Now that I have reached a certain age, it is fascinating to see how others of a similar age live their lives. It is as though we journey on two different planets.
All of us start life in the all-encompassing grasp of parents who we believe have the magical power to meet our every need. They choreograph the dance of childhood and most of the moves of adolescence. Eventually, however, we make the awful discovery that their choreography is all wrong for our lives. That is when we figuratively and literally leave home and enter the first adulthood.
The first adulthood is defined by the big three – jobs, marriage, and the cultural expectations of our age. Equally powerful are the unrealized dreams of our parents. Somewhere in childhood we came to believe it is our responsibility to fulfill their unfulfilled dreams, and it becomes a subconscious focus of our first adulthood. That is why one of the most important gifts a parent can give their child is to live as fully as possible, so the child does not feel the need to complete their unfinished business.
Eventually most of us reach the stage in which the first adulthood is providing diminishing returns. We are tired of living our parents dreams and answering the demands of our culture, and we move to our second adulthood, in which we are less concerned about resume virtues and more focused on eulogy virtues. We have fewer friends, but deeper friendships. We no longer look outside ourselves for our sense of identity but look inside our own souls, never an easy task because it involves moving beyond our objecting egos. Our ego is concerned about keeping up appearances. Our soul is interested in the ride. Our soul understands what it means to live wholeheartedly.
Some people enter their second adulthood in their forties. Most begin in their fifties or sixties. Interestingly, the most productive decade for most Americans is their sixties; the second most productive is their seventies. (In case you are wondering, the third is the fifties.) All three come during our second adulthood, when we finally give ourselves permission to live wholeheartedly, seeking to satisfy the needs of our own souls.
Which brings me back to people who are my age. Many are bitter, grumpy, and perpetually annoyed. Life has not lived up to their expectations and they want the world to know it. I remember an elderly man on Long Island who painted on his truck door, “The Golden Years Stink.” A lot of folks share his sentiment, if not his hubris.
In my experience, many of these bitter senior citizens became trapped in their first adulthood, fulfilling the dreams of their parents, their culture, and the other external forces that demanded fealty. They became so fixated on safety and security that life passed them by. And now it is finally dawning on them that the most secure place on earth is a cemetery. In the interest of safety, they have lived a life that was never truly their own.
If they are religious types, they are often trapped in Fowler’s Stage Three of faith development, following the rules and regulations demanded by an angry God, never moving on to the necessary work of spiritual disenchantment. Unfortunately, if you refuse to do the hard work of disenchantment, you will also miss the joy of faith’s re-enchantment, as you embrace an understanding of the holy and sacred that is far wider and deeper than anything you imagined. A re-enchanted faith is what Mary Oliver expressed in her poem, The Summer Day. Its final line is a testament to living wholeheartedly: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
My life is not easy. I know, yours isn’t either. Life is difficult for all of us, whether you embrace the second adulthood or not. As I have acknowledged before, I am currently going through a rough patch. It is the third time that has happened since my transition. This period of difficulty is a reminder that taking the road less traveled by will always include stretches of road filled with fallen branches and stones.
But if you live wholeheartedly and dare to believe that the call toward authenticity is sacred, and holy, and for the greater good, you know that despite your suffering, you have no choice but to move forward, one step at a time, though the desert. It is the only path to wisdom.
I am glad I live a life that has more in common with my friends in their 40s and 50s than with Baby Boomers. The last decade was by far the most productive of my life, and I fully expect the coming decade to be just as productive.
Life is difficult. But if you live wholeheartedly, life is also full of joy. To be sure, we have to travel through the road of trials to get there, but if we have eyes to see, joy is always waiting, just around the bend.