based on Brennan, A. & Brewi, J. Passion for Life, 1999 Continuum
Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life for which the first was made.
Our times are in his hand
Who saith, “A whole I planned;
Youth shows but half. Trust God; see all, nor
Robert Browning, “Rabbi ben Ezra”
Youth may be a gift of nature, but age is a work of art. (46)
Brenna and Brewi are two nuns who have been offering workshops on ageing for several decades. This book is a product of their insights into ageing as a spiritual discipline. They too refer to a first and a second half of life. I have tried to provide an accurate summary of their thought (the number in brackets refer to pages in their book), along with some suggestions for further work.
Second half of life – a new generativity:
Life’s second half is a wake-up time. An unexplored inner and outer world awaits us and demands our attention. These are the years for the exploration of our inner space. These are the years for reclaiming lost, unknown, unused, unconscious aspects of myself. (p. 9)
Interestingly, our psyches have not kept up with our increased longevity, and we continue to harbour the belief deep down that life ends around 50… It’s no wonder that so many people encounter a depression as they reach middle age. Our psyches have not yet adjusted to the fact that we still have a whole second half of life to live. (87)
This ending of life’s first half is an invitation to a new “generativity,” a time for the new awakening, a passion for life, human and divine. (9) Childhood, youth and young adulthood are for ego development; our mature years are for the development of the Self – our “soul,” the divine spark within. (30)
We do not “dry up” as we get older; our unconscious personality is a creative bed of new life. Breakthroughs to this unconscious treasure are possible at any phase of our ageing, including illness and dying. It is untrue that our personality is fixed – “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is simply a lie. Change and development, refining and enlargement of the personality, as well as emergence of dormant potentials can go on through the whole life span. (9) Every loss in middle or later adulthood can serve to cause us to reach within, to tap inner resources, to awaken sleeping potentials, to liberate unconscious, dormant dimensions of the Self and to enrich oneself and the world. (13) When we start on the journey specific to the second half of life, we discover more potential or personal and spiritual development than we could have ever imagined. Often our greatest accomplishments come in the second half of life. (21)
People often say they do not feel their age, but still think they’re late teens, or twenties or early thirties… The truth is that our soul is always young! (20) Our soul can soar at any time, as it never did in childhood or youth, giving us an openness, a vitality, an eagerness for life, even a childlike contentment and creativity beautiful to behold. In fact, maturation can so enliven the spirit that even in times of physical deterioration (“passivities of diminishment,” Teilhard de Chardin would say), the spirit, free at last of neurotic compulsions or clinging materialism, can give witness to a blessed solidarity with self, others and nature, all shot through with grace and spirit. (19-20)
Ageing is not something that simply happens to us; ageing is an opportunity to live our unique life to the fullest. (10) As one poet in her later years speaks of “holding, twisting, turning each new day until I find the magic in it.” (15)
- How have you experienced your own ageing so far – a new adventure or a gradual and unpleasant decline?
- Do you find yourself “undergoing” ageing, or are you taking charge of your spiritual growth in your ageing?
- What would need to change in your attitude for you to experience the rest of your years growthful?
Generativity for the sake of our culture:
And we do not do this simply for ourselves. 75% of all humans who have ever lived longer than 65 live right now! (19) This statistic alone points to a unique opportunity in our culture. (30) People in their seventies, eighties and nineties make significant, and often new contributions to their culture. In fact, the unique contribution to every culture of the elderly is their wisdom! In fact, long life provides opportunities for maturation and blossoming rarely possible in earlier times. Long life is for wholeness, personality development, growth in consciousness and individuation, for ourselves as well as for our culture. (20)
With few exceptions – and often remarkable ones – our civilizations have evolved without the benefit of the wisdom of age. People simply died too young. It is absolutely crucial to the survival of the human race that the members of this growing ageing population become all they can become. As Betty Friedan put it in The Fountain of Age, “we are not the problem, we are the solution.” (46-7)
- Do you see yourself serving your culture – community, city, extended family, church congregation – with what you are learning in your second half of life?
- Do you see yourself as part of the problem of this society, or part of the solution?
