Sea story article image
Heart in the right place
By Michelle Hines, staff writer
Photography by Chris English, photography editor and David Wilson, assistant photography editor

Forget what you've heard about having a midlife crisis. For some people, midlife is a time of transformation.

Heart-fit versus head-fit

Jennifer Bell Brown, will graduate from UNCG's counseling doctoral program in May, not long after her 5-year-old son, Jonathan, starts kindergarten. Jennifer, 39, plans to teach counseling or work as a therapist, perhaps focusing on the chronically ill.

Oh, and by the way: She's happy.

But not so long ago, Jennifer was fresh out of Vanderbilt, headed straight to Carolina's School of Law. Almost immediately she felt out-of-sync, that she didn't belong there. But for the moment, she ignored the signs.

Jennifer Bell Brown with her husband John Brown '94 and her 5-year-old son Jonathan Finding fulfillment Jennifer Bell Brown left a career as an attorney to pursue a degree in counseling at UNCG. She has had the support of her husband John Brown '94 and is glad her 5-year-old son Jonathan sees her happy and fulfilled.

"I knew pretty instantly when I got there that it was not where I needed to be," she says, "but I had committed to it and I figured I needed to push forward and finish. I never connected to the experience."

The one bright spot at law school was a stint in the UNC Legal Clinic. Jennifer wanted to work in poverty law, and helping indigent clients made the job worthwhile for her.

Her supervisor, on sabbatical from Legal Aid in Greensboro, told Jennifer she thought they would have an opening in Greensboro shortly after Jennifer's graduation and encouraged her to apply. "When she told me about this position, I thought maybe there's some potential here, and it will work out for me."

So Jennifer graduated and moved back home to Greensboro, where her parents live. She spent the next seven years working in the domestic unit at Legal Aid, handling protective orders, child custody and divorces for victims of domestic violence. Her clients were predominantly female, and her work was funded through a United Way grant.

But the combative nature of the job began to grind her down.

"I really enjoyed my clients," she says. "I enjoyed feeling like I was making a difference in some small way and helping my clients to transform their lives and create the lives they wanted by removing themselves from violent situations," she says, "but the legal process for me was excruciating. I found it to be very combative. I really desired to work in a more collaborative setting, but I wasn't really able to do that as often as I wanted. I didn't like having to go in and fight every day, and over seven years or so, it really began to take its toll on me."

She considered other areas of law, real estate and personal injury, but they really didn't seem like the right path either.

"That really wasn't what I had gone into the field to do," she says. "I really wanted to help people. I went into the field to do poverty law and there just wasn't that fit for me when I looked into other areas. I actually ended up getting pretty burned out and getting pretty depressed. I knew the pain around it was just kind of mounting, and I knew I was going to have to make a change."

Although it was a long time coming, Jennifer found her way to UNCG's Counseling and Educational Development Program. She earned a master's degree in counseling before she decided to go for a PhD that will enable her to teach in addition to counseling.

One of her professors, Dr. Craig Cashwell, said something simple but profound to her as he considered her transformation. "Well," he told her, "looks like you've learned to make a heart-fit instead of head-fit."

And so she had. Not everyone is so lucky.

Some never get there

Cashwell points to three common paths to major life change. For some, he says, these mid-life transformations start with external causes like job loss. For others, the death of a loved one, especially a parent, or a general "dis-ease" with life, sends them on the path to change.

Sadly, Cashwell says, many people never reach the transformation point. Or if they do, they can't reconcile themselves to the difficulties of radical change.

While Jennifer wasn't dealing with job loss, stress in the law profession forced her to make a change. The current 10 percent unemployment rate in North Carolina is pushing untold others to face similar challenges.

"As a counselor it's interesting to watch what people do with that," Cashwell says. "They can sort of collapse into a victim space or they can go, 'OK, here's an opportunity. What am I going to do differently?'"

A death, especially the loss of a parent, seems to bring people in contact with their own mortality, Cashwell says. "They realize they're not gonna live forever and that they get a little bit more conscious of what is it that they want to do with their lives."

For Cashwell, a Winston-Salem native who did his master's and doctoral work at UNCG, his move back to UNCG after seven years on the faculty of Mississippi State coincided closely with his father's death and the birth of his daughter.

More recently he has returned to counseling, bringing a new focus on spirituality as he helps clients fight addictions and work on marital problems. "I had been sort of dabbling about writing about spirituality in counseling," he says, "but I got clear that this is what I'm supposed to be doing, and made it my primary focus."

Cashwell is particularly intrigued by those who become almost inexplicably disillusioned with their lives or careers in mid-life. The idea of making a difference in the world, impacting other people's lives positively, starts as a nagging feeling and grows into a craving.

"There's this kind of shift in priorities," he says. "Whereas that first half of life is so much about building the ego, building a career and becoming somebody, once they become somebody a lot of people have this mid-life hmmm. It's not like a crisis but it's kind of like, 'I thought this was the top of the mountain but wait a minute.' There's this kind of emptiness in that space. That's when people began to deal with 'What is my purpose in life? Why am I here? Is it just to make more money? Is it to build my prestige and be recognized, or is it to serve in some way?'"

Cashwell says it takes bravery and a special kind of insight to embrace changes and, in some cases, shift course altogether. "People get there in different ways, and it takes a lot of courage. Sometimes you have to let go of that security of a career. Is it universal? I think so, but of course not everybody gets there. Counselors are developmental support. I work with a lot of people who are dissatisfied with their lives around middle age, but they are too afraid to make the kind of changes we're talking about. The fear becomes a barrier."

Page 1 of 2 1 2 Next Page > Email