remember me, but I was in your Sunday School class at LAC for awhile. I really appreciate this review. I know what it means to be anonymous. I appreciated your ministry then and now. Speaking of Biblical examples, think about Moses on the back side of the desert for 40 years. God’s purpose is certainly not what we expect, yet is good.

    Reply

    • Posted by jackwbruce on May 22, 2014 at 5:22 am

      Thank you Beth. Good to hear from you and thank you for your kind words. Moses is a great example. Thanks again, Jack

      Reply

  6. Posted by Joel Nelson on September 11, 2014 at 1:34 pm

    Jack, It pains my heart to read between the lines of your comments. Many of us deal with mid-life in various ways. Sometimes guys like me just ignore it and hope it goes away! It has been a long time since those days in college. Life has a way of molding and shaping us. In the end all God cares about is my heart. I may mess up or I may be wildly successful, but in the end all God cares about is where my heart is. Somewhere in Proverbs I think 4:23 it says “Guard your heart above all else for it determines the course of your life.” Stay true buddy!

    Reply

  7. Posted by Noel Weeks on April 15, 2016 at 8:37 pm

    I would like to think that in God’s eyes anonymity does not exist. Why else would we all be able to individually impact one another everyday – like the elderly self checkout guy at Kroger who gives me a werther’s candy every time he sees me. He impacts me just as you have with this post. Thanks for the great read, Jack.

    Reply

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