Searching for purpose at midlife? You're not alone.
“God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.”
If you spent time in church circles during your youth, you may have seen this sentence in a tract or heard a variation of it in an evangelistic message. Though the statement was meant to be a simplified introduction to the good news about Jesus, my teenaged self heard in those words a promise that God would give me a clearly-marked map that would guide me through all of the perplexing decisions looming before me: What major should I choose? Where should I live? Who should I marry? Should I get fries with my cheeseburger? (Kidding about that last one.)
Eventually, I learned that God’s wonderful plan for my life was not a set of IKEA assembly instructions, but instead had to do with learning to obey and follow Jesus in the trenches of daily life.
Well, I thought I’d left behind that desire for a map. But a slightly more sophisticated version of that desire reemerged when I moved into my early 40’s. The deaths of both of my parents, an emptying nest, a church implosion, a series of serious health crises, perimenopause, and a relocation left me clinically depressed, spiritually disoriented, and longing for a wonderful plan 2.0 for my life. Frankly, at that point, I would have settled for even a mediocre plan.
Instead, I discovered afresh that God’s wonderful plan for my life still didn’t include a map, nor a reboot of The Greatest Hits of The First Half of My Life, but a close encounter with pair of pruning shears. I’ve heard more than one preacher note that a vinedresser is never nearer to the branches than when he or she is pruning them. It took me several years (I’m a slow learner) to recognize that the pruning that accompanies midlife is meant to cultivate fruitfulness in the second half of our lives. There are no shortcuts. There are no maps.
There is, however, the nearness of the vinedresser, who is intent on pruning what will no longer bear fruit in our lives.
If you have a story about how midlife’s pruning has challenged you to a new understanding of your purpose, we’d love to hear from you. We may share some of your stories in a future issue of this newsletter.
Traveling without a map in the company of Jesus,
Michelle Van Loon
Finding your purpose in the third stage of life
By Carole Duff
I remember July 1, 2010 as if it was yesterday. That morning, I attended a STEM planning meeting as the curriculum technologist. Afterward, I cleaned out my corner of the Tech Office, turned in my keys, and said my goodbyes. I’d said goodbye to fulltime parenting eight years prior, but still had a career to define my purpose. Now, walking to my car along the school’s lush, tree-shaded driveway, I sensed this was it: my last day as a teacher. Driving home, I went deep into my heart and prayed: I know this is what you want me to do, but without teaching or parenting, I don’t know who I am anymore or what I’m called to do.
I had entered the third stage of life. And that made me anxious. Very anxious.
In a recent reflection titled “The Second Journey,” Franciscan priest Richard Rohr wrote, “Most of us tend to think of the second half of life as largely about getting old, dealing with health issues, and letting go of our physical life, but I simply don’t believe that’s all there is to it. What looks like falling can largely be experienced as falling upward and onward, into a broader and deeper world, where the soul finds its fullness, is finally connected to the whole, and lives inside the Big Picture.” I understand what Rohr means now. But back in 2010, I wasn’t thinking about a second journey or falling upward. I was just trying to figure out what’s next. Maybe I’d do what my mother did: retire from teaching then go back as a volunteer.
Knowing me well, my husband said, “Wait. Don’t fill up your time by saying yes to everything. Otherwise, when opportunities happen, you won’t have time for them.” My mother also knew me well, having given me a t-shirt that read, “Stress: When your gut says no and your mouth says, ‘Sure, I’d be glad to.’” Sound familiar? My husband had two additional pieces of advice. “If it’s not your mission, Sweetheart, you’ll be taking that away from another person.” I certainly didn’t want to deprive anyone of their mission. Then this: “Your unease is what opportunity feels like.” And so, I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry. (Psalm 40:1). Waiting for the Lord as King David did, except for the unease and that word patiently.
I was not idle while waiting less than patiently, listening, and watching for doors to open. My husband and I were building a house on our land in the Blue Ridge Mountains. In addition to overseeing finances and house-building, I walked the dog, tried new recipes, kept in touch with our children and two aging parents, and read. One book I devoured during that waiting time was George Mason University Professor Todd Kashdan’s writing about curiosity. He stated that as we move through life-stages—from our student years into work-family life then into the third stage—our wants and paths to purpose change.
To test his hypothesis, I made a stage-by-stage list of wants. As a child, I wanted to be accepted, attractive, and autonomous, to achieve and be in control of my life. My adult wants looked a little different, more like goals: to be affirmed, committed to family, industrious, and successful in my profession.
Many people identify themselves by their professions, and I was no exception. Thus, my anxiety when no longer an active parent or working teacher. It wasn’t until I traversed Michelle Van Loon's first-half-of-life spiritual growth stages, as defined in Becoming Sage: Cultivating Meaning, Purpose, and Spirituality in Midlife—“God, I believe in You,” “God, I belong to You,” and “God, I’m working for You,”—that I discovered my latter-stage-of-life wants: challenge, growth, health, humility, and identity in Christ. His purpose, not mine. Or as Paul stated in 2 Timothy 1:9, He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time.
Regarding paths to purpose, Kashdan identified three: how we learn (observing, imitating, modeling), how we respond to life-changing events, and what we seek. For example:
Learn: In my third stage of life, I became a writer and took classes, joined critique groups, attended conferences, and found mentors.
