Developing insight into the second half of life is vital for self-improvement. Aging means that we all follow an imposed trajectory in life. We all share the experience of birth and death. In between is frontier called the individual life. Remarkably, no two people share the same life course. Every human life is a unique variation on the theme of aging. Aging is our most authentic and intimate connection with time.
My work focuses on the second half of life. There are three reasons for this.
First, I am age 50+ and the second half of life is the underlying ground of my being. As I approach age 60, the feeling of being alive is different from the first half of life. It is a unique period in the human life course.
Second, I believe the second half of life is a relatively unexamined stage of life rich in creative potential. I assume that the commonplace view of being 50+ is not enough to pursue the ideal of living a life worth living.
Third, we are experiencing a global demographic shift in which the number of people 50 years of age and older is the dominant trend. To help people and contribute to the lives of others, it is critical that ideas about self-improvement, personal development, and human potential embrace the second half of life..
An Unexplored Frontier of Experience
Somewhere in midlife, the feeling of being alive shifts. Aging changes the feeling of embodiment and reminds us of the impermanence of life. We sense the feral nature of time moving through our flesh in stark contrast to the dull mechanistic drone of time as portrayed on a clock. During the first half of life, the feeling of aging was one of growing up and out into the world. In the second half of life, the feeling of aging is one of broadening and expanding our consciousness of life.
…we have turned time itself into our enemy; most of us live under the despotism of stress. Everything has somehow become evicted outward. Meanwhile, inside we become lonelier and desperate. The price of outer exile begins to become apparent in the second half of life.
– John O’Donohue in The Second Half of Life: Opening the Eight Gates of Wisdom
I believe there is a struggle for meaning and purpose unique to the second half of life. During the first half of life, we prepare ourselves for survival in the external world of culture and society to build material security. The physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual terrain that emerges during the second half of life is different. And it is a terrain that we are unprepared to navigate due to weak cultural assumptions about the human life course during the second half of life. It is no wonder that the price of our outer exile becomes clear during the phase of life.
For me, the second half of life is a mysterious terrain. My relationship with time has changed. Aging has altered the feeling of embodiment and I am on an unfamiliar and humbling physical trajectory. My mind has turned more inward and the whine of the daily grind has become less interesting. My spirit is seeking a greater sense of depth, meaning, and purpose in life with a new sense of urgency. The underlying ground of life feels more uncertain here.
What is the Second Half of Life?
The second half of life is a depth concept. It is not a chronological concept. Dividing the human life course into two distinct chronological phases is arbitrary. If our average life expectancy is 80 years, this doesn’t mean that the second half of life is, in a statistical sense, age 40 to 80. The second half of life arrives as a fundamental shift in the feeling of being alive characterized as changes in our sense of purpose and how we create meaning. The epicentre of the second half of life is grounded in a fundamental shift in consciousness.
Midlife is the period of transition between the first and second half of life. For some, the transition amounts to a crisis that they never escape; that is, the midlife transition can become the rest of our life if we are unable to find our way through it. Perhaps some people never experience any sense of a midlife passage and never enter the second half of life. In contrast, some people move through the midlife passage by age 30.
But the story is always the same – instead of the art of living we begin to study that other art (i.e. the art of dying); instead of shaping and refining our character, we begin to focus on its decline and fall – and suddenly, almost from one day to the next, we feel old.
– Hermann Hesse, Hymn to Old Age
An immature relationship with aging weakens our character. We embrace a futile struggle to preserve youthfulness and refuse to follow the innate wisdom of the body. Instead of increasing our understanding and appreciation of the rhythms of life, we struggle to extricate ourselves from time. We cover a wrinkle as if it is something to be ashamed of. Anti-aging has become the mantra of our collective fear and insecurity of participating in the full force of life.
Our primary task during the second half of life is to add depth to the art of living and refine our character, rather than being victimized by patho-adolescent notions of youthfulness, decline, and becoming old.
The second half of life provides a unique vantage point to reflect upon our life. By age 50 we have accumulated important memories and experiences that are the defining features of our life course. We all experience various degrees of success, progress, and achievement. However, we become more acutely aware of the parts of ourselves we have abandoned, exiled, and sacrificed along the way. These unlived aspects of our lives can sometimes become painfully apparent in the second half of life.
Aging means that the past is always expanding while the future is always contracting. Somewhere in midlife, we recognize that the time we have already left behind us has become larger than what lies ahead of us. We may be struck by the uncomfortable feeling that time is running out or life is passing us by. And we are shocked by the realization that the activities and effort that once provided a sense of fulfillment are now arid and uninspired.
And it is the realizing of the unlived aspects of our life that may inspire new directions in the second half of life. Although irredeemable regret is painful, it is also a powerful motivator for self-improvement. More than just avoiding the mistakes of the past, the fundamental aim inside the second half of life is to broaden and expand the experience of being alive because, in the end, this is all we can lay claim to. For some of us, this may cause a significant career shift toward work that carries innate meaning and purpose. These kinds of seismic shifts in our life course originate in a deeper awareness of life and the fragile and transient nature of our presence here. That which causes fear can simultaneously become the inspiration for living life worth living.
In the end, what we want is the authentic experience of being alive permeated with an enduring sense of meaning, purpose, and belonging. This means that a core discipline in the second half of life is to harvest our past experiences, deepen self-knowledge, and create new possibilities and potential for our life course.
Creating the Second Half of Life
I believe that we need a new vision for the second half of life that is both creative and practical. The second half of life is not something that happens to us, it is a frontier of creative interaction. There’s more to self-development than retirement and leading a life of leisure, which inevitably becomes routine. Novelty, not routine, is the essence of self-improvement during the second half of life.
My work is a contribution to improving the second half of life. By improvement I mean an increase in the depth and breadth of our experiences in life. This isn’t about seeking happiness or any other emotional state because emotional states are always transient. Nor is it about throwing caution to the wind and pursuing an unrealistic ideal. It is about turning directly into the full force of life, developing increased capacity for self-improvement, and crafting our own life course in the here and now.
The second half of life is a focal point in my exploration of self-improvement, personal development, and human potential. The connection between aging and living a life worth living is vital. And, as we will see, it is also our primal connection with time.