At forty, I’m currently about half way through the average life expectancy for a British male. Does that make me middle aged? Historically middle age was said to begin in one’s mid-to-late thirties or early forties; however, according to a recent survey of adults in mid to later life, most people who responded put middle age as beginning in one’s fifties, with some respondents placing it even later. Seemingly sixty is the new forty (or at least, that’s what many of the classically middle aged want it to be…). So, no need to buy that motorbike or grow that ponytail just yet, then. However, I have noticed that turning forty has made me re-evaluate my self-perception, priorities and legacy with a little more intensity than previously. And this week it has been brought into sharper focus in reading E.E. and J.D. Whitehead’s book Christian life Patterns (1982) [a kind of conversation between the theology of ageing and Erik H. Erikson’s work on life cycles and life stages].
The Whiteheads note several key tasks of adulthood, all of which I have begun to notice in myself:
A time of doing. On reflection I spent a lot (too much?) of my twenties waiting for life really to get going, finding it difficult to navigate the range of possibilities. But in the last ten years I’ve married, had children and found work I love doing, and increasingly I’ve had the sense that this is the time of life to make my mark. No more waiting; life happens now or it doesn’t at all.
Recognising limitations. One of the biggest things I’ve learnt about myself in the last 5-10 years is that there are some things I’m simply not good at. Whilst I can turn my hand to a lot of different things and do a passable job, I’m increasingly aware that there are all manner of things which – due to inherent ability or lack of it, experience or absence of sheer perseverence – are beyond my capacity. Learning to be reconciled to that has been one of the biggest challenges of this stage of life.
Living with life choices. Linked to the point above, I also have a growing sense that in choosing certain paths of life, others are closed off. Frequently I see the names of former colleagues or university contemporaries who are publishing like mad in their chosen field, or friends who have become brilliantly intuitive musicians, and wonder if I could have done likewise given the time, attention and perseverence. But in general terms it’s reassuring to get to this stage and realise that I’ve ended up doing something not entirely dissimilar to what I’d hoped when I left university.
Hoping to leave a legacy. This is apparently one of the big projects of older adulthood, but I am just beginning to glimpse it over the horizon. Perhaps historians have a greater sense of legacy than most (dealing all the time in historical causes and effects). But I do find myself increasingly wondering: what does my life’s work add up to?
Having said all this, the Whiteheads’ book also makes the very good point that ultimately, meaning is found in life as a whole, and not just in isolated stages. I have a sneaking suspicion that part of the trick of ageing well is embracing a new stage with positive intentions without completely losing sight of the wisdom and insight of earlier stages. I’m not a psychoanalyst but I believe Jungians talk of the ‘puer’ (young man) and ‘senex’ (old man) archetypes, and my hunch is that whichever stage one is at, there is much to learn by reflecting on the insights and priorities of the other – so as always to be open to the excitement and possibilities of youth, and the commitment and generativity of age. So whilst the challenges and preoccupations of adulthood aren’t likely to go away (and indeed might it even be irresponsible to push them away?) perhaps the young man still needs occasionally to remind the older to lighten up and not get too submerged in the ‘doing’.