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Butterfly on the tree

“There is perhaps nothing worse than reaching the top of the ladder

and discovering that it is up against the wrong wall.” ~ Joseph Campbell

In the past few years, a significant number of my midlife patients have been questioning what they really value.  This is a key question that arises spontaneously in midlife when the felt value of external accomplishments, accumulated wealth, and material possessions begins to wane.  A need for a deeper purpose and meaning begins to arise from within, as the fleeting nature of materialism rises to the fore. In the past decade, a movement has been underway where many are purging their material possessions to feel lighter and freer with less rather than more stuff.

This movement is no surprise. It is a result of accomplishing what society defines as success and arriving here only to feel empty.  After the Great Depression, our society projected value and worth on owning material goods. My sense is this was compensation for the scarcity experienced during World War II.  At this juncture in time, we are arriving at the conclusion that material possessions have no intrinsic value. They do not define self-worth and do not result in happiness, contentment, or joy.  In fact, they often do the opposite. We are experiencing this paradox after 4 to 5 decades of working towards the acquisition of wealth only to question what we really value. 

When we are externally defined (as most of us are prior to midlife), we get busy accomplishing our goal to gain financial security.  Once we have acquired enough money to survive, more money does not increase our sense of worth. 

This is actually a sign of health.  Midlife heralds the questioning of external (material) values.  As many realize now, materiality does not help us align with our authentic Self,  it does not answer life’s deeper questions or satisfy our need for meaning. The ‘high’ we once felt while chasing material goals is no longer present at this stage of life and when it is felt, it is fleeting.  

Why is this?

Carl Jung defined the external/extrinsic set of values as Power, Prestige, Fame, and Fortune or PPFF.  The internal/intrinsic value system is not based on this. The inner platform is based on meaning, integrity, and the right relationship with one’s Self.  The Self, according to Jung, is the deeper and meaning-seeking part of who we are. Religious traditions call this the Soul. The tension between extrinsic and intrinsic values, the ego and the Self, PPFF, and meaning is the struggle that midlife brings to the fore.  Since there is often family and societal inertia and momentum in favor of the PPFF side of the pole, holding the tension of the opposite, on the side of meaning, can be difficult. If one is able to hold the line on the side of meaning, there is an opportunity to transform into one’s authentic Self. This is the process of individuation, as defined by Jung when awareness and commitment to intrinsic value occur which is so strong that one can no longer be seduced by PPFF. This creates a powerful alignment with Self and also heals one’s relationship to oneself.  

When I left Corporate Medicine at age 37, I was terrified of how I would support myself and my family without being an employee of Corporate health care.  I was plagued with doubts about my ability to run a business and succeed on my own, with a vision that was in stark contrast to that of Corporate Medicine.  I had to do a great deal of Soul searching and align with my love of Medicine, people, and my desire to facilitate healing. I had to hold the tension between my vision for health care and society’s projections of what persona I was expected to embody as a physician (large salary, fancy car, the air of arrogance and superiority).  Over a 9 month period, I gained enough insight to realize that none of the outer values mattered to me. They were not important enough for me to compromise my vision of what I believed Medicine could be. What mattered to me most was my relationship with my patients and my passion to assist in their healing and growth. When I reached this point of clarity, the seduction of the PPFF values dissipated, and I made the choice to take a great financial and personal risk and create the model for health care that The Ommani Center is today, nearly 19 years later.  I made these choices from the integrity of purpose and my thirst for meaning which could not be swayed by the inertia of society’s external values.   When I stayed aligned with my commitment to integrity, my fear of failure dissipated. 

I surrendered to my sacred work and to the promise of living from meaning at the end of each day.  The paradoxical miracle was the creation of a sustainable business that resulted in a successful medical practice.  My vision and commitment to meaning carried me forward and drew patients who desired to heal and grow.  The mission of my practice is based on love, integrity, and service to the essence of what medicine stands for and I feel honored to be in sacred space with my patients every day.  

The tension that I had to hold between the external values of PPFF and my inner quest for meaning was very difficult.  It took a great deal of self-reflection and intense inner struggle against the inertia of PPFF from society to be able to feel and hear the voice of the Self.  Once I aligned with my inner voice and was unwilling to compromise meaning for external values, I knew there was no turning back. In a sustainable business model, there is no desire for runaway profit, just enough to sustain the business without overly stressing patients for financial growth.  Profit does not define me or my business. My commitment is to the health of my patients while being a cost-effective model for health care. With this alignment, I feel liberated to stay committed to my work from a place of the integrity of purpose.

This tension between intrinsic and extrinsic values is worth holding.  We must take our time to reflect on the contrast between true worth and projected worth.  This struggle is a worthy one. As we age, the intrinsic values of the Self become more important and necessary to serve.  Those who so serve, age gracefully and cultivate a presence that is contagious and wise. They add value to society and become role models for the generations that follow.  Arriving here requires us to choose meaning over PPFF, for when we do, we permit others to do the same.  

©July 2019 Kalpana (Rose) M. Kumar M.D., CEO and Medical Director, The Ommani Center for Integrative

Medicine, Pewaukee, WI. Author of 2nd Edition – Becoming Real: Reclaiming Your

Health in Midlife 2014, Medial Press.

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