Jun 29, 2022

Maverick’s Second Half

Maverick’s Second Half

Maverick’s Second Half

Nathan King

The below contains spoilers for the new movie, Top Gun: Maverick. If you haven't seen it and you don't want it to be given way, you've been warned.

I was 11 when the first Top Gun came out. It captured my interest completely. That is what I wanted to be. Dominant, decisive, fast, select. I idolized those pilots and their swagger. It was a picture of who I wanted to become.

To a young person's mind, it represented a final destination. Not assuming the role of fighter pilot per se, but of achieving top of the field, getting the girl, having tremendous confidence.

Little did I know, the movie captures a phase of life, but not the final destination.

The sequel, Top Gun: Maverick, reveals that truth. When taken together with its predecessor, it accomplishes something rare in film. It places the hero well down the line. And instead of a man who has consistently been propelled to new heights, or maintained a new status, we see someone who has reached a limit. This becomes the point of struggle on which the film turns.

The First Half and Second Half of Life

The Top Gun saga delves into a realm of human psychology relevant to all of us.

In the first half of life, we believe that we gain meaning, possibly even salvation, by our accomplishments, our performance.

This way of being centers on acquisition: gaining status, strength, relationships, property. Top Gun offers a vivid picture of how this plays out. Maverick and his fellow pilots organize their lives around achieving the status of the best pilot, getting the prettiest girl, winning the volleyball game. Their lives play out according to the agenda of the Ego.

Ego is a psychological term that represents a performance driven part of our selves. We are highly conscious of its demands, and those demands push for approval from others. We strive to finish first and we save ourselves.

For a young person (like the budding adolescent I was when the original movie came out, or as a twenty-something launching a career), Top Gun is a call to arms, a picture of what we can become. It becomes something of a north star.

Ego is only part of the story, however. Underneath lies a deeper self. This self is called the Soul, or the Psyche, or the True Self. We possess less consciousness of it, but that part of us has its own demands.

The human narrative arc begins with achievement (the first film, where for Maverick and his fellow pilots the point was to be the best), and transitions to something more deeper hits. This journey encompasses something that psychologists call the first and second halves of life.

And these halves of our lives are at war with one another.

We do not give up on the illusions of grandeur pursued by the Ego easily. In fact, some live their entire lives dominated by it. Most of us grapple with the competing drives of the Ego and the Soul. Catholic Priest and author Richard Rohr says this about the second half of life.

By the second half of our lives, we are meant to see in wholes and no longer just in parts. Yet we get to the whole by falling down into the messy parts-so many times, in fact, that we long and thirst for the wholeness and fullness of all things, including ourselves.

Top Gun represents life dominated by the Ego, and Top Gun: Maverick shows the transition to the second half of life when, thirty-odd years later, we meet up with Maverick again.

For this viewer, my perspective has changed in the intervening decades, much as it has for Maverick. The aspirations of youth, so perfectly enshrined in that earlier film, have morphed in me. It was with recognition from personal experience that I viewed Maverick enter the bar where he once audaciously performed ad-hoc karaoke performances of "You've Lost that Loving Feeling" and "Great Balls of Fire."

Maverick has lost the belief that he can save himself. It's obvious he can't. Erased is his status as hero. The agenda of the Ego no longer serves him.

We see him wrestle with a new factor, a new source of meaning. It isn't being the best (the domain of the Ego) it is a longing for meaning, of being a part of something greater than his own life.

This the difference between the agenda of the Soul and the agenda of the Ego.

The Journey from First Half to Second Half

In Top Gun: Maverick, he revisits the same bar as in the first film. But what goes on in the bar is much different. He is alone, not the center of attention. The gaggle of young pilots is there, preening and posturing, its members establishing position as the baddest of the bad, just as he once did. Maverick remembers, but he is not in that place. He sees something missing, and longs for it.

At the end of the scene, he looks on from the outside, as Rooster, the son of his deceased flying partner, Goose, parties with the other pilots. He experiences longing and a desire to protect, not to be the center of attention.

It is clear to him that social status is no longer available. And at work, the fruits of his career finally reveal their limits: his leadership wants him out. The mission he prepares for will be his last.

And this is a great point about the second half of life. A person doesn't reach it as a point of chronology. It happens when the limits of the ego no longer work. Rohr puts it this way:

Until we are led to the limits of our present game plan, and find it to be insufficient, we will not search out or find the real source [of meaning.]

In the end, Maverick has all of his fantasies completely destroyed. He will be kicked out of the military. This is his last mission. And do we see him try harder to dominate and to win? What we see is that he uses his unique gifting to teach others to accomplish the mission. We see him ready to give up his life.

During his last mission, at the height of aerial combat, he sees the son of his deceased rear in a vulnerable spot and sacrifices himself to save him. Maverick has shifted from a life centered on him to a life on sharing excellence with those around him.

Maverick returns to Top Gun because of a dangerous mission requirement against seemingly impenetrable defenses. The "genius" flying he showed in his career now is needed, but to impart to others. He devises a plan that the other pilots struggle to execute due to its diffulty. Through a series of events, those around him fail to believe, including his superiors. He demonstrates that the plan can be done, and leads the other pilots into danger himself.

The difference from his younger, ego-driven self is that he is not alone, he is defintiely not a maverick in the definition of the word, someone who goes it alone, but someone who has brought his own gifting to others.

His reputation has caught up with him. He knows that his career will end. He will get no glory from this victory. His task now becomes only an opportunity to give to others.

In that transition from a life dominated by Ego to one where his Soul begins to assert itself, Maverick achieves a new level of meaning and brings others with him. He has participated in something much larger than himself, something his ego doesn't fully register, but something that makes an impact.

The contrast we see most clearly is that Maverick struggles with, and then surrenders, a life dominated by Ego to accept one where is deeper self, his Soul, pushes his gifting out to help others.

Your Journey

A life well lived will inevitably take you to the limit of yourself, when your Ego will show you that you can’t acquire it all, and the quiet voice from within – your Soul – demands to be heard. This process may begin when you are 30, 40, or beyond, and it will bear fruit a few years after it begins, and possibly many decades.

We will have struggles and choices, just as we see with Maverick. Psychologist James Hollis leaves us with a great question in Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life as we grapple with our own journey:

Of each critical juncture of choice, one may usefully ask: “Does this path enlarge or diminish me?” Usually, we know the answer to that question. We know it intuitively, instinctively, in the gut [i.e., the Soul].




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