Second half of life is for Soul-making:
Even the unavoidable disintegration and diminishments of ageing and dying are rich with developmental possibilities. (20)
If the first half of life is about the development of Ego – success, accomplishments, competing and winning, status, possessions – the second half of life is about the Self – our connection to what is innermost about ourselves, our connection to the Divine, as well as our connection to all of humanity through the Collective Unconscious and its archetypes. It is our Soul who asserts, in Browning’s poem that “the best is yet to be.” (31)
How might this be “the best,” when our strength diminishes, we are more likely than not in pain, and our age shows everywhere? This is because the second half of life is about a marriage. It is about the acknowledgement, reconciliation and union of opposites within us; it’s about becoming whole. This marriage calls for the acceptance and integration of the diverse parts of myself. Jung called this “individuation,” i.e., becoming who you are called to be in your radical uniqueness, with your unique biography, your unique experiences, your unique flaws and failures. (31) In our Christian tradition, this is the equivalent of Irenaeus’ famous line: “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.”
In essence, it is our Self that leads us in the second half of life. “The Greater Self has been involved in engineering the ego development of life’s first half, perhaps unbeknown to you. But this is the time the Self has been waiting for, for the marriage feast, ‘the best is yet to be’…” (31)
Thus, contrary to the values of the dominant culture. Midlife and old age are not just a “sorry appendage” to youth, but they are the very reason for childhood and youth. These exist for the sole purpose of the “Soul-making” that occurs in the second half! (32)
Jung maintains that in the transition to the second half of life, a great deal of psychic energy is being given over to the unconscious self which is being readied to emerge. (38)
- Have you managed to figure out yet what is making you a unique gift to your family, to society, to this world?
- In what ways are you actively trying to develop this unique gift at this time in your life?
Human life as a process of growth:
The human being, from birth to death, evolves through a series of stages of growth. These have been well-documented (see Erik Erikson, Erik Keagan, among others).
In the first half of life, we are moulded by our external environment – parents, teachers, church, work environments, family, friends, etc. By the end of the first half, the outside world steps back, as it were (or we step back from it!) because our ego development is done and we usually have a secure sense of ourselves. (37)
In the second half of life, the primary influence on our personality and character growth comes from within, from our psyche, our own Soul, our inner depths. Growth comes from our unconscious Self, that unknown, untaped, dormant Self. (37) What lay dormant begins to affirm itself; what was within untapped begins to seduce, to call, to demand its time. When the time is ripe, the Self unseats the ego and takes the lead. (38)
- How much time do you spend, during this second half of life, looking inwards for your strength?
- In what ways have you experienced the shift from “Ego” (that part of me which helps me plan, create goals, have ambition, compete to win, judges situations in terms of how they might affect me) to “Self” (the Divine part of me which allows me to love, to have empathy, to see the broad picture, to see how I fit in to the world)
Grow or whither:
What happens in the transition to the second half is that the energy and vitality associated with the tasks of the first half move away from what were the meanings, values and goals that got us where we are, so that new parts of our personality, dormant until now, can begin to emerge. (39) For many people, this “deadness” seems like a death. In fact, it is preparation for a new birth. One is often filled with dread, or even with disgust over choices made, paths chosen. Life feels “cancelled,” or at least closed for repairs or major alterations. (40) Feelings of boredom, lethargy, apathy, or disillusionment, anger, resentment and regret often accompany this period of transition. (42)
On the other side, when we persist, is often the sense that we are, finally, or once again, where we are supposed to be. And it will be from this new birth that one will continue to grow even more into my Self, into the dream God has for us. (40)
Alternatively, we can refuse to grow: we ignore the feelings of discomfort and keep on keeping on. We just dig in. In the end, because we are no longer living out of inner energy, we stagnate and whither: we die at fifty, but don’t get buried until eighty. (40)
We can also regress. While we all need to keep the Inner Child for its energy and curiosity and enthusiasm, we are not meant to regress to childhood or to adolescence, or to young adulthood. People who regress do not move on. They get stuck. Like the biblical pillars of salt, they looked back to the good old days and got stuck in their belief that therein lay all the answers. They become stuck in their routines. They refuse to explore. Their motto is almost “I never did it before and I’m not about to start now.” (49)
- Do you find yourself mostly looking back on things that have happened, or do you still look forward to new things?
- How have you grown so far in this second half of life?
- How do you plan to keep growing?
