It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got No Swing

by Nick on April 13, 2015

On our path through life it’s not uncommon to get stuck at various times on our journey. In fact, it’s a perfectly normal occurrence. It happens to everyone from time to time. Often the stuckness is a prelude to a new discovery, a new awareness that opens up new possibilities and new meanings in our lives. Stuckness is an indication that our current coping strategies are insufficient to deal with the increasing complexities of the world around us. We need to find new strategies; and usually we do.

Stuckness is a particularly common phenomenon as we enter mid-Life, as we sense we have come to a point where we need to leave our heroic youth behind. Or our heroic youth has simply decided to abandon us. It can be difficult to see the road ahead, we can become trapped in doubts, uncertainties, and fears. We can feel too paralysed to take action, too aware of the siren voices predicting a downward decline into useless old age, too focused on looking backwards into our past.

There’s nothing new about this mid-Life stuckness. In fact, it’s as old as the hills. This is how the great Italian storyteller Dante Alighieri begins his famous fourteenth century allegorical mid-Life poem, ‘The Divine Comedy:’

In the middle of my path through life, I found myself lost in a wood so dark, the way ahead was utterly blotted out … it was a place so savage, harsh and bitter just thinking about it brings back the fear.

Now Dante was first and foremost a storyteller, and storytellers in those days used powerful symbols to convey meaning. Symbols that all his readers would have understood and known how to interpret. In stories about mid-Life these symbols were, more often than not, metaphors concerning the psychological health of the characters. In these opening lines of Dante’s ‘Inferno’ for example, the fact that the action happens in a wood or forest tells us firstly that the story is about transition, and secondly that it concerns the search for the ‘spiritual.’

And this is the invitation that mid-Life offers us … if only we are prepared to embrace our fears and accept whatever it may be that the dark forest has in store for us. But to achieve this we must first let go of our desire to continually look back to the places from which we have come; and second take action to discover the gifts that the dark forest holds for us. However, we’ll have to work for it. It doesn’t come for free. It requires some effort. On the other hand, it’s something most of us are already very familiar with …

When I was young – when TV was black and white, phones had dials, extract of malt was an everyday food, and even the most basic of computers was a distant dream – I spent a lot of my time in playgrounds and swing parks. As I’m sure many of you did too. On the swings, the roundabouts, the slides, and the monkey bars. Remember the monkey bars? Two long parallel bars some two metres off the ground with rungs between them. The rungs were spaced just far enough away from each other to make them tricky to reach from one to the next. You started at one end of the bars and to get even half way was an achievement.

How was it done? How did you progress along the rungs and not get stuck? First you had to move. You had to swing in the direction of the next rung; you had to develop some impetus; you had to make an effort, take action. Then you had to reach out towards that next rung. It was tantalisingly close but just too far away to make it easy. You had to swing … and reach … and then commit to an act of supreme faith … you had to reach out with one hand for the next rung and let go of the previous rung with the other. 

It don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got no swing. And this is exactly what the dark wood of mid-Life stuckness demands of us. Taking action requires effort, an act of will. Letting go is one of the hardest things for humans to do. Letting go of the past, of the accumulated and unnecessary baggage that we’ve acquired along our journey, letting go of out-lived obligations and the tyranny of stifling social conventions, letting go of the need to blame, letting go of our fear about the future. In particular we need to let go of the ridiculous notion that once we enter mid-Life our best is past. That is a convention of a materialistic culture that sees value only in terms of money and possessions; that sees people primarily as objects to be used and discarded.

Mid-Life calls us to re-evaluate our lives and to consider what it is to live with quality and a deeper connection to those things that really matter. To pick up on desires and those valued activities we gave up when we entered the world of work or motherhood. Or to take up things we always wanted to do but were too busy or too distracted to make time for. To dance again, learn flower-arranging or how to play a musical instrument, read literature, join a yoga class or a choir, meditate, train for a veteran iron-man or iron-woman competition.

