Undoubtedly, the second half of life is different than the first half. Carl Jung, the cartographer of the journey we take in life, mapped this age by contrasting the first half of life as climbing the mountain and recognizing that the second half of life is more about the descent. The challenging question he raised was, “Where are the navigational charts for the descent … that will sustain a person in the afternoon and evening of life?”
At this mid-point in adulthood, a curiosity begins to take shape in the form of connecting the dots, as if life was a puzzle to be solved. This is the age where the seeds of the past are in a delicate dance with the seeds of the future. We have worked diligently in making something of ourselves, first in school, then in work. We have forged our most intimate relationships.
In Samuel’s second book, David had not yet announced who will succeed him. Ordinarily the eldest son would be the obvious heir apparent. But that’s not how it worked for him. Recall David was the youngest son of Jesse when Samuel came to anoint one of Jesse’s sons as the next king. David may have held open the idea God might choose among his many sons who would rule over Israel after his death. Since there had been no announcement of who had been chosen to succeed their father, all David’s sons jockeyed with one another over who would seize the throne when the time was right.
Among the sons and daughters of David we see all the excesses children of the monarchy are known to hold. They were a group of the snottiest, most spoiled children you could imagine! They were rich and surrounded by servants whose only jobs were to supply the lavish needs of the children of the great king of Israel. It seems they were well educated but foolishly raised.
David had not put up the normal boundaries around them that most parents put around their children so they might learn the lessons he surely learned from his father and mother as a poor shepherd boy in Bethlehem. By not setting the boundaries around his kids, they were denied the very lessons that made him a great king.
One of his sons, Amnon, was so filled with his own arrogant, self-serving sexual appetite that he raped his own half-sister, Tamar. When word of his violent abuse reached the king’s ears, David refused to do anything about it! “What can one do?” he asked himself. This was just one of a long line of smaller offenses that had been looked over. The lesser crimes had been swept under the carpets of the king’s quarters and were forgotten, or so he thought.
But this crime would not go away and it would not be forgotten. The offense against his sister boiled just under the surface of her brother Absalom’s heart and he plotted the punishment that his father refused to carry out. So, Absalom killed Amnon for his sin. And David winked at that as well.
The sins of the children continued on unchecked until Absalom gathered his own loyal forces and waged war against his father as an attempt to take over the throne. David found himself challenged by his own son and caught in the quandary of what to do. In waging war against Absalom, David made it clear to all his soldiers there was one person they did not have the power to kill on the field of battle. They were to spare Absalom’s life or they would face the anger of David himself.
But the men who served David faithfully were also charged to protect him to the point of death. They were trapped under conflicting commands and faced with making the choice of whether they would honor their king’s command to spare Absalom’s life or whether they would allow the threat of Absalom against David to continue to exist. The death of Absalom was like a knife that pierced David’s heart and the news that his son had been killed overwhelmed him with grief.
The painful lesson here is that sometimes we can’t protect our children from doing destructive things. We are ultimately powerless to keep them safe from the harsh realities of the world. Kids eventually grow into adults who make wise and foolish choices and we can’t be there to guide them in all those things. But we can still struggle with them … and like David, our hearts may break and we may weep because of what happens to them.
Despite his excesses as a parent, David still loved them enough to grieve over them when they foolishly died. For you see, a parent is allowed to grieve without judgment. There are no more sermons to give them and no need to add criticism to the mess of their lives. All that is left is the empty feeling of loss.
These are the Middler Years of the longest segment of the human journey known collectively as adulthood. The 40s to the 60s is the stage Gail Sheehy calls simply, “the middle life.” This is the second act, a second adulthood. This is the age where the seeds of the past are in a delicate dance with the seeds of the future. We have worked diligently in making something of ourselves, first in school, then in work. We have built a life out of the bits and pieces of life as we see it, but something is missing.
In the Middle Passage we may come face-to-face to come to ask ourselves what we want to really do or be. The idea that “nothing is wasted,” is a hopeful lifeline as we recalibrate the direction of our lives. Some come to this wisdom easier than others and some wait too late to make these changes. How do you move forward into a new direction when you have people, your life partner and your children, maybe a business partner or others, who depend on you to stay the course? The window of opportunity may close quickly and one may need to make their peace with the paths they have taken.
Could this be an adequate model for one to understand that one must change in order to survive? In the interconnected world in a family, one can see how the web of others can powerfully resist one’s impulse to change. At the fruitful stage where personal reflection can lead us to rethink our lives, our family and friends can resist the changes that are essential to the new directions we want to explore calling for our commitment to chart our own new paths.
The first task of middle adulthood is to recover our personal authority. As children, we were naïve and dependent – to the point that narcissism was considered normal. In childhood and adolescence, we resist the need to own our own lives, to make our own choices, and to take responsibility for those choices. We incorporate the values and demands of others but may give away too much of ourselves in pleasing others.
