Thursday, October 20, 2011

Aging & Destiny

Destiny is something I think about a lot. I am fascinated with how things come together and the timing with which they happen; unforeseen turns at opportune junctures. I do not believe that life is random. I believe that, save for what might be loosely referred to as “the law of chaos”, most things happen for a reason. Discerning what life presents to us and the challenge it brings can be a part of a lifelong spiritual practice that really takes root in our later years. On the most basic level, we glimpse our mortality and so contemplate our purpose in life. But some of us go a lot deeper than that. Is the life I am living my own? How do I define success, and is it anything to do with what I’ve been taught? Am I content to live the second half of my life the way I lived the first? What is it that matters to me most?

These questions are the fruits of a bid for something more, which looks way different at 50 than it did at 25. Making major life changes when we’re older takes real kahunas. Whether we leave an unhappy marriage, abandon a stable job or jump headlong into personal development training, there’s usually a lot at stake. But taking that initial leap is exhilarating. If it works out, we feel reborn, alive – even vindicated. If it doesn’t, we may well doubt the wisdom of our ways. It hasn’t played out the way we thought, and now there’s no going back. Bold moves expose us, not the least of which to ourselves.

And that’s not a fun place to be. An eyes-wide-open look in the mirror can be daunting, however aptly-timed. It’s easy to lose sight of our courage. We don’t recognize ourselves anymore, and it’s damn well disconcerting. This wasn’t part of the plan, we grumble. But what does “working out” really mean? Is there something else in store for us we hadn’t seen coming?

It was E.M. Forster who said, “We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”

If there were a central philosophy around which life over 50 revolved, this would definitely be in the running for me. Woody Allen once said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.” There is something really liberating about opening ourselves up to the unexpected, and the older we get, the harder that is for some of us to do. But it is also, I dare say, the most rewarding time to do it. In the Bridges of Madison County – one of my favorite movies of all time – Meryl Streep says in a voice over, “I was acting like another woman – yet I was more of myself than I ever had been before.” The character she played was in the midst of a profound awakening. Could it be, as Thomas Moore puts it, that we are “most ourselves when we are furthest from the self we think we ought to be”?

I find this prospect incredibly exciting. Getting on in our years presents a clear opportunity to consider what was once unthinkable. Giving ourselves over to a life contrary to plan is, I think, one of the purest acts of surrender there is. With age comes a stronger sense of self, and with that, new capacities. Just who is the person we think we ought to be, and what would it mean to sacrifice that to something greater? Is happiness really the ultimate goal,or is there something else more important? What if vitality bore little resemblance to how we had once imagined it?

One of my favorite writers, Dr. Bill Thomas, recently quoted from a blog he had found:

You might look inside yourself and think you know yourself, but over many decades you can change in ways you won’t see ahead of time. Don’t assume you know who you will become.”

How utterly invigorating to ponder.