These are great ways to start a journey to go deeper into ourselves. From mid-Life we can learn to find more time to live more fully in the present moment (the only time there is) and start to appreciate life with the same wonder and awe that we did as a child. As we separate ourselves from the breakneck pace of modern life we can begin to see and hear and feel again experiences we’ve been missing for years: the sounds under the surface of music; the song of a bird; the contours of a mountain; the particular quality of a loved one’s voice; the startling quality of cloud formations.

The transitions of mid-Life, and later our Third Age, invite us to re-connect to the quality of innocence and wonder we had as a child … with one important difference. We enter this stage of our life with pragmatism, a certain groundedness, and the ability to reason acquired through our life’s experience. The new behaviours available to us are not child-ish but child-like in their openness to experience things, nature, people, and other living creatures as they really are. To see how everything is connected to everything else. That each of us human beings is just a unique wave that is part of the great ocean of life itself: a unique expression of something much greater than ourselves.

But Dante talked of a dark wood. This reminds us that mid-Life is a time to start to look at ourselves with honesty, to see the ‘shadow’ we carry, the shadow we have often been in denial of for so many years. Mid-Life is a time to accept and own the the dark side of ourselves as well as the light, to recognise that we have the capacity for evil as well as good, for meanness as well as generosity, for selfishness as well as altruism. Mid-Life is an invitation to begin owning our narcissism, our anger, our desire to control everyone and everything. By accepting this dark side of ourselves we begin to liberate ourselves and in turn these dark elements begin to lose their power over us. As the great Swiss psychologist CG Jung wrote: “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”

And that quote points us perfectly towards the direction we can take through the dark forest of mid-Life. By accepting ourselves just as we are, with our qualities and our faults, by recognising the paradox of our individual uniqueness alongside our utter insignificance in the great scheme of things, by letting go of our need to control ourselves, our families, and even the weather, we can step by step open ourselves to the journey that is calling us through the fog .. the journey towards knowing ourselves better which is all enlightenment really is. As a famous Zen monk once said, “If you want to know the Buddha, first you must study yourself.” And if Buddha isn’t to your taste, simply substitute Jesus, Mohammed, Gaia, Athena, Dionysus, Eshu or even Lucifer. I can find them all inside myself. Maybe you can too.

Traditional stories are a great way to help us overcome the stuckness that comes through paralysis or distraction in our lives. So to finish this blog here’s a story from the Jewish tradition. The parched land at the story’s beginning symbolises the stuckness we can feel in our lives when we seem to be at the mercy of things we can’t control such as the weather, or a dark wood in which we find ourselves blocked and fearful. The fertility at the end symbolises the psychological health that develops as we take action, use our ‘god-given’ talents and resources, let go of paralysis and distraction, and focus deeply on what truly matters in our lives. This is the ‘spiritual’ quest and gift the dark forest teaches us when we feel the fear and do it anyway.

I’m curious what messages you’ll take into your own lives from this blog and from this story. Stories don’t teach us a right answer; they’re an invitation to think and act for ourselves. Be well …

The land is parched and a man digs a well to find water for his thirsty plants and gardens. He digs for many hours in the place recommended by the water diviner but he finds nothing and gives up in disgust. He has dug about four metres. 

As he sits dejectedly on the great mound of earth he’s removed from the hole, a traveller passes by. The traveller laughs at him for digging there, and indicates a much more likely spot. So the man starts a new well, but after digging for several hours, he has still found no sign of water. 

Tired and despondent, he finally accepts some different advice from his young neighbour who assures him that he’ll find water in another place altogether. After he’s given up on that one too, his wife comes out of the house and says, ‘Where are your brains, old man? This is no way to sink a well. Stay in one spot and go deeper and deeper there!’ 

The next day, having slept well and recovered his strength, the man returns to the first hole and spends all his time and concentration in that one place. Soon he finds abundant water deep below the surface. It is not long before his gardens are once again green, thriving, and offering up the rich bounties of nature.

[Adapted from The Salmon of Knowledge: Stories for Life, Work, the Dark Shadow, and OneSelf. Nick Owen. Crownhouse 2009]

This article was first published as a Guest Blog on

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