Male Spirituality and the Second Half of Life
At the conclusion of my annual eye exam, my optometrist addressed me with that dismaying preamble, “I’m sorry to tell you this.” I braced myself for the bad news. After giving me a moment to imagine the worst, he announced, “You’re going to need bifocals.”
I was greatly relieved, but not completely surprised by this news. I had passed the age of forty when those kinds of things supposedly begin to happen with increasing regularity.
Still, no matter how much we’ve prepared, there is a measure of disbelief when we reach these landmarks of midlife. Whether we consciously acknowledge it or not, a part of us knows that we have moved a bit closer to our ultimate leave-taking. My optometrist’s sorrowful announcement was, in its own way, recognition of this fact.
In our culture, we rarely welcome the aging process with the honor and recognition it deserves. Entering mid-life is often approached with dread and resistance at worst, and nervous, uneasy humor at best. If celebrated at all, it is done so with cracks about being “over the hill” or having one’s “foot in the grave.”
Despite my best efforts to celebrate my fortieth birthday in a way consistent with how I really felt—a sense of gratitude for the goodness and richness of my years—one of my guests insisted on bringing me a miniature coffin filled with helpful items like prune juice, presumably to ease the downward slide to death.
There is, of course, something valuable about that attitude: it recognizes that one way to bear the deterioration of our bodies is with humor and good cheer. But it also betrays an anxiety about the aging process in a culture in which getting old is almost obscene.
It may well be that men face the prospect of aging and dying with greater anxiety than women. By midlife, women have had a longer history of learning to accept the changes their bodies undergo.
The ideals of Western masculinity—which teach males to grasp for control and to ignore pain—make it difficult for men to acknowledge and accept the inevitabilities of aging. Many men thus experience this transition to the second half of life as a “crisis.”
A near-archetypal image in our society is the man who welcomes middle age by getting a divorce, a new girlfriend, and a red sports car, which is really nothing more than denying the aging process by attempting to reverse it.
No matter how we ultimately choose to face this transition—with a new girlfriend, a renewed commitment to one’s wife, or something else—most men face the prospect of the second half of life with the uneasy feeling that they have moved into unknown territory where the familiar guideposts have been removed. This is one reason why midlife seems to be a crisis to so many.
Even Dante experienced the advent of middle age this way. In the opening canto of The Inferno, he writes:
Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray
from the straight road and woke to find myself
alone in a dark wood. How shall I say
what wood that was! I never saw so drear,
so rank, so arduous a wilderness!
Its very