Our journey through the first half of life is a familiar one; we experience childhood, go to school, make friends, find a partner, create a family, build a career, accumulate property, establish financial stability, and make a contribution to society. Although each one of us will negotiate this process on our own terms, the general structure and foundation for the first half of life are firmly established.
Somewhere in midlife, we begin to feel the allurement of a different journey. During the first half of life, we pursue our ambitions in the external world of culture and society in order to build material security. As aging progresses and the voice of midlife begins to whisper to us from an unseen place, our attention is compelled to turn inward. It is here that a new and unfamiliar terrain begins to appear on the horizon, and we stand on the threshold of the second half of life.
The physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual terrain that emerges during the second half of life transforms the felt-meaning of life. It is a mysterious terrain that seems to lack a familiar structure. The foundation feels more uncertain here. The skills, attitudes, and knowledge that we developed in the first half of life provide little assistance here. And we turn and walk toward a new and distant horizon.
…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
Our journey through the second half of life requires new attitudes, skills, knowledge, tools, disciplines, and practices.
Midlife: Walking into the Second Half of Life
Of course, dividing our lifetime into two chronological parts is arbitrary. The division has less to do with age than it does with a fundamental shift in the felt-meaning of our lives. Further, it is impossible to know the precise age that will turn out to be the chronological halfway point between our birth and our death.
Here lies the frontier of youth and age. Some cross it at the age of forty or even sooner, and some do not notice it until late in their fifties or sixties.
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
The period of time we call midlife is elusive. Instead of thinking about an age, it may be more convenient to think about the transition in midlife to be an age range of say 40 to 60. The age of forty is quite close to the halfway point in life expectancy statistics. The age of 60 is close to the outer reaches of human longevity. Perhaps it is even possible that some people never really leave midlife behind.
Generally speaking, midlife is an unsettled period of transition between the first and second half of life. It is an essential and sometimes dramatic period of internal change. The innate wisdom of our own body captures our attention and invites us to consider the natural changes taking place. Midlife ushers in an intimate and deeply personal conversation about the nature of time. The rhythm of our life changes.
Midlife emerges deep within the language of the body and introduces itself by mindfulness. This does not mean we become selfish or self-centered. However, the nature and essence of our ambition shifts away from external success to an inner quest for authenticity, identity, meaning, and purpose.
A midlife crisis can agitate desperate and painful attempts to live in the past. It is a denial of the natural and normal experience of aging, or more specifically, becoming old. The interior landscape that begins to reveal itself in midlife is unfamiliar and strange. It can become a source of fear, anxiety, and depression that causes undesirable behavior. The crisis can only be resolved through complete acceptance of a painful truth from which there is no retreat.
Midlife is a universal rite of passage that causes an internal crisis of identity. The worldly acquisitions and ambitions we pursued in the first half of life offer no solace or sanctuary from our emerging inner dilemma.
Midlife is a life-changing rite of passage. In midlife, we stand on the threshold of irrevocable change and transformation that acts as a harbinger of the second half of life. It is a primary spiritual gateway in our existence, and we can choose to walk through it – or not.
Retirement: Re-imagining Our Life
In its weakest sense, retirement is a form of withdrawal from the outer world of economic survival, relief from the requirement of having to earn an income, and a reward for our contribution to society. Today, the basic assumptions about retirement are rapidly changing, largely due to the economic turmoil of the past decade. The idea of leaving work to pursue a life of leisure has already become obsolete.
The key question about retirement is not about what we are retiring from; it is about creating the kind of life we wish to retire into.
In a powerful sense, retirement is a debut, and an invitation to pursue our vocation in life. It ignites an inner quest for meaning, authenticity, and belonging. Though we might be retreating or moving away from the requirements of work, we also move into a terrain rich in new possibilities and opportunities.
One noticeable effect of retirement is a change in our perception of time. A large part of the first half of life is regulated by a mechanical clock-driven orientation to time. One of the “shocks” to our system in retirement is the re-emergence of the biological feeling of time.
The nature and feeling of time in retirement changes. We begin to embrace a more natural and biological feeling of time, and simultaneously begin to shed our mechanistic clock-driven orientation to time. We are no longer “in time” the way we used to be. We begin walking to a new rhythm in life that originates deep within the clay of our own body.
The Past: A Growing Expanse of Memories
The second half of life provides a unique vantage point to reflect upon our life. When we feel an intuitive sense of being “halfway,” we might also feel the poignant touch of lost time. That is, we become more acutely aware of the parts of ourselves that have been abandoned, exiled, and sacrificed along the way.
These unlived aspects of our lives can sometimes become painfully apparent in the second half of life.
Our past is always expanding; our 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 stuck with the uncomfortable feeling that our time is running out or being frittered away. We may be struck dumbfounded that the things we once found to be fulfilling and important have now become dry and brittle.
The past is sometimes an inhospitable presence. As we get older, we become more intimate with the idea that time can be wasted, lost, and never recovered. This can cause a sense of underlying grief expressed as, “I wish I had of,” or “If l only I had of.”
We do not need to regret or harbor a sense of loss about the past in order to feel a dramatic change in the felt-meaning of time. Even if we are completely satisfied with our past life experiences, the physiology of our internal biological clocks will start a primal conversation deep within.
A core discipline in the second half of life is to harvest our past experiences in order to create new possibilities, opportunities and potential in the second half of life.
The Future: Time is Running Out
When we sense we are firmly within the second half of life, we realize that the potential time in the future is in decline. This can be a startling realization since we often live our lives as if we had all the time in the world. The shadow of dying and death begins to capture our attention in profound and important ways.
A dramatic change in our awareness occurs when time becomes less about how long we have lived (our age as an accumulation of years) and more about how long we have left to live (our age as a probable number of years we can expect to live). The effect of this realization can be quite dramatic and unsettling; as our chronological age increases or life expectancy decreases. Perhaps this is the underlying ground behind the phrase, “time is running out.”
As our time here runs out, the natural decline of the body due to aging becomes a living and intimate reality. Our mobility begins to decline, and our ability to move out into the world is decreased. At birth, we were dependent on the love, care and support of others, and it is possible that our disappearance from the world will end in a similar form of dependence.
As we get older and enter into the autumnal phase of life, it is essential to begin the essential and deeply spiritual work of the inner harvest. As our future contracts and the approach of our own end becomes more visible, we realize that we are all ancestors in training.
Creating the Second Half of Life
A transformation is upon us. It is time to fully embrace the profound terrain we find ourselves on during the second half of life – or not. The choice is always ours to make.
We are in desperate need of a new vision for the second half of life, a vision that serves aging boomers in very concrete and practical ways, as well as inspires guidelines for new social policies and cultural development.
The time has arrived for us to courageously step into the crucible of our fears and create a bolder vision for aging. It is time to inspire a massive cultural shift. If we want to flourish in the second half of life, we must revitalize our knowledge, skills, and attitudes.
My work here is a contribution to the improvement of the second half of life. It is intended to be a source of inspiration and repository of ideas for a personal and collective transformation in our attitudes, beliefs, and approaches to aging.
May our collective attempts to improve the experience and legacy of elderhood help to make the world a better place.