In maturity, one must make their own assessment on this issue to see whether a course correction is needed to find one’s original self and to make room for one’s own needs, to be true to one’s self, and less conforming to how others would alter our core self for their own needs.
Carl Jung noted humorously that most of us live in shoes too small for us. We exist within the boundaries of old strategies and unwittingly become the enemies of our own growth, through our repetitive history-bound choices. It is far easier to walk in shoes too small for us than to step into the largeness of life the soul expects and demands.
Discovering a personal spirituality may mean that one is willing to face faith anew with adult sensibilities that include the capacity to ask big questions. Honest, experiential spirituality will stretch us, sometimes test us, but will always ask us to be larger than we may wish to be. Even Paul, the church’s first serious correspondent, came to see this need: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.”
Many religious systems are experienced as fixed thinking and the urge, the need, to face our childhood beliefs may be resisted as unfaith by some. If one does not do the hard work of finding a personal spirituality that fits the challenge of their lives, we will live a faith trapped in concrete thinking, rather than captivated by the deep mysteries we wish to explored.
A mature spirituality seldom provides us with certitude but it will stimulate the honesty to ask ever-larger questions. Many come to experience this crisis of change in the middle years of their lives after they re-awaken the awareness of their lives through deep reflection about how the journey thus far has been lived. All the grinding to create a life one has lived without reflection must give way to the courage that one must go in new directions to recover themselves in order to fulfill their calling in life.
This may be experienced as an itch, or a twitch, a subtle demand, or a deep inner yearning. No matter, one must give themselves to making the needed changes or one will die. How one accepts the challenge of change will vary from person to person. Some will choose symbolic actions that point to an inner shift they are following such as acquiring a tattoo of some deep meaning, accepting a challenge they’ve put off like hiking the Appalachian Trail, or making a pilgrimage of some kind such as the Camino de Santiago in Spain. Some will go back to school. Some will leave the work that has consumed them for the last several decades and do something altogether different such as go to law school, or open a soup kitchen or a bike shop. Some will grow their hair long or cut it all off. Take up a serious hobby. Write a book!
The point is not so much the thing itself but what it means. Listen again to the wisdom of the poet who asks, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
© Dr. Keith Herron 2023
Small Group Discussion Guide May 14, 2023
Seasons – Middle Adulthood: “A Second Chance at Adulthood”
II Samuel 15:5-14 (NRSV)
Whenever people came near to do obeisance to him, he would put out his hand and take hold of them and kiss them. Thus, Absalom did to every Israelite who came to the king for judgment, so Absalom stole the hearts of the people of Israel. At the end of four years Absalom said to the king, “Please let me go to Hebron and pay the vow that I have made to the Lord. For your servant made a vow while I lived at Geshur in Aram: If the Lord will indeed bring me back to Jerusalem, then I will serve the Lord in Hebron.” The king said to him, “Go in peace.” So, he got up and went to Hebron. But Absalom sent secret messengers throughout all the tribes of Israel, saying, “As soon as you hear the sound of the trumpet, then shout: Absalom has become king at Hebron!” Two hundred men from Jerusalem went with Absalom; they were invited guests, and they went in innocence, knowing nothing of the matter. While Absalom was offering the sacrifices, he sent for Ahithophel the Gilonite, David’s counselor, from his city Giloh. The conspiracy grew in strength, and the people with Absalom kept increasing.
A messenger came to David, saying, “The hearts of the Israelites have gone after Absalom.” Then David said to all his officials who were with him at Jerusalem, “Get up! Let us flee, or there will be no escape for us from Absalom. Hurry, or he will soon overtake us, and bring disaster down upon us, and attack the city with the edge of the sword.”
A Sample from the Sermon:
At this mid-point in adulthood, one assesses how these things came to be. A curiosity began to take shape in the form of connecting the dots, as if life was a puzzle to be solved. I was open to new insights about old events as I looked in the rearview mirror of life and saw the directional signs I followed in making meaning out of my life. I have not been successful in every arena of life, but I can see how the sum total of my adventures has taken cues from both failures and successes to make sense of what has happened. I’ve learned from it all, the successes and the failures, to incorporate them as part and parcel of how my life has been lived.
- If the first half of life is defined by climbing the mountain, how is the view from this point in the Middle Passage? How did you mark this moment with friends or family?
- When did you first experience personal defeat or significant loss such as the loss of a job? Did you experience failure at school or failed at admittance to school?
This age is marked by the search for meaningful work. You choose a career, but a vocation chooses you. Joseph Campbell calls this “finding your bliss.” How does the idea of finding your vocation/bliss apply to you?