“You know, we’re both in the autumn of our lives,” a friend said recently on his 52nd birthday.
I nodded at this bittersweet truth.
I turned 54 this month – not old, but not so young anymore.
After my morning coffee, I took a detour on my way to work. There’s a beautiful forest with walking trails nearby. It was early and only a few other strollers were on the path. I walked most of it in peace and solitude with the sun shining through the still green leaves above me.
I thought more about what my friend had said. The story of my life has now come into greater focus at midlife. I am a bit wiser, and a bit bigger around the midsection, truth be told. I know in my bones that I’m mortal and the importance of making my days count.
We all look backwards at 50 through the rearview mirror. We take stock of our climb from diapers to degrees, backpacks to briefcases, and from youthful meanderings to mid-life muddling.
Called to Live Everything We Are
In his book, Living Your Unlived Life: Coping with Unrealized Dreams and Fulfilling Your Purpose in the Second Half of Life, Robert Johnson 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.”
Johnson extrapolates further on the unlived life:
“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.”
James Hollis, Ph.D.,, frames the developmental task before us in his book, Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life:
“The task implicit in this particular swampland is to become conscious enough to discern the difference between what has happened to us in the past and who we are in the present. No one can move forward, psychologically, who cannot say, “I am not what happened to me: I am what I choose to become.” Such a person can come to recognize that the early deficit was not inherent in the child, but the result of circumstances beyond the child’s control. One can then begin to tap the energy for life that was previously walled off.”
I have written before about my parents; an alcoholic father and long-suffering mother. Coming out of that traumatic mess, I learned that if I was going to survive in the world I had to become “successful”. For me, that took the form of a long legal career. I didn’t have a passion to become a lawyer as a young man. After earning a liberal arts degree in college, I sort of drifted into law school.
I wasn’t ever a money-grubbing attorney. I tried to work with honesty, integrity and compassion for my clients. And looking back, I did a lot of good for others. But there was always a nagging feeling inside of me that being a lawyer wasn’t “it”. Somehow, I felt, I had missed a turn further back on the road behind me.
And so, I’ve started to walk backwards to take a hard look at what “success” really means to me now at midlife. I have noticed this shift: I am not interested so much drawn in the question of “what makes a successful life?” as “what does it mean to lead a good life?”
To embrace our true self hat yearns for expression seems critical. While many parts of this authentic self have been expressed in our lives, other essential aspects were chopped off when we were younger by misguided or troubled parents and elders. 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. These voices seem to demand our attention at midlife.
And we would be wise to listen to them.
While it’s true that we cannot change the past and the people that tamped down on our early life yearnings, we can view these people and experiences through different and wiser eyes. We can learn to leave the pain behind and learn from it.
Leaving Resumes Behind
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.
Therese Borchard writes:
“’It is when we begin to pay attention, and seek integrity precisely in the task within the task, that we begin to move from the first to the second half of our lives,’ writes Fr. Rohr. Yes, that usually coincides with gray wisps and colonoscopies and readers hanging on your neck. But that’s only because the older we get, the better perspective we have on what really matters. Ironically, as our eyes fail, we begin to see life with much better vision.”
Grace and Grit
There is a grace that comes after 50 that I didn’t have in my 30s and 40s; a sense of being at home in my own skin. My bones, like the roots of a mature tree in an old-growth forest, have sunk deep into the rich, brown soil of the earth I walk. Like all people, I’ve weathered many storms. While I know that there are sure to be more, I have faith that I’ll still be standing after they’ve passed and be walking in the sun again.
I think there’s some grit that comes when we pass the half-century mark. We have less tolerance of others’ bullshit and, hopefully, our own. Having lived long enough, we know the truth even if we can’t articulate it. I admire people who can speak truth with wit, irony, humility and a sense of decency. They don’t belittle others, nor are they arrogant or closed-minded about contrarian views. I always walk away from such people enlightened and marvel that in speaking their own truth they give permission for others to speak theirs as well.
Our lives, if they are to have true meaning, must be used to love and serve others for when we pass from this world, we won’t be remembered in others’ hearts so much for our accomplishments, but for the love we have given and shared.
And that is a good life to me.