Life-changing events: As we buried the last of our surviving parents, my husband and I thought about own our deaths and destinies—what we would leave to others.
Seek: Openness, staying grounded in my identity as a child of God, maturity in faith and growth in wisdom. In other words, The Sage Forum’s mission.
Theologian, elder, and Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister had this to say about one’s path to purpose in the third stage of life: “This is the period of life when we must begin to look inside our own hearts and souls rather than outside ourselves for the answers to our problems, for the fixing of the problems. This is the time for facing ourselves, for bringing ourselves into the light.” So, here I am seeking the light by writing and, in so doing, yes, teaching.
Now well into my third stage of life, I offer this advice to those on the threshold:
· List your wants and paths to purpose for each stage.
· Pray for discernment.
· Wait, listen, and watch for open doors, the opportunities.
· Embrace learning new things and reach out to mentors.
· Stay grounded in third-stage faith when life-changing events happen—and they will.
One last thought. The greatest blessing during this stage of life is to become a grandparent, even if you don’t have grandchildren. Grandparents are elders, uniquely positioned to mentor, encourage, support, and guide those in the first stage of life while their parents pursue second-stage wants. Rather than sages on the stage, grandparents are “been there, done that” guides on the side. By letting go of our earlier wants, we can embrace openness, growth, and spiritual truth then pass that wisdom on to others.
Maturing in faith and encouraging others. I can’t think of a better life purpose, can you?
Learn more about Sage Forum contributor Carole Duff by visiting our “About us” page.
Additional soul food on the topic of purpose:
Judy Allen writes about the relationship between our plans and God’s purposes here.
How to Find Your Purpose in Midlife
If Midlife isn’t a time when decline begins, nor is it a time of magical transformation, what is it - and how can it shape our approach to purpose?
Some useful reflection questions and categories for those at midlife and beyond
Afton Rorvik discusses empty nest, facing fear, and adopting a philosophy of doing one thing that scares her.
What we’re reading and watching right now
The Seamless LIfe: A Tapestry of Love & Learning, Worship & Work by Steven Garber. It’s a collection of essays, and I read one a day for a month or two. He wrote “…this one is a deeper and deeper reflection on one question: What does it mean to see seamlessly? To see the whole of life as important to God, to us, and to the world…” (JA)
God’s Relentless Love: A Study of Hosea by Sharla Fritz. Our Women’s Ministry team at church selected this eight-lesson study as a post-COVID restart for Women’s Bible Study. Sharla’s lessons and resources guided us through the difficult scripture in Hosea and sparked a great deal of discussion. Highly recommended. (CD)
Where I End: A Story of Tragedy, Truth, and Rebellious Hope by Katherine Elizabeth Clark. One moment a young mother is running with children on a school playground and the next she is paralyzed. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.” A well-written memoir of faith, hope, and love. (CD)
Letter from Masanjia (Netflix) - This haunting documentary is very difficult viewing, but it tells an important true story about what happened when a Chinese political prisoner wrote a letter about his circumstances and tucked it into a box of Halloween decorations bound for America. (MV)
Burning in My Bones: The Authorized Biography of Eugene H. Peterson, Translator of The Message.by Winn Collier. This book reveals the shaping of a heart after God's own heart through lots of twists and turns. What an encouragement to watch the way God grew Peterson's soul by weaving together his unique childhood, personality, struggles, intellect, and relationships. (AR)
What are you reading or watching these days?
Mark your calendar and plan to join us!
The Sage Forum will be hosting an online half-day workshop for beginning and intermediate writers on Saturday, January 28th. You’ll have an opportunity to learn from pros about the publishing process, gain practical tools, have a chance to ask questions, and hear about the gifts and challenges of writing in the second half of life. Plus, we’ve got a few fun surprises up our virtual sleeves for this one-of-a-kind gathering!
We’ll have more information and registration available later in November, but if you’d like to make sure you don’t miss any announcements, click here to let us know of your interest, and we’ll make sure you get all of the details as soon as they go live.
This month’s spiritual practice
Our suggested spiritual practice this month is gratitude. Though in the U.S., the civil holiday of Thanksgiving punctuates the month, gratitude isn’t a November thing. It belongs in each of our days. This article from Point Loma Nazarene University includes this nudge for those of us who don’t find it easy to express gratitude:
So what about people who aren’t inherently grateful? Just as making devotions or prayer a standard part of life takes commitment and practice, a grateful heart tends to develop over time. Fortunately, it is widely agreed that gratitude can be learned and strengthened in a number of different ways.
“Gratitude is a practiced behavior, so you have to find ways of practicing it,” said Richardson. “You have to do good often, so it becomes automated. Any new skill you want to learn takes practice to perfect. If you have to, set an alarm every day to remind yourself to be grateful.
If you’re looking to build up the habit of gratitude in your life, Sage Forum contributor Afton Rorvik has created a printable calendar you can use to jump-start that practice this month. (Click here)
Psst. Hey Afton….thank you.
Coming next month: new traditions
As your family has changed shape over time, have you introduced new ways of gathering, celebrating, or remembering? Click here to tell us about it.