When I turned forty, the solid ground beneath my feet cracked open. I dropped through a fissure, down, down, and disappeared into a great blackness. I lived for a long while at the bottom of a dark hole looking up.
Nothing had prepared me for such an eclipse. No betrayal, no wound had shown me the way. I had not felt depressed since adolescence, when I first discovered Sartre and Camus. I had not felt depressed when some of my friends dog-paddled and sank beneath the surface from addiction or failed marriages. I had not felt depressed when world events turned grim and human cruelty stared back at me with hollow eyes.
Instead, I had felt some strange immunity, as if I were vaccinated against descent, as if I walked on buoyant ground filled with helium perhaps, or hope. And I saw this as a sign of grace, a sign that the gods winked at me and smiled.
Then I turned forty. And, like an unforeseen natural disaster, the earth yawned open, a long hand rose up from the depths of the underworld, grabbed me by the foot — and stopped my dancing.
The music of the underworld plays in a minor key. It hums constantly like a droning lament. The inhabitants of the underworld, shrouded in black, speak in whispers, as if they could awaken the dead.The sky in the underworld is not a blue envelope; it is a dusky tunnel that swallows every particle of light. The colors of the underworld pale and fade to gray, not an oceanic blue-gray, not a shiny silver-gray, just gray, flat and unending. Tastes — sweet, salty, bitter — turn to ash on the tongue. Life in the underworld is a still life, drawn without motion in two dimensions.
For a while, I faded into the background, monotone and colorless, part of the still life. Then, like Theseus holding onto Ariadne’s golden thread, I began to follow the plumb-line through my dreams. Slowly, I opened my eyes to the darkness; slowly, I opened my heart to the pregnant possibilities that gestated there. Slowly, like a blind poet, I groped my way toward images and words.
I sought an acquaintance with the journeyers who had descended before me: Inanna, Persephone, Orpheus, Dionysus, Theseus. Their strange-sounding names grew familiar to me. I recited them like a long litany. . . and slowly began to feel that I was not alone, but rather that a family of souls encircled me. Then I began to feel that I was not off the path, but had stumbled onto another path, a hidden, more treacherous road that led not to enlightenment but, perhaps, to endarkenment.
* * *
The Greeks had a name for this downward path: katabasis, or descent. Our ancient forebears understood that we needed not only to fly above with the birds, lightly and full of grace, but also to crawl beneath with the snakes, slowly, silently, on our bellies. We do not choose this lower path; it chooses us. At midlife, we do not have depression; rather, depression has us. And if we can allow the ego to take a back seat and go along for the ride, then the real journey can begin: depression can become descent; the refusal to go down can become the choice to go down. And the appointment with the shadow can be kept.
We propose here a symbolic approach to midlife depression. It does not preclude a psychological perspective or a biological one. In fact, we suggest that the ideal approach to depression might include all three — body, mind, and soul. But we wish to address a specific kind of depression here, the kind that typically appears at midlife. And often this garden variety does not stem from early childhood trauma or from neurochemical imbalance.
Instead, midlife depression is an archetypal event, a meeting with the daimonic. It is a symbolic turning toward the second half of life, an irreversible turning. And just this quality — its irreversibility — carries a depressive weight. For an individual to carry this weight alone, the task may be arduous, even unbearable. But if we can detect footprints on the path, we might learn the stories of those who have gone before and in this way lighten the load. We may uncover the pattern that connects us to the past and to the future. For the underworld of midlife depression is the ancestral realm and the mythical realm; it is the land of the dead and the land of the dream.
As James Hillman says, the underworld is the psyche. An experience of it radically alters our experience of life. For some travelers who identify with the depression, a katabasis leads to total despair. Jung, who saw descent as a stage in the individuation process, pointed out that “the dread and resistance which every natural human being experiences when it comes to delving too deeply into himself is, at bottom, the fear of the journey to Hades.”
For this reason, Jung suggested that we need to be led downwards by another because it is not easy for us to descend from the heights alone and remain below. We fear a loss of social prestige and a loss of moral self-esteem when we have to admit our own darkness. We fear that we may never ascend again. Yet, he said, “‘below’ means the bed-rock of reality, which despite all self-deceptions is there right enough.”
This hell-realm is bankrupt of feeling, empty of meaning. Some journeyers, unable to heed the call, refuse to walk through the door to Hell by feverishly doing more of the same: more work for more hours, more alcohol, more jogging, more sex, more gambling, even more books about the promise of immortality. For them, midlife looks like an uphill marathon race, anything so as not to stop — and hear the call to descend.
How do you deny the call to descend? What are the consequences of disobeying the voice? What do you imagine will happen if you go down into the underworld of your own psyche?
How do you meet the shadow at midlife?