As major transitions loom for our friends behind These Stone Walls, Social Psychologist Erik Erikson was the catalyst for a midsummer night’s mysterious dream.
In eleven years of writing from prison for These Stone Walls, this has always been the most difficult time of year to produce a post. Labor Day is looming in the United States, and in 2020 it is on the latest date possible. It’s a time of staff vacations in prison so pretty much every department is understaffed. This year, Labor Day conspires with a pandemic for limited access to everything.
All outside vendors, visitors, volunteers, program facilitators, and medical providers are currently barred from entry. Visitors have been barred for months. What was once a three-hour visiting period twice per week with family or friends was reduced last year to ninety minutes. In the time of Covid-19 it is now reduced to a single monthly 45-minute no-contact visit from behind glass with masks, and it has to be arranged three weeks in advance.
And as you know by now, my friend Pornchai Moontri and I have the added stress of knowing that major change is coming but we know neither the day nor the hour. Each day I face the possibility that I could return from work to an empty cell and no chance to wish him well and give him my blessing. Such is the nature of prison.
We do have a plan for when Pornchai finally arrives in Thailand after an ordeal in ICE detention. I hope you have read our recent posts, Pornchai’s “Hope and Prayers for My Friend Left Behind,” and my bombshell post, “Human Traffic: The ICE Deportation of Pornchai Moontri.” These have been the most visited posts of the year during our most difficult days of the year. Now, more than ever, our faith in Divine Mercy is getting a workout.
All of this has conspired to create a perfect storm lending itself to anxiety and, for me, a mid-life crisis. It is not my first, nor will it likely be my last. When I told a friend that I think I am now having one, he sent me this story about a midlife crisis. It is not a true story – at least, I hope it isn’t true – but it made me laugh and I needed a good laugh right now. Maybe you do, too:
- “Approaching her sixtieth birthday, Mildred lapsed into a depression that sent her to a therapist. He diagnosed her downward spiral as a possible midlife crisis, and assured her that it is a very common phenomenon. The therapist suggested that Mildred take up something new and challenging, perhaps something adventurous.
- “‘Well, I’ve always wanted to try horseback riding,’ said Mildred. Affirmed as a great choice by the therapist, she stopped at the library and checked out a couple of books on horseback riding. When she felt she had a grasp of the rudimentary details, Mildred ventured out on a Saturday morning for her first ride.
- “Approaching the horse with some trepidation, Mildred placed her left foot into the stirrup, grabbed the crop atop the saddle just as the books suggested, and found mounting the horse to be surprisingly easy. Then the horse began an enjoyably slow but steady pace. As it worked up to a more pronounced gallop, however, Mildred found herself growing anxious.
- “The horse picked up a little more speed, but Mildred’s anxiety grew along with it. Fearing that she was slipping from the saddle, she began to panic. Clutching the horse in her panic as it gained speed, Mildred began to scream for help as she struggled to hold on for dear life. Then, just as Mildred began to tumble completely from the saddle, Walter the Wal-Mart Greeter rushed over, and unplugged the horse.”
ERIK ERIKSON ON THE ORIGINS OF OUR MIDLIFE CRISES
I have known and counseled many people in the midst of a midlife crisis. I’ve had more than one of them myself. It’s a time when values and beliefs are questioned and sometimes even abandoned. The concept is not at all new in psychology or literature. In a few past posts on These Stone Walls, I have written that Dante Alighieri began the Inferno, Part One of his famous 14th Century literary masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, with what may very well be world literature’s first description of a midlife crisis:
- “When I had journeyed half of our life’s way, I found myself within a shadowed forest, for I had lost the path that does not stray. Ah, it is hard to speak of what it was, that savage forest, dense and difficult, which even in recall renews my fear. So bitter – death is hardly more severe! I cannot clearly say how I had entered that wood; I was so full of sleep just at the point where I abandoned the true path. But to recall what good I found there, I must also tell you the other things I saw.”
