A few weeks ago, I attended my 30th High School Reunion at a local watering hole. As my wife and I drove to the event, I felt the wind of the seventies blowing through my now thinning hair. Bachman Turner Overdrive’s “Taking Care of Business” blared out of my speakers; a feel good anthem of my generation. The song felt like a buoy that I had long ago sailed past only to return to now.
Walking into the tavern was like stepping through a time portal to a different time and place; its strangeness exaggerated by the dim light and pop of Bud Light’s being pried open. Above is a photo of me at the reunion with our Valedictorian. The thinning hair alluded to above is self-evident.
As I walked around the room, I sensed that my interactions with everyone would be cursory:
“Hi — How are you? — Married? — Divorced – Oh, I understand — Kids?– What you doing now?”
The changes in our bodies and faces bespoke the eternal passage of time; each of us entering the Fall of our lives.
Midlife, and all the challenges this stage of life brings, has been on my mind. You know, the sort of thing that wakes you up at 3 a.m. In a few weeks I’ll turn 48 and have been out of law school for 21 years. Besides the reunion, one other thing supplied the voltage for this middle age meditation.
I’ve been reading a book by Robert A. Johnson called, “Living Your Unlived Life: Coping with Unrealized Dreams and Fulfilling Your Purpose in the Second Half of Life.” He points out that the first half of our lives is spent addressing matters in the outside world – learning a trade, marrying and raising children and finding our way in this difficult world. Then, “in the second half of life, the hunger of our missing pieces often becomes acute. It dawns on us that time is running out. So we often set about rearranging things on the outside. Such changes distract us for a time, but what is really called for is a change of consciousness.”
There is something inside of all of us which has been unlived. This is part of the maturation process and just plain growing up. We choose this; we don’t choose that. As we age, our lives take on certain defining features that we never could have foretold in young adulthood. As I mingled at my reunion with people from so long ago, I imagined what unlived lives they each had. We all smiled and made small talk as we swayed to the music. All the while, I imagined their hopes to live their unlived lives gently humming beneath the surface.
Johnson further extrapolates on the unlived life:
“We must work very hard, until exhaustion, just to get ego awareness working well in contemporary life. It takes the whole educational system and all of our socialization processes to promote this consciousness, and our entire society is highly invested in this struggle. However, in the process of becoming differentiated adults, we inevitably become split. We all have both a lived and an unlived life. Most psychotherapies are designed to patch up wounded people and then throw them back into the battle of oppositions. They guide people in how to become better adapted socially: more adept at making money, more highly disciplined, more dutiful, more economically productive. Even when such therapy is successful and gets an individual back out into the rat race again, you can watch them wither over time under the weight of it all.
In the second half of life we are called to live everything that we truly are, to achieve greater wholeness. We initially respond to the call for change by rearranging outer circumstances, though our split is actually an inner problem. The transition from morning to afternoon that occurs at midlife calls for a revaluation of earlier values. During the first half of life we are so busy building up the structure of the personality that we forget that its footings are in shifting sands.”
Many, many lawyers are exhausted by the weight of their lives at the midpoint of their journey. It seems that their careers, and all the obligations that go along with it, have built a momentum that is seemingly unstoppable. So, they settle for distractions (entertainment, money, good food, etc.) along the road to retirement to blunt the pain. This pain is the pain of the unlived life; the part of their inner lives they didn’t get to live while committing large chunks of their time to building their careers.
We must turn and face ourselves at midlife. We must stop running and finally listen to that inner voice which is trying, desperately, to get us to listen; perhaps for the first time in a long time. It dawns on us that we are not the immortals we fancied ourselves in our youths to be. We recognize and sense our mortality and we have yearnings. We want to start living a life, instead of enduring one. Or, as Bruce Springsteen once said, “At some point, you have to stop thinking about the person you want to be and be that person.”
And maybe that’s what depression is about for some of us: painful symptoms that leak out because of un-reconciled parts of us demanding to be heard and lived. If the central concern of the first half of our lives is building up our resumes of success, maybe the second half of life is a deeper search for meaning and purpose. For me, the unlived life has recently found expression as a writer. I feel meaning in writing about things flowing through the deeper currents of life; in sharing my insights, musings and struggles with you.