“The world is more magical, less predictable, more autonomous, less controllable, more varied, less simple, more infinite, less knowable, more wonderfully troubling than we could have imagined being able to tolerate when we were young.” James Hollis
Here’s a little exercise: Think about your goals for the next 10 years or so. Now, if you are under age 40, I’ll say that chances are your goals might have been related to advancing your career, perhaps getting your children through college, maybe acquiring or paying off a car or a house. If you are over age 40, your goals may be quite different. They may concern saving enough to retire in your 60s. Or maybe you simply want to stay healthy enough to enjoy life. Or perhaps travel or see grandchildren.
I sometimes look back at my early adult life in wonder at my single-minded focus on succeeding and advancing in my career: Many late nights at work, such that I would need to bring some special snack or listen intently to the radio in order to keep my mind off the fact that I was in an office by myself, often miles away from home while my wife and children slept peacefully. How did I do that?
When we’re young, we collect stuff, we experience relationships with the opposite sex, we try things, we see places, and we set our sights on making it. All of this seems almost genetically programmed as we want more than what we have. At some point, though, we realize that isn’t enough. We want actual meaning in our lives. Some seek to find meaning in the form of a red sports car. (A cliche, but I’ve seen it often as perhaps have you.) Some seek it in an affair, a change in habits, or a rebellion against much of what was formerly held dear.
None of what we call a mid-life crisis should be a surprise these days, nor should such be the source of shame. I know that when these changes came to me (and I prefer to call it an epiphany because I think that is more accurate) I took the opportunity to learn that what formerly motivated me was no longer working. I found that I had been following an agenda driven largely by fear of failure, a quite legitimate desire to make sure I provided for my family.
And this is somewhat the point: There is nothing wrong with shifting agendas in mid-life. I was driven to achieve in the first half of my life because that’s what I needed to do in order to have food, clothing, and shelter. When we hold on to this, or refuse to look deeply at what is required of us in the second half of life, we risk either doing more of the same, with greatly diminishing returns, or lurching into swamplands like materialism, addiction, or superficial affairs. We see those who fight the aging process with poorly chosen weapons and often it’s not pretty.
The good news, and there’s almost always good news to be found when our conscience is disturbed, is that we have been awakened from a long dormant period in which we were exercising less than our full abilities. We can develop a more mature spirituality, find great happiness in giving ourselves over to others, enjoy our families in different dimensions than before, reconnect with our bodies through exercise and nutrition, expand our minds through learning about things about which we may have previously been oblivious — all while enjoying the fruits of wisdom than only come with experience and age.
In the second half of life, we’re asked to let go. Only when we let go of that to which we grasped so tightly earlier in our lives can we be free to pick up and examine that which is needed and enjoyable now.