I was once an avid student of psychology before studying theology. Dante put a spiritual spin on the “shadowed forest” of his midlife abandonment of ‘the true path.” That is fitting, for a midlife crisis is as much a spiritual phenomenon as a psychological one. Its evidence is just as Dante described it seven centuries ago.
Since Sigmund Freud became the Father of Psychoanalytic Theory in the early Twentieth Century, the various efforts to understand what makes us tick are fascinating. I once wrote a controversial TSW post about the secrets we keep even from ourselves entitled, “Be Wary of Crusaders! The Devil Sigmund Freud Knew Only Too Well.”
But I have since abandoned a good deal of psychoanalytic theory and practice as bunk. To be clear, the practice of it is often bunk but the science behind it is sometimes still helpful. There is one psychoanalytic pioneer, however, whose work has withstood the test of time and contrasts well with human experience.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Austrian-born Harvard social psychologist Erik Erikson developed his Stages of Psychosocial Development which today remains a standard for understanding how we develop psychologically. Much of his work became pivotal for comprehension of one particular stage of growth: adolescence, the most stressful time in the life of every parent. Erikson defined the central crisis of adolescence as one of identity verses role confusion.
Though he never used it, the term “Identity Crisis” has its origin in his work. For parents, an adolescent identity crisis results in experimentation, sometimes recklessly so, and a questioning of the parental status quo and value system. It is the time in which many parents are stressed to the limit.
The identity crisis is but one of Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial development. The other stages and their respective life crises are, in a nutshell: infancy (basic trust vs. mistrust), early childhood (autonomy vs. shame and doubt), preschool years (initiative vs. guilt), middle childhood (industry vs. inferiority), adolescence and its crisis of identity, young adulthood (intimacy vs. isolation), middle adulthood (generativity vs. stagnation), and late adulthood (integrity vs. despair).
MY MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S ANXIOUS DREAM
For this post, my focus is on the backdrop of every midlife crisis. Erikson never actually used the term, but it clearly has its origin in his stages of development. It comes in between the last two of the eight stages, between middle and late adulthood when the human psyche naturally begins a nostalgic, and sometimes excruciating examination of the past and a measurement of one’s place in it. Our minds are very complex, as is this subject, so let me stick my neck out a little with a personal example.
Early in the morning of August 17, 2020, I was awakened at about 3:00 AM by a troubling dream that seemed to play out in epic performance. It needs a little background. I began religious life as a member of the Capuchin Order, one of the main branches of the Franciscans. It was while a member of the order that I began formal studies in psychology working toward both undergraduate and graduate degrees.
My mentor in this was Father Benedict Groeschel who years later would part from the Capuchins along with the late, Father Andrew Apostoli to become founders of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. Like them, I, too, left the Order on very good terms, but in a very different direction: to study for diocesan priesthood. I wrote about how that experience, from almost day one, became a crisis in its own right in “Priesthood, the Signs of the Times & the Sins of the Times.”
I don’t have to tell you where that change in my path ultimately led me. Now, at age 67, I look back over the decades and find myself spontaneously doing exactly what Erik Erikson predicted. My mind wanders often into a sort of inventory of my life and my place in it. All these years later, I find myself questioning my decision to leave my religious community, wondering to this day whether I did the right thing.
It’s interesting that I still, after forty years, refer to the Order is “my community.” The inner struggles that we have are often expressed in dreams, and in dreams my conflict is evident. The early morning dream of August 17 this year was no exception. It was both then and now. Dreams often have temporal confusion.
In the dream, I was in my Capuchin habit at Mass with my community, but I was also a prisoner having just been released on a sort of leave from prison. I was the age that I am right now, but everyone else in the dream was as they were back then. Except for my friend, Pornchai, who was with me at the Mass. In the dream, I was stricken by how out of place we were. Pornchai and I were deeply wounded by life while all the others present had been sheltered – just as I would want them to have been – from the sort of trials we have endured.
