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The Gray Afternoon of the Soul

It is a gray afternoon. It is now the twenty-seventh gray afternoon in a row! For those who do not live in the Pacific Northwest, you may not understand this winter phenomenon of continuous damp days. It drives some people crazy, but I find a strange comfort in its consistency. It may not be sunny and happy but neither is it dark and bitterly cold; it is just mild and middling—kind of like my life. 

It seems appropriate to live here in this climate during the middle part of my life; it provides an image of my soul. Books have been written about the "dark night of the soul" and many songs urge us to "rise and shine in the early morning" but my life right now is more like a gray afternoon.

Although I like where I am in geography and in life, sometimes my contentment becomes complacency, and that troubles me. I want to grow, but not in the ways I did in my youth. At midlife in the expected life span we are just as close to death as we are to our birth. It is in midlife that, for the first time, we have as much to look back on as we do to look forward to. That does something profound to the soul. It can kill us or it can rebirth us. 

Our default mode is to just settle into the routines that have buoyed us for the past few decades. We sit comfortably between contentment and complacency and wish for no drastic changes in the weather. How can the gray afternoon of the soul bring growth and meaning for us?

Being out in nature provides us with many analogies for spirituality. I call it the "geography of the soul." Sitting in Heritage Park in Mission, British Columbia, one can see the North Shore Mountains in one direction and the Fraser Valley to the south. The two directions represent for me the looking back and the looking ahead. For the first time in life the look back is just as long as the one ahead.


I like this place
I can see both ways
behind me
the grand mountain peaks
of the northern range
(some pretty good hikes)
dark forests
where I got lost a few times
risks and adventure
dissonance, and a few rhymes
I like this place
I can see both ways
ahead of me
thick mist and clouds
but the sun still sees through
(at times)
on green flat fields
hidden peaks?
A river with a bridge
I’m not afraid
birds are all around singing
I like this place
I can see both ways

Sometimes we think that in midlife all of our questions will be answered and life will be easier, but it is not so. In fact, sometimes the questions increase and new questions emerge! But we are also more content to live with the paradoxes and questions. 

In our younger years we may have been driven to find answers and success, but in midlife sometimes all that we have built up crumbles around us or we realize that the exterior life was not all it was cracked up to be. Life made more sense when we were younger and issues were less complex. Now it is time to embrace the paradoxes and to live the unanswered questions.

I believe that life is in many ways circular. We return to the dust from which we came. Earthly life begins when we emerge from the darkness and safety of our mother’s womb and it ends as we return to the darkness and safety of death, the womb of God. The Bible uses a lot of death and life and rebirth language, and I believe that at death life is reborn in another dimension.

What is death and life after death like? Life on earth is mysterious enough, but the concept of eternal life in other dimensions is incomprehensible. Unanswered questions abound in midlife, but the foundation of faith remains; in fact the questions become an integral part of our life of faith.

The following poem represents some of my midlife reflections on the past, present, and future. Life is not the way it used to be in the past, but it has provided a foundation for my present and future.

The Ruins of St. Mary’s Mission

The concrete is cracked and crumbling
and not exactly level anymore

What used to be
a shapely profile
with walls and windows dressed
now is stripped and bare
but the foundation still is there

Many years ago it once had
a roof and doors
and you could go inside
now it’s all open air
but the foundation still is there

In eighteen hundred sixty one
the structure had a mission
it was even dedicated to God
now stairs are left that lead to nowhere
but the foundation still is there

In its heyday
students sat in rows and regiment
to learn the R’s of life
now the grass and trees grow anywhere and everywhere
but the foundation still is there

Now I see tombstones in the distance
with the river flowing by
It’s a nice place to take a stroll

In the past life was more regulated and controlled, and we didn’t have to worry about our physical health and appearance. Life in our middle years may not seem as progressive as the years that were primarily about earning money and raising children. Sometimes the stairs we have worked so hard to ascend seem to lead to nowhere. We have experienced pain and loss.
We have new questions. How will we face this second half of life? Will we continue to build our exterior lives even though we find no meaning in it? Will we invest our lives in temporal pleasures—the beaches and golf courses of "freedom 55"? 

How will we process and integrate the difficult and disconcerting events of our past? Will we "take a stroll" and enjoy the present moments and loved ones that God gives us? How will we embrace the paradoxes—the unexplainable sufferings of the past and the unanswered questions about the future?

As we move into the gray afternoon of life, we become more aware of the reality of our death and the limitations of our mind and body. It can be depressing to look back and see life vigorous and exciting and then to look ahead and see a crumbling body and eventually death.

Although there is always a fear of death as we contemplate its mystery, there is also a contentedness in realizing that since there is nothing we can do to reverse the journey we can savour and enjoy each moment more fully. Thus we become more alive in life even as our lives draw closer to death. The gray afternoon can have meaning.

Gareth Brandt, Abbotsford, British Columbia, teaches practical theology at Columbia Bible College. This article has been adapted from Brandt’s book, Under Construction: Reframing Men’s Spirituality (Waterloo, Ont.: Herald Press, 2009), see more at