What animal walks on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon, and three feet in the evening, yet has only one voice?
– The riddle of the Sphinx
The human being
– Oedipus’s solution to the riddle
The riddle of the Sphinx was no mere test of wit, for it imparted valuable wisdom concerning how a person ‘stands’ in the world. The riddle represents a model of the human life time in which there are two pivotal turning points. The first is the transition to the condition described in the phrase “standing on your two feet” – that is, the transition from dependency to separateness and independence. The second turning point, coming somewhere in the afternoon of life, is symbolised by the acquisition of the cane or staff, the third foot of the Oedipal riddle. The mythic story of Oedipus, the cane bespeaks not simply the coming of physical decrepitude but a cluster of changes that includes suffering and deepened insight and disengagement from an outlived way of doing and being. Compared to our current theories of adult development, the image of the lifetime may seem simplistic. We miss Erikson’s ‘identity crisis” in adolescence, the Sheehy’s “trying twenties”, Levinson’s “settling down” in the thirties – and what about the notorious “mid-life crisis”?These ideas about adult development are well worth studying, but they do not invalidate the insight provided by the sphinx’s riddle. The riddle reminds us that the life time can be thought of us having three natural phases and each has its own characteristic style.
– William Bridges from Transitions: Making sense of life’s changes