The value of our uniqueness:
We return to the concept of “individuation.” Society has spent most of our lifetime trying to make us conform, to not stick out, to be the right cog in the mechanism. In the second half of life our uniqueness cries out to be recognized, acknowledged and acted upon. (50) Think of the Red Hat Society: when I am old, I will wear a red hat with a purple dress…
There is no time when God is finished with me. I do not know yet what I will look like when I manage to actualize all the parts of me that I have neglected all these years as I was trying to live within society and make a success of myself. But I know that I will look unique because I am unique, and the world needs the contribution that only I can make. (50)
We starve for the archetypal truth: each of us in the only one. There is only one of each of us. I am irreplaceable. I am a unique creation. I am a unique image of God, a unique expression of the Divine. Each of our lives speaks a word about God that has never before been spoken nor will ever again be spoken. (55,7)
- In what ways do you think God is still not done with you?
- In what ways might you still grow to be the unique person God has created you to be?
The soul is always young:
We noted earlier that we often feel much younger than we are. There is a school of thought that maintains that the soul is essentially ageless, and is a constant source of abundant life, even while the body is showing signs of ageing and diminishment. (62)
Some people note that, even as they get older, they like themselves more, they find themselves more spontaneous, more daring, more effective. Free of self-doubt and second-guessing, we’re more able to be fully present, as a whole person, to the other. This ageless sense of the soul is what allows us to live as if we will never die, yet being fully aware of our mortality. (63)
The soul is always young, creating and re-creating, even out of pain and loss. (65)
- How old do you intuitively think you still are?
- Can you imagine that your deepest Soul is ageless? If you were to truly live this truth out, what difference would it make to the way in which you live?
Insights for long life:
The secret of living in the second half of life is to take the “long” view of things: when things are tough, we remember that we experienced better, and chances are the good times will return in some form or another. The “long” view also includes the conviction that somehow our Soul will figure out how to turn the situation into something growthful. (68) The Soul recycles everything as it recreates. No pain, no diminishment, failure, loss, or sorrow is cast off. Everything is used in the spinning of a new being, ever born anew. (70)
This “long view is the sense of history, of my life as a whole. There is a “narrative logic” to each of our lives, and one of our tasks is to piece that logic together.
- Have you spent any time trying to put together the narrative of your life?
- Have you been able to see how pieces of your life – both good and bad – have fit together into some kind of logical whole that is you?
The role of the unconscious:
The idea that we each harbour unconscious aspects of ourselves is pretty widely accepted. Some call it the “Shadow,” others simply the personal unconscious. Jung went even further and his years of listening to patients and researching world mythologies brought him to believe that we all share in a “collective unconscious” that also has an effect on us.
Our psyche has been housing all the repressed aspects of ourselves – parts of ourselves we came to believe we ought not to share with others if we wanted them to love us. Sometimes, parts of this unconscious make us act in ways the others – and we – find strange and “out of character.” (71)
One of our main tasks in the second half of life is to “befriend” our Shadow – to acknowledge and honour all those parts of us that we have repressed, put out of sight. If we don’t aspects of our Shadow are likely to get us to do stuff we will regret. We can be sure that the education the unconscious can give us will keep us busy and fascinated for all of life’s second half. This education does, however, come at a price… (71)
If we do this, our unconscious can enrich our lives by helping us complete ourselves with neglected parts of who we actually are. (74)
- Are there still parts of you that you are ashamed of? That sometimes have control over you?
- What might you look like if you were able to “befriend” (not give in to, not ignore, not fight) those aspects of you you are embarrassed about?
- What positive energies might be concealed in these shadow aspects of yourself?
The collective unconscious:
There is part of our psyche that we have inherited – like a psychic DNA – from our ancestors. This is the collective unconscious. This is the creative ferment filled with the seeds of human possibilities, potentials and archetypal motifs. Jung maintained that all growth comes from the unconscious in the second half of life. (75)
Soul-making: making a whole person:
We become whole persons only by exploring and integrating our Shadow side. Soul-making in the second half of life requires a great expansion of mind and heart, possible only through befriending those aspects of ourselves we have repressed, ignored, neglected. (79)
The becoming of the Self demands that the unconscious energies become conscious in some way and interact with the Ego in a transformation to the greater self. (80) Wholeness requires dealing with mystery, paradox, uncertainty, suffering, and contradiction. There is no easy way to wholeness.
It is usually in the best interest of the Self to bear the tensions of opposing values as a means toward the transformation of the Self. (80)
- Can you imagine a process for yourself whereby you might explore – with a skilled companion – your shadow side?
- Can you imagine what it might feel like to be a more whole person?
