In daily emails since Christmas Fr. Richard Rohr has been writing about the second half of life, so I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic. It seems to me that the first half of life is about building a strong ego: establishing who you are, defining your career, gathering a partner and friends to travel with, just to name a few goals of the first half of life. In pursuing these goals we depend on what we have been taught by our families, mentors and teachers about how life works. We follow this cultural model as long as it works; usually it begins to break down and cease to satisfy us sometime in mid-life.
The problem with the model we follow, often blindly, is that it was developed by other people with an ideal person, in this case an American, in mind. It is supposed to apply to everyone regardless of individual differences. As I look back at the last two decades the model held out to our children was this: if you do really well at school, go to the best university you can, obtain the best internship, get the best-paying job you can, buy the biggest house, you will be secure for the rest of your life. When the economy collapsed in 2008, I felt sorriest for the young people in high school and college who had done everything right, just what they were taught. The whole world had changed and no one had prepared them for the possibility of another kind of world where there would be no internships available, no jobs in many cases, no reward at all for playing the cultural game.
All of us have grown up like this, maybe with a slightly different model depending on the times; most of us have blindly followed the model. It’s as if we’ve gotten on the cultural train as children and we stay on the cultural train until it no longer works for us. I think of children who have been ill or suffered a parent’s death or had some other trauma that wrenched them off the train. They have to get off the track due to life’s circumstances. When they have recovered from the illness or death, they can get back on the track, but it will never again be with the blind obedience to the model. They will have an awareness that life is not all about the model, since they have experienced a sadder, more challenging alternative.
Mid-life is when the model breaks down for most of us. The stories of mid-life affairs or of a guy buying the sexiest sports car are typical responses to the breakdown of the model. Suddenly we realize that following the “rules” did not bring us satisfaction or fulfillment. In fact while following the model, we lost almost complete sight of ourselves. If we’re not spiritual or religious people we can look to satisfaction on the physical level—new partners, cars, and experiences.
To a religious person mid-life offers the opportunity to find out who we really are. Often this means that we turn inward to discover who we really are and there we also discover God, not the God defined by our church or culture, but the God of our own experience. It is through a deep relationship with God that we meet her. Our true selves, our souls, are the very thing that God created; he set into motion who we were meant to be; we have a purpose in God’s kingdom to fulfill.
It’s as if there are two people inside us—the one the culture created and the one that God created. If, and it’s a big IF, we can get over the hold that the culture has on us, then our lives open up in unexpected ways. For some people not one thing that you do would change, but you would do it in a new way: say with love and compassion. For others you might be fulfilling a long-dreamed-about change: a whole new profession you never dared believe you could do. For others there might be a combination of the two, where you continue the same work in an expanded way.
How would you choose to live? Would you be willing to give up the false self created by the culture in favor of your soul? That’s the decision to be made as the model breaks down during mid-life and doesn’t yield the rewards we expected from being true to the model. I don’t think we can implement this change on our own. I don’t think we can see ourselves well enough to see all that needs to be done and when. We can certainly change some of our behaviors on our own: diet, add in exercise or quit smoking. We can work by ourselves on being more generous or kinder. But the wholesale leaving behind of our false self takes divine intervention and healing.
Try some of these methods if you’re at the point in your life when you want to live a deeper, more fulfilling life: pray for guidance; set your intention to follow your own path no matter what; be still and listen to God; bring your forgotten or unrealized dreams into focus and lift them up to the Lord; open yourself up, drop the cultural expectations, look for new and interesting, resonant signs; ask yourself in any decision “what do I really want to do?” Begin a dialogue with God about what he/she sees in you, what goals she would like to set with you and for you.
Take God into all parts of your life and listen to him everywhere. Gradually, eventually, these efforts will reveal a direction for you that is true to your deepest self. As you proceed along this path, God’s presence will sustain you even when you worry or doubt or meet unexpected challenges. You will begin to revel in the fulfilling of your deepest desires. You will find footholds in the most surprising ways. Life becomes an adventure to live rather than an experience to be endured.