Aging is the experience of time moving through our body. Somewhere in midlife, the feeling of being alive begins to transform. Embodiment begins to reveal the wild and feral nature of time that we can neither avoid or tame. During the first half of life the felt sense of aging is oriented toward growing up and out into the world. In the second half of life, aging alters the feeling of being alive through physical contraction. With mortality becoming increasingly obvious in our physical presence, the seemingly endless temporal horizons of youth give way to harsh truth of impermanence.
At the heart of self-discovery is our relationship with aging and therefore time. Embodiment means that we are all biological timers of uncertain duration. We don’t “tell” time anything, we feel it moving through our flesh and bone. Our life expectancy is uncertain, and it is folly to assume that life expectancy statistics are relevant to the individual life. There is no quantity of time we can or should expect to have in life. If we are to live a good life, then developing a genuine relationship with aging is a basic need.
The second half of life is a depth concept, not a statistical generalization. Being 50 years old reveals nothing about the thoughts, character, and subjective experiences of an individual. No two 50-year-olds are the same, even though they lived a similar amount of time. In other words, the second half of life is transformative with respect to the ways in which we create identity, meaning, and purpose. The epicenter of the second half of life is a fundamental shift of consciousness in our relationship with time and the external world.
The accumulation of time and therefore experience is a unique characteristic that can only emerge with the passing of time. It is obvious that a 50-year-old has more life experience that a 20-year-old. However, that doesn’t mean the 50-year-old is more intelligent or has more insight about living a good life. It is entirely possible to grow old without creating something meaningful from our life experiences. In other words, the accumulation of time offers potential for personal development that can be embraced or ignored. We do not become wiser with age merely because we have lived longer.
Unfortunately, we tend to approach aging with various amounts of fear, denial, and enmity. When we do this, we place ourselves into contradiction with the animating forces of life. Commercial anti-aging is a patho-adolescent industry grounded in delusion, avoidance, and profiteering driven by juvenile marketing tactics focused on clinging to youthfulness. It is also remarkable how much of the “self-help” industry glosses over the inevitable and unavoidable hardship that aging in the second half of life demands. Without consideration of the genuine experience of growing old, the aging-related thresholds we must negotiate, and our relationship with death, self-discovery lacks depth and breadth.
…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 Arrien, Angeles. The Second Half of Life: Opening the Eight Gates of Wisdom (2007)
My work is grounded in the second half of life. I believe that our outer exile becomes apparent in the second half of life through disillusionment, dissatisfaction, and disappointment with our course in life. Rather than preparing ourselves for gainful employment, the first half of life should be focused on preparation for living a good life to the end of our days. Employment and a successful career, as it becomes painfully apparent in the second half of life, is simply not enough to inspire a life worth living. Lack of insight into the second half of life is profound cultural deficiency and a significant impairment on our quality of life.
In my experience, the second half of life imposes transformative experiences that irrevocably alter the feeling of being alive. Sometimes this happens in ways we would rather not experience. When my parents both died within the four months surrounding my 50th birthday I experienced a deeply transformative experiences inspired by grief and the harsh realities of mortality. The experiences surrounding the deaths of my parents exposed me to the full force of life. There was no “getting back to normal” because normal had been annihilated. Now, as I approach age 60, I have become more perceptive of how we have turned “time itself into an enemy,” the “despotism of stress,” and the “price of outer exile.” There has been more personal anxiety and suffering than necessary. One purpose I have in my work is to contribute to the alleviation of these difficulties for others.
I also believe there is a struggle for meaning and purpose unique to the second half of life. The physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual terrain that emerges during the second half of life is different from the first half. Different kinds of questions emerge. Sometimes a potent question arises that, once asked, will never leave us alone. We encounter unique and foreboding kinds of change in our life course. We begin to feel the barbs of ageist perceptions. Our relationship with society and work changes. The second half of life is a liminal frontier involving an array of transformative experiences that forever change the experience of being alive.
There is, I believe, a great need to reclaim our inner life in the second half of life: “Everything has somehow been evicted outward.” Everyday life has become mired in somnambulistic routines that erode our sensibilities. The frantic pace of life has created the delusion that busyness is an end unto itself, but the assumptions, expectations, and impact of that busyness remain unexamined. But even amid the toxicity caused by false urgency we still grow old and the nature of our interaction with the world around us gradually contracts. Time continues to move within, yet we have lost all control of it in the external world. And before we know it, seemingly without warning, we experience the shock of feeling old.
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.Hesse, Hermann. Hymn to Old Age (2011)
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 that life is passing us by. As we become more sensitive to the presence of our own mortality, time feel more precious and we may become increasingly reticent to use it in ways that no longer provide meaning. It may also be that activities that once provided a sense of fulfillment become arid and routine.
The idea of an unlived life captures the liminal nature of the second half of life. Irredeemable regret is a powerful motivator for self-discovery and changing life course. More than just learning from the past or setting new goals for a future that may never arrive, we focus our being on broadening and expanding the experience of being alive in the here and now. For some of us, this may cause a radical reorientation to the existing routines and patterns that coalesce in a lifestyle. It may significant career shift toward work that carries innate meaning and purpose, even if that means a reduced income. The second half of life has a way of clarifying the misguided nature of our obsession with progress, success, power, and wealth.
Aging imposes genuine hardship and irrevocable suffering in the second half of life. We choose how to orient ourselves to it. We can turn aging into an enemy that we must do battle with, which we are destined to lose. We can also turn body, mind, and spirit directly into the full force of our impermanence with the intention of seeking greater depth and breadth of experience. In this sense, even pain, hardship and suffering, although unwelcome, become a source of insight.
In the end, what we want in the second half of life is the authentic experience of being alive permeated with inherent meaning, purpose, and belonging. An important challenge is to harvest past experiences, deepen self-knowledge, and endure the struggle to create new possibilities and potential. However, past experience is not enough. Transformative encounters demand exposure to the creative potential within uncertainty, risk, and adversity. In this sense, the second half of life is not an imposed pattern of living that happens to us because we are getting old, it is a creative journey toward greater depth of meaning, purpose, and contribution.