Paying Attention Bill McDonald’s
March 2014 - Volume 14, No. 3
The Second Half of Life
The cry for life.
The secret hunger from within so many who seek mental health services is a cry for life. I find this in almost every individual or couple who walks through my office door. From the person suffering depression or anxiety, to the individual with a ‘personality dysfunction,’ to those with life-altering trauma, to the couple wrestling with betrayal or addiction, to the ‘ordinary person’ who simply hungers from the emptiness of wanting ‘something more.’
As I’ve written before, it seems that life is always hungry for life. So it is for those of us born to eventually die. As an old African proverb puts it:
“When death comes knocking at your door, make sure it finds you alive.”
The first and second halves of life
Another pattern I see differentiates that search for life into two varyingly distinct time periods - the first and the second half of life.
The ‘timing’ of this transition generally takes place around the “mid-life” ages of 40 or 50 - very common ages of folks seeking out my services. And yet this same transition phenomenon can be present in the maturation struggles of those in varying biological ages. As in a Neil Diamond lyric “Some people never see the light until the day they die.” Or there’s the uncanny calmness of young people who know they are dying.
In the first half we’re often busy getting things together. We wrestle to find an economic place in the world, to form and grow a family, to choose an occupation or area of functional expertise by which the world can know who we are and where we belong in it. And we often come to terms with our necessary limitations.
Often a radical shift
The second half of life can become a very different time. Sometimes it’s almost the opposite of its predecessor. I often share this quote from Carl G Jung:
“In the second half of life the necessity is imposed of recognizing no longer the validity of our former ideals but of their contraries. Of perceiving the error in what was previously our conviction, of sensing the untruth in what was our truth, and of weighing the degree of opposition, and even of hostility, in what we took to be love.”
The radical shifts to which these words ascribe often come as a lightning bolt of recognition, giving permission to look more deeply into current experience and the meaning of life.
Here are some examples:
In the first half of life we may acquire wealth, whether it be economic or skills or knowledge or position. In the second half of life we consciously plan and decide how to give it all away.
In the first half of life we’re often raising a family, preparing our children for their place in the larger world. When our primary work as parents is accomplished, as individuals or as a couple we are faced with a freedom to more fully consider our purpose or place in the larger world.
In fact, the word “purpose” now edges into the forefront of our consciousness with a new urgency. Many at mid-life become aware (and/or terrified) that they are slowly dying. We all know the term “mid-life crisis.” We’re “over the hill” and our own death begins to emerge on the horizon. The constant desire for life can shift from being just a trusted companion to a terrifying specter. The ancient and ambivalent wisdom of memento mori (Latin ‘remember that you will die’) emerges.
As a therapist or analyst, one of my gifts is to carry a deep trust in this ‘second half.’I’ll often remind (or be the first to announce) that life in so many ways gets better - in spite of our experience of a downturn in many important functions. Yet the world becomes a richer place, and our affection for the world and others blossoms. The ability to care for others enriches us. Relationships improve. Sex can get much better (this gets them listening!). We gain opportunity for a greater self-awareness and personal growth. We become able to make greater use of our inner resources - both those that seem inborn and those we’ve developed over time.
Now bear in mind that I personally am well on into my own second half of life - so claim a particular authority in the matter. I’ll often comment that the older we get, the fewer rules we have to live by. Older folks are generally happier folks (though sadly there are frequent exceptions).
A favorite quote is from the movie Zorba the Greek (1964). Zorba, as played by Anthony Quinn, is an excellent icon of the second half of life:
“Life is trouble, only death is not. To be alive is to undo your belt and look for trouble.”
Yes, there is often trouble in the first half of life, but it’s not that ‘full of life’ variety Zorba celebrates. And when all else fails, he dances.
I’m personally a man of many books - having collected and read (definitely not all of them) hundreds over the years - many of them true friends and treasures. As I look at them all now, I’m aware that if I were to read many of them again, at my age, I’ll experience them quite differently, probably enjoy them even more, and be fed by them even more deeply. Also there are many now ready to be quickly discarded. This is true far beyond just my library.
There is a life-in-the-face-of-death that emerges as one of the great secrets of life. It’s no longer that we are jealous to acquire life. We’re more jealous to drink more deeply, in order to give it all away. And giving away is a high, a joy not as evident in the first half of life.
A cultural meta-comment
One great sadness for me is that our larger culture is becoming again more callous to the needs and vulnerability especially of the aged of the second half. As we of the second half have more to give, we also more greatly need the support of a mature “social contract.” We’re no longer the rugged individualists, but the feeders of community. And we need the care of others as well.
We’re not as self-sufficient, nor do we wish to be. We need a larger world to care for us - especially in terms of our economic and well-being needs. In a world where capital rules, we instead become superfluous. Like Dickens’ Scrooge, we best die, and “decrease the excess population.”
However, the larger story of Ebenezer Scrooge is itself a transition story into a richer second half of life. It was Tiny Tim’s "God bless us, everyone!" that best represented old Schrooge’s own accomplished change of heart.
Afternote:I’m aware that for many readers these words will not ring true, or their own truth will take a different pattern. I wish no inference that they are in any ways wrong. Rather I wish to bear witness to a pattern that has become apparent and significant in my own life and work - and hope by bearing witness to it, the life of others may be enriched.Bill McD