I’ve found myself a number of times recently talking with folks about the spiritual work of the second half of life. That’s probably because I am well into my second half of life, and it is a topic that is of interest to me. It is a topic that pertains, as well, to a lot of my friends who may not even recognize that their days are engaged [infused] with a spiritual task.
I suspect some of us who are past 45 or 50, and a lot of us past 60, see the difference between what our lives were like as younger persons and now. Especially in our twenties and thirties most of us were busy establishing our adult identity, raising our families, and/or “making our mark” in the world. Because we are social animals, to do this well we had to learn how adults in our society function, what the rules and norms of the sub-groups of society to which we belonged were (including any religious groups with which we might be affiliated), and incorporate those into how we engage with Life.
While this may not seem very spiritual, it is the foundational work that must be accomplished before we can be led by God ... the Spirit ... the Mystery into spiritual depth. In the same way that children who are given no limits when they are growing up often remain immature as adults, developing what Richard Rohr calls a “container” (our ego) provides us with the framework wherein we can mature spiritually. Notice I am not referring to religion here, although the structures and definitions that come with religion certainly can be part of first part of life work.
While spiritual maturity is not age specific, it tends to follow a “letting go” that is neither sought nor created. The Christian image that mediates this most powerfully to us is Jesus on the cross. Life has a way of bringing it to each of us, whether in the form of failures or losses or simply the inescapable “letting go” that comes with aging. Women with normal biochemistry are given, bidden or unbidden, an incarnational experience of this “letting go” each month and more absolutely in menopause. And none of us escapes the ultimate “letting go” that comes as we die.
In first world cultures like ours where success is among the highest goods, “letting go” is typically seen as weak or irresponsible. We enculturate our boys, and increasingly our girls, to strive, compete, achieve. This is not a bad thing. It is the work of the first half of life. But we have no equally strong messages to guide us into the second half of life where striving, competing, and a focus on achieving hinder our spiritual development.
It had, at one point, seemed to me that ballroom dancing was an apt metaphor for the spiritual work of the first and second halves of life and the movement between them – at least for a woman. That may seem absurd, but bear with me. In the first half of the ballroom dancing life there must be the decision to abide by the norms of ballroom dancing. A dancer can’t just do any old thing and have it be ballroom dancing - the steps must be mastered and the body trained to be held just so. This takes a lot of time and commitment. At some point, one can be said to be a ballroom dancer.
The transition to the second half of ballroom dancing life, then, seemed to come with the willingness and ability to allow someone else to lead ... to giving over control and following as you are led. I’m not so sure that the metaphor holds at this point. “Letting go” in this spiritual work, remember, is not something sought or created. But the end result is the same – dancing in freedom and joy and trust.
So, if this “letting go” is not something sought or created, how do we get it/ do it? The short version is, it is a gift. We can only receive it. And I’m relatively sure that the more we recognize and reflect on our striving and grasping, the more we open ourselves to the potential of receiving that gift. If freedom and joy are the among the outcomes, it seems looking now and then at our lives in an honest and non-defensive way might be one of the most spiritually nourishing actions we can take.
Leigh Waggoner is rector of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Cortez.