General Book Review Disclaimer
I tend to be quite picky; I don’t want to give 4 or 5 stars because something simply has meritable content. I base my reviews on author knowledge, content, writing quality and creativity, grammar and editing, and the use or overuse of excerpted passages.

1 star: Poor or worse than poor, not recommended
2 stars: Below average, not recommended
3 stars: Average and thus good, possibly recommended with caveats
4 stars: Great, recommended
5 stars: Amazing, mind blowing, recommended

Crossing the Soul’s River
A Rite of Passage for Men
By William O. Roberts Jr.

This book is not a memoir of the author’s midlife crisis, rather the reader learns about his journey through preferential references. He tells us in the introduction that I am still married to my first wife. We separated for a long time. Then we moved to the next step; the sheriff served divorce papers, and we hired lawyers.1 He hinted earlier that their separation was around 4 years by stating that he was home again and looking backwards to 4 years previously when he had separated from his wife. By stating that the sheriff served divorce papers he does not divulge who filed for divorce.
If you are looking for a story of midlife crisis and how to reconcile or Stand for your marriage, this is not that book. Robert’s intended audience is the midlifer and his focus is the journey. But if you are interested in learning more about midlife transition (MLT), the feelings and trauma of the person within the journey and the ways they can get through, this is an excellent book. Though Roberts’ focus is on men, I think his work is relevant for both genders.

On the first page of the preface Robert’s outlines 4 tasks of the midlife journey.

  1. The breakdown of the persona
  2. The encounter with the Shadow
  3. The encounter with the anima/animus (his word is soul mate but he says he is talking about the contrasexual aspects)
  4. The dialogue with the Self.

Robert’s outlined those in the 2nd paragraph of the book and I knew immediately I had found someone who gets it and thus continued reading with excitement. His premise is that Rites of Passages, a set of myths and rituals that help us to navigate the passage and engage the soul tasks in a manner that is safer and more certain than if we attempt it on our own,2 might help individual men to address the challenges of midlife in a more effective manner.3 What a relief. This is what I want. This is what I have dreamed someone will say and do. Roberts is the guide for the midlifer—and some of the idea (to me) is that by guiding men or women through their transition it may have a reduced chance of reaching crisis levels. Basically, The Rite is a guided tour into Liminal space. But since a non-crisis transition is not about Replay with its Monster and avoidance, he guides the midlifer directly into the Liminal territory of the Shadow.

Part I: Gauging the Soul’s River

Part I is a basic introduction to the river. Roberts uses Erikson’s stages of development to explain, but rearranges the later stages and specifies gender differences. He discusses the meaning of crisis, reviewing Greek, French as well as Chinese definitions to conclude that a crisis is a time of change where a person has a choice of pathways. Regardless of which pathway a person chooses, there will be loss and because there is an unknown element it is about both danger and opportunity. He understands that depression has positive benefits and can be both a call to the journey as well as the Liminal periods within the journey. The main purpose of Section I is to instill the importance of Section II (the stages) and structured Rites of Passage by building understanding for normalcy of the life stages and transformation, the need for a map and the players he references in Section II.

Part II: The Four Soul Tasks for Crossing

Part II reviews the 4 tasks of midlife. Roberts uses mythological examples for each stage. He is a former minister and it makes sense that his examples would come from the Bible, but he has incorporated these stories in their proper mythic realm, so that the reader’s religious beliefs do not matter because the stories are universal archetypes.

  1. Abraham: The breakdown of the persona
  2. Jacob wresting the angel: The encounter with the Shadow
  3. David (& Bathsheba): The encounter with the anima
  4. Job: The dialogue with Self

Along with these stories he references poetry, physics and various Jungian analysts to guide the reader to an understanding of each step of the journey. The combination of these various disciplines to validate the confusion and self-questioning helps people to feel a sense of normalcy within their self-questioning. Growth is a result of disequilibrium, not balance; a balanced state has no forces motivating change.

1.       The breakdown of the persona

Roberts begins by explaining the creation of identity and the persona—the masks we wear for each of our roles in life. The breakdown involves recognizing the masks, accepting that they are separate from Self and then creating new masks.
He helps the reader understand the importance of this task by explaining that masks have limitations, the better we are at fulfilling our roles and the more people counting on us in those roles, the stronger the boundaries and possibly the greater feeling of being trapped at midlife. A person who confuses their self-identity with their role will be imprisoned within their mask.

2.      The encounter with the Shadow

Roberts introduces the idea of the Shadow by referring to Robert Bly’s well known description of it as The Long Bag We Drag Behind Us. He says that there are three stages to incorporating the Shadow.

  1. Projecting the Shadow
  2. Retrieving the Shadow
  3. Eating the Shadow

3.      The encounter with the anima/animus

Roberts acknowledges that the common manifestation of this is through an affair, but understands that it’s not really about the affair, thus he does not focus on infidelity. Focusing on infidelity is understandable when you are the betrayed, but this book is about the crisis and not the collateral damage within the marriage.
The encounter with the contrasexual complex is about integrating the changing aspects from the parent-child to lover to companion to wise muse. It is common that the role of parent and lover become confused with people often projecting parental qualities onto their spouses and then a person tries to replace the role of lover with someone else for it is a role of passion and in-fatuation. At midlife the task is to break through this projection.

4.      The dialogue with the Self.

To help explain this step Roberts brought in art to add to the poets, scientists and analysts. He explained the concept by using the illustrations William Blake created to interpret the story of Job. He explains this dialogue as being a paradox. Is it a dialogue with God also? Self and God? Is it the Self dialoguing with God? Is dialoguing with Self an encounter with creation? If so, is the Self some divine aspect of us? In Blake’s illustrations Robert’s often points out where God and Job seem to look like the same man and he asks if this is because God made us in our own image or is there some other reason?
In Section I Roberts referenced an old Sufi saying, “You think because you understand one you must understand two, because one and one make two. But you must also understand and.4 (page 37) There is no direct answer.

Sources

  1. Roberts, William O. Jr. Crossing the Soul’s River A Rite of Passage for Men.Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press. 1998. Page 6.
    1. —page x.
    2. —page ix.
    3. —page 37.

Comments

Book Review: Crossing the Soul’s River – A Rite of Passage for MenNo Comments

  1. My husband is in a transition/crisis. He read the book, liked it, and gave it to me to read. He said that the author talks about getting though the transition, but does not explain how to get through the transition. I read the book, and found that the author outlined exactly how to get through it. I told my husband that I disagreed with him and found that the book does outline how to get through it. He asked me to explain and I breifly touched on some of what the author was saying. I suggested he read it again if he was looking for a way to get through it. I guess it depends on where the reader who is going though transition is at and how receptive they are when they read it.

    • "How" implies a controlled manner if a person wants to know how to do something. If they want to know how something will happen that is different.
      William Roberts outlined the stages and some may consider that how a person will go through, but that is not telling a person how to do it.
      How do you separate?
      How do you face the Shadow, the anima…?
      He does answer those, but the answers are within a guided context rather than alone.
      Is what Robersts saying instructive–how to? Or is it about?
      Steps for Transitioning is not likesteps for making chocolate chip cookies. Transition is subjective and specific to each individual.
      I can see how someone already in transition might see it as less instructive than someone who is not since the person in transition is already questioning, doubting and confused.
      My recent post Mary Believed

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