Some desires are so powerful that the only way to say no to them is to say yes to passions equally compelling.
To seek romance is to seek out all that is beautiful, ideal, adventuresome, and pleasurable in life.
"Our Lord finds our desires not too strong but too weak."--C. S. Lewis
Note: Although the names have been changed, today's column is based on a real conversation.
"She's not herself," says my friend Bill. "Linda doesn't have time anymore for the kids or for me. She just wants to party with these new friends; it's like she's in high school again."
Bill's complaint is one I hear often from midlife spouses, both men and women. And just as common is the response of people such as Bill who react out of both fear and anger. "I want to sit her down and make her take a long look at herself," says Bill. "Linda's not a kid anymore; it's time she settle down and act her age."
I tell Bill that words like these will probably only drive Linda further away. Lectures don't work with rebellious midlifers for the same reason they don't for rebellious teen-agers. Some desires are so powerful that the only way to say no to them is to say yes to passions equally compelling.
Let me explain. I think that many aberrant teens and midlifers are not rebelling as much as they are seeking. What they are seeking is romance, a term that encompasses more than sexual things (although heightened sexual pleasure can be part of it).
To seek romance is to seek out all that is beautiful, ideal, adventuresome, and pleasurable in life. To be a romantic is to refuse to accept the status quo, to want to drink fully of life's opportunities and joys, to pursue with abandonment one's hopes and dreams.
The world's great poets and composers were romantics. So too the great
discoverers and political leaders. Ditto for many scientists, inventors,
and yes, even religious reformers.
The problem is that one can seek romance in the wrong places. Scaling a mountain peak or listening to good music can produce a rare emotional high, but then so can consuming an illegal drug or participating in an extramarital affair. And the problem with the latter activities is not only that they harm others (which they do) but that they preempt the former activities (heroine addicts have neither the time nor energy for mountain climbing).
I tell Bill that what Linda needs is not to settle down and act her age but to discover (or rediscover) life's real and wholesome pleasures. She needs to know that the alternative to her "rebelliousness" is not predictability and boredom but the unwrapping of some of life's best gifts.
Bill's job will not be easy. On the one hand he has to draw a line in areas where Linda's behavior might be destructive. A spouse who abuses drugs or alcohol cannot be allowed to transport children, and a mate who violates marriage vows needs to know that, while they can be forgiven, they cannot continue in the adulterous relationship.
On the other hand, Bill must be patient with Linda. She needs space to experiment with and pursue her longings. Developing some interests apart from her husband will not hurt their marriage--may even be good for it--and spouses who cling too closely at such times usually find themselves pushed further away.
The bottom line is that the pursuit of romance can actually help us in midlife. As C. S. Lewis once said, "Our Lord finds our desires not too strong but too weak." In other words, we fool around with trivial and destructive pleasures in life partly because we have yet to discover the richer ones.
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