Some of you may remember Jack LaLanne, whose exercise show on daytime TV was helping people stay fit long before anyone had ever heard of Richard Simmons. (he’s still at it, at the age of 90).
For many years, he has been in the habit of celebrating his birthday by doing some amazing physical feat, like swimming across San Francisco Bay with his hands and feet tied, pulling a boat with his teeth.
I’m not quite that athletic, but I do like the idea of marking a milestone occasion in a way that is personally meaningful.
This year I decided to celebrate my sixtieth birthday by attending a workshop in Chicago entitled, “ The Second Half of Life: The Best is Yet to Be,” led by a teacher of mine, William Bridges.
Are there colleges for forty-year-olds which prepare us for our coming life and its demands, as ordinary colleges introduce our young people to a knowledge of the world and of life? No, there are none. Thoroughly unprepared, we take the step into the afternoon of life; worse still, we take this step with the false presupposition that our truths and ideals will serve us as hitherto. But we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the programme of life’s morning.
Most of us, whether we’re 30-, 40-, or 50-somethings, aren’t too happy about birthdays. Once you reach 60, maintaining a productive attitude becomes even more challenging, especially since our culture defines only one major task for this “middle of middle age”: retirement, or at least getting ready for it.
Hindu culture, on the other hand, recognizes a clear distinction between what Carl Jung calls the morning and the afternoon of life.
After the birth of a first grandchild, the Hindu may enter an ashram in the forest where old identities are stripped away, and then, after a period of retreat, begin a time of wandering in search of a new life.
In our culture, we’re more likely to hit a wall than to wander.
The American way allows no time or space for transition. We rarely if ever ease into anything. The notion of pause, of consciously entering into a period of non-doing while we wait to see what the future has in store, is foreign to us. That’s not how we cope with change.
For us, change comes with a bang, and we tend to do a lot of kicking and screaming over it. We label any unwanted life event, such as the end of a marriage, the loss of a job, a serious illness, etc. as a crisis, and we often overlook the opportunity that lies within it.
Our way of responding to change may not be as gentle as the Hindus’, yet the chance for growth, development, and renewal is the same.
The Hindu wanderer knows the value of a period of transition. So does the retired executive who understands that the sense of “going flat and feeling dull is as much a prelude to a new time of excitement and meaning as it is a finale to whatever state is passing.” The difference between them is that by seeking a new perspective on the afternoon of life, the executive is swimming against the tide of American culture.
Jung has observed that the tools that serve us during the first half of life, like claiming our identity through roles and relationships and living up to external standards and values, are often not helpful later on. Without a conscious ending to the first half of life, followed by some form of wandering, there is a good chance that the second half of life will be a faded repetition of the first.
I see this happening here on Cape Cod, where I live, with retired “second half” executives who volunteer to sit on boards and town committees and sabotage collaboration by attempting to run the show the way they did when they were still working.
Because they never executed an internal ending as a prelude to retirement, they still feel the need to be “in charge”, and so they try to recreate as volunteers the power structure they had in their working lives.
On the other hand, among my colleagues as a volunteer mediator in small-claims court, there are several retired attorneys who’ve successfully made the transition from high-powered law practices to mediation, a role in which they’re required to remain absolutely neutral.
They’ve gone from one-sided client advocacy to a process where they’re not allowed to say who’s right and who’s wrong, and their function is not to win, but to empower all parties in a dispute to find their own resolution. For these former lawyers, it’s a whole new way of being in the legal world.
At the “Second Half” workshop Bill Bridges shared the stories of a number of famous and not-so-famous people whose willingness to wander, wait, and listen in the afternoon of life shaped a greater sense of purpose and a deeper sense of knowing who they were: the painter Auguste Renoir, who in his last hours, working with a paintbrush strapped to his hand because of debilitating arthritis, said, “I think I’m finally beginning to get this”; Welty Fisher who at the age of 72 founded a school to train people to teach Untouchables to read in India; Dr Benjamin Spock who left a very comfortable retirement to become a major voice in the protest movement against the war in Vietnam.
While these stories were moving, what I found most inspiring about the workshop was being in the presence of a man who, in the over-70 time of his life, continues to generously share, by word and example, his own wandering.
Witnessing Bill’s integrity, his commitment to “walking the walk”, made his teachings so much more accessible to me. I could touch them, rub them into my own life, and bring them home to share with others.
I realized that I had experienced this workshop on this deeper level because of two very different wandering experiences I had, one of them unsettling, the other joyful ( which is normal in the transition phase known as the Neutral Zone).
The first of these was the restless night on the return train trip during which I wrestled with an internal ending, described in last month’s column.
The second happened the day I was to leave Chicago. I was visiting Millennium Park on an unseasonably warm day in November, and I was struck by how much the people around me enjoying the sunshine reminded me of the painting, “A Sunday on La Grand Jatte” (made famous by the Stephen Sondheim musical, Sunday in the Park with George ) which I had just seen at the Art Institute of Chicago next door.
I walked up to the huge elliptical sculpture in the park, affectionately known to the locals as, “The Jelly Bean”, (its actual name is “Cloud Gate”, and it’s by the British artist Anish Kapoor) and I wished myself a Happy Second Half of Life.