In the dream, before the Mass ended, I had to leave. I removed my habit and left it there in the chapel. Others gathered at the door as Pornchai and I walked away. He asked me, “Where are we going?” I answered mysteriously, “We’re going to where this path leads.” It was then that I woke up, troubled, anxious and depressed. Only later in the day did I realize that the date was August 17, the day that I first professed vows in the Order forty-five years ago.
As I look back with some nostalgia, I realize that those years were among the happiest of my life. Then something happened that suddenly altered them. It is a story that I have never before told, but I know that someday I will tell it. It adds no light, but only more mystery, to the path I ended up upon.
That path led down a long and winding road to where I am right now, approaching 26 years in prison for crimes that never took place. This is not the sort of “community” I had in mind when I first discerned a vocation to religious life all those decades ago. It is also not lost on me that this condemnation and imprisonment began in 1994 on September 23, the feast day of the most famous of the Capuchin saints, Padre Pio, who would later insinuate himself behind These Stone Walls with us.
HE KNOWS WHAT HE IS ABOUT
Over the last decade at These Stone Walls, we have told a story very much like the one Dante Aligheri told seven centuries ago in The Divine Comedy. It may have been divine, but it did not always feel much like a comedy. Like Dante, having strayed from the path I was on – though not by choice – I entered the dark wood of prison and brought the readers of These Stone Walls with me. Across this decade, we told a tale of all that I had found there, both the good and the bad. In the end, it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between the two.
My friend, Pornchai Moontri is an example. On the surface of life he was seen as just another bad actor who made terrible choices that led him on a path to prison. My recent post, “Human Traffic: The ICE Deportation of Pornchai Moontri” pulled back the veil to reveal his life as a victim of horrific crime long before he was driven into one of his own.
Thanks to readers, that post found its way into several internet sites dedicated to addressing human trafficking. Pornchai’s story was told prolifically at These Stone Walls, but it remained hidden in plain sight until one of you shared it in just the right place. Whoever you were, you acted as a bond of connection between persons, a very important concept that I will return to below. In my midlife crisis dream, Pornchai asked me, “Where are we going?” I told him, “We’re going to where this path leads.” It seemed to me to be a strange response until I pondered it. Our path – the paths of all of us in life – lead along the threads of connection placed there by God through us – through the bad as well as through the good.
These Stone Walls became Pornchai’s religious community, the community of faith that formed him. His leaving, and leaving me behind, is painful, but at least one TSW reader has equated him to Timothy, the companion of Saint Paul. In that sense he is not leaving. He is being sent.
Where do I go from here? I have not even pondered that yet. My priority at the moment is to do what I can to spare my friend from the one-size-fits-all nightmare of ICE detention. Thanks to some of you sharing my posts in the right places, there is now a glimmer of hope for that. Just a glimmer, so please pray for that intention. I hope that in a month or two, These Stone Walls will have a voice from Catholic Thailand.
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From the voice of Saint John Henry Newman: “Some Definite Service.”
- “God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next.
- “Somehow, I am necessary for His purposes… I have a part in this great work. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connections between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I but keep His commandments and serve Him in my calling.
- “Therefore I will trust him, whatever, wherever I am. I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him. If I am in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. My sickness, or perplexity or sorrow may be necessary causes of some great end which is quite beyond us.
- “He does nothing in vain. He may prolong my life, He may shorten it, He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends, he may throw me among strangers, He may make me feel desolate, hide my future from me – Still, He knows what He is about.” (St. John Henry Cardinal Newman – March 7, 1848)
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NOTE FROM FATHER GORDON MACRAE: Mine is not the only “Prison Journal” in circulation these days. I have just pre-ordered my copy of the soon-published Prison Journal of George Cardinal Pell from Ignatius Press which promises to be a spiritual classic. You may also like these lesser classics from These Stone Walls:
- Priesthood, the Signs of the Times and the Sins of the Times
- Pornchai Moontri: Hope and Prayers for My Friend Left Behind
- Human Traffic: The ICE Deportation of Pornchai Moontri
- Priesthood in the Real Presence and the Present Absence