The Shadow as gold:
Paying attention to our perplexing behaviours can often provide us with clues as to what aspect of our repressed Shadow is affecting us. Spending time to observe ourselves compassionately can often help us figure out what these repressed aspects of ourselves are trying to tell us about ourselves. When a shadow personality awakens is us we can collapse our ego and live it out, or we can hold on till we find the gold in that shadow. (89) Very often the shadow is some neglected power, value, or virtue that, if we befriend, can be the source of energy for new life, new creative ventures of some sort. (98)
One of the most common and significant aspects of our Shadow is our Inner Child, aspects of ourselves we have buried because they were no longer deemed acceptable. The archetypal Child in each of us us part of the collective unconscious. The inner Child is the psychic power and potential to be like a child: open to the new, adventurous, hopeful, playful, energetic; open to imagination and fantasy, etc. These are all wonderful qualities than can come alive in us in our later years. We can call upon our archetypal inner Child to bring new life to us and to use our great powers of imagination and fantasy. (102)
Typically, in terms of Myers-Briggs, the second half of life is an opportunity to explore and develop our non-dominant characteristics in order to be a more whole person. (134) If I risk exploring this non-dominant side, I will mellow, become more integrated. I will stay dynamic, alive, curious and passionate about life. I will not be so one-sided and I will become less judgmental. Most of all, I will have a whole world to explore that was closed to me because of my exclusive use of my dominant side. (136)
We must each hold on to what we are passionate about. There is life in abundance. We need to reverence our unconscious in all its manifestations. We need to reverence our shadow side, as the seeds of new growth and new beginnings; to accept the invitation to “grow old along with me!” and to “see all and be not afraid” (103)
- How much have you allowed yourself to explore your “inner Child”?
- What might be the result if you were able to let your inner Child into your life? What kinds of things might you find yourself doing or exploring?
A time to gather our story:
In the second half of life it is important to piece together the narrative of our lives. Through reflection, journalling, conversation, and storytelling we can gather together the chapters of our lives. (106) It is a time to own our story. (107) We ponder questions about events of our own story. What caused this to happen? What were the implications? (111) We look back at our history, as a historian, and gain a new, more genuine and wholistic perspective of the days of our lives. (115)
With the perspective of older age, and with a deeper understanding of the role of Self, we can begin to see how the Self has orchestrated the events of our lives. Even our mistakes are mysteriously woven into the process of our becoming more whole. (116) As we rework our story and re-member it, we often discover unfinished business back there, influencing our present. (117)
In Erikson’s language, the last chapter of our story is the story of the struggle between integrity and despair. We must know ourselves in the hands of the Beloved and the sense of Self must be strong. If not, we will succumb to despair as we begin to experience some of the terrible losses often experienced in the ageing process. (109)
The Eriksons suggest that the virtue of Care is acquired in adulthood by bearing the tension between generativity and stagnation. (126) If stagnation is used properly, it can become contemplation. Living th second half of life is living it contemplatively. We need to be in closer contact with the Mystery deep down things. (120) We move beyond stagnation when we frequently risk using parts of ourselves with which we have no expertise. We allow ourselves to make the mistakes of a learner. We often have to fight our Ego, which wants to keep us within our comfort zone. We call upon our Inner Child to help us enjoy the exploration of something new. (137)
Generativity is concerned about the next generations. Our task at this point in our life is to pass on. This our society needs. (130) Generativity is enriching the future while we are still here. Elders in traditional cultures played the role of keepers and teachers of the tradition. Elders have had that special ability to make nonmaterial reality come alive for the young. (131)
- To what extent have you explored your non-dominant traits – Introversion or Extraversion; Intuition or Sensing; Thinking or Feeling (If these are foreign terms, you might wish to take a quick test on line at the Myrs-Briggs website. (There is a small fee))
- To what extent have you intentionally worked at passing on your wisdom to the next generation? What do you think you might have that is unique that you can offer?
- To what extent have you thought of passing on the core of your Faith to your children’s children?
The Spirit of Wisdom:
While the young might not realize it, what each new generation needs is the wisdom of its elders. At some point in our healthy ageing, the Wise Old Man and the Wise Old Woman archetypes appear. They provide great insights into how things move people. It is in the end the Spirit of Wisdom (ruach, the Spirit of God) that guides us to and through our unique role in the intricate web of the whole human story and project. (155)