Midlife: Going Where No Man Has Gone Before
- Friday, January 25, 2008
One of the most wonderful things about being in midlife today is the sheer time it leaves us to reflect upon, adjust, or change our lives. In the year 1800, life expectancy for an American man was thirty-five years.
In 1900, the average life expectancy was forty-six years.
In 1950, it was sixty-nine.
Today, the average life expectancy for a man is seventy-six years old. So you literally could say that seventy-six is the new thirty-five.
Besides reminding us that we have much to be grateful for, these facts show that those of us who are actually in midlife are going through something that's truly unprecedented. Never in history have so many people at one time had to deal with what it really means to be, say, forty-five years old and know that you might very well still have half your life ahead of you. The uniqueness of that situation sheds light on the reason so many of us don't feel anywhere near as old as our chronological age. In fact, the other day, when I was speaking to a group of "twentys," I told them what fun it was for me to speak to people who are the same age as I feel. They laughed (the whippersnappers), but it was completely true.
Our feeling that way makes perfect sense, doesn't it? Because the model that we have in our heads of what it means to be fifty years old is the people our parents were—or, worse, the people their parents were—when they were fifty.
Our parents at fifty seemed a lot older than we feel at fifty. And I don't think it's just because men's hair was oiled and women's ratted—or that any of their wardrobes would be featured today on What Not to Wear. No, they seemed older because in every physical way our parents were older at fifty than we are or will be at the same age. And we know that's true because we know that overall their generation's life expectancy is lower than ours. (And they were modeling their midlife on what our grandparents were like at forty-five or fifty. To our parents, forty-five or fifty meant you were truly old.)
At fifty, I felt like I was just getting started—and I still feel that way today. And with a one-year-old, that's a very good thing indeed.
The bottom line is that by every possible measure we are simply not as physically or mentally aged as our parents or grandparents were when they were as old as we are now.
It's more than just a cliché. Sixty really is the new fifty. Fifty really is the new forty—and forty really is the new thirty.
And that means that all of us who are middle-aged today really are (whether boldly or not) going where no man has ever gone before.
And that can be a little disorienting.Signs of the Times
Each man going through midlife right now will respond to that extremely personal journey in a way unique to himself. For some guys, midlife means watching their diet and joining a gym. For others, it means shaving their head, getting a tattoo, and trying to join their nephew's college fraternity. For some it becomes a time for "performance enhancing drugs" such as Viagra and Cialis. (I thank God for the advances in pharmacology such as these—well, and of course for those that do so much to fight other conditions, such as diabetes and psoriasis.) Most of us take the simpler route to midlife: We just start losing our hair and try to prevent parting what's left of it in a circle, or start combing it with a washcloth with the use of a "follicle enhancing" drug like Propecia or Rogaine.
For the majority of guys, midlife is an experience to be ranked on a scale somewhere between "a cake walk" and a "trip to hell and back." In other words, chances are you are reading this book because you have a desire to take some stock of your life, recalculate your priorities, and position yourself to have a great "second half." Most of you are not in free fall, feeling like your entire world is coming apart—but maybe you do believe that certain pieces of it are indeed fraying at the ends. Maybe you know you've made mistakes along the way, and that you're carrying some bags on your back with labels like "unfulfilled dreams," "regrets," "disillusionment," or "guilt." And you know what? We are too! The good news is, it's time to lose the baggage and grab hold of the amazing (though not always easy) things God has in store for you at this phase of the journey.
In other words, you're normal—whatever "normal" is, other than a midsized city in Illinois.
So it's time to learn how to pack lightly, gentlemen, because on the trip we're taking, there's only room for a couple of light carryons. As you'll see, previous sins, gaffs, screw-ups, regrets, and guilt fit neither under the seat in front of you nor in God's overhead compartment. (Whatever that means—heaven maybe? We really don't know. It's just an analogy; it's best not to think too much about it).The Roles of a Lifetime
When from the crest of the formidable speed bump that is midlife we look back on our lives, most of us see that what we've been so busy doing with our lives is our absolute darndest to successfully fulfill—or perhaps just survive—what amounts to four distinct Life Roles: that of Son, Husband, Provider, and Father. These are the Life Roles that most of us at first simply inhabit, and then (less simply) become.
So remember, guys: It's Roles, Inhabit, Become. Or RIB—as in what Adam discovered he was missing just before his big life role became Just Like Eve, But Different. (And don't forget: We are all members of the Adam's Family.)
Here's the thing, though, about those four Manliest of Roles: By midlife, they have radically and permanently changed. What in one way or another wakes and shakes up every man in midlife is the dawning truth that he can no longer continue to be the only person he's spent his entire life learning how to be.
We've learned how to be good sons—but then find that our parents need us to care or provide for them.
We've learned how to be good husbands—but then the bodies and sexuality (to name but two aspects) of both ourselves and our wives change into something with which we have no experience at all.
We've learned how to be good providers—but then find that we're becoming obsolete in the workplace, or we realize that the careers we've spent so long carving for ourselves have almost nothing to do with what we've always really wanted to do with our lives, or we've simply become painfully bored with our jobs. Or maybe we just want to retire—and yet can barely imagine what that actually means.
We've learned how to be good fathers to our children—and then discover that, alas, our children are children no more.
So here we are, in a life that's clearly become a production radically different from the one in which we're used to starring. Suddenly, it seems as if everybody's character in the show has changed and nobody's sticking to the script; the action's not like anything we've rehearsed before. Pieces of the set are getting dragged off into the wings, lights are blinking all over the place—all kinds of things are going on that we've never even almost experienced.
And, we would like to suggest, in every last way, wonderful. The whole thing is just great. Because we believe that it's in our middle age that God intends for us to stop, look back at the roles we've played thus far, and see if we can't find within them every last thing we need in order to create for ourselves, with his help and guidance, the very life that he most wants us to have.
So. We're going to spend the next five chapters talking about how we might most fruitfully go about that most precious and vital of explorations.
To help us cull the Right Stuff from each of the four primary roles of our lives, we will, in the chapter devoted to each role, follow the same four-step process.
First, under Good Riddance, we'll look at the aspects of that role that quite often prove less than entirely healthy for us. These will be the negative aspects of each role that we would do well to identify and then jettison.
Next, under Pure Gold, we'll take stock of those aspects of that role that have typically been good for us: that tended to ennoble us, strengthen us, make us better, wiser, more pleasing to God. This is the stuff about that role which we should hold on to and build upon as we move into the second half of our lives.
Under the next section of each chapter, Movin' On, we'll consider how we might use the best of what that role taught us—the "gold" that we just identified—to fashion for ourselves the kind of life that we've always dreamed of having.
Finally, under Things to Do, we'll offer suggestions and exercises designed to enhance your experience and appreciation of what was covered in that chapter. Do whichever of these exercises feels comfortable to you, secure in the knowledge that if you don't do every single one of them God will strike you down for your lackadaisical attitude toward him, your family, your community, your church, and your very own self.
Say about us what you will, but you can't say we're not funny.
Okay—you can't say that we don't try to be funny.
Anyway, back to business.
Midlife Manual for Men: Finding Significance in the Second Half by Stephen Arterburn and John Shore
Copyright © 2008; ISBN 9780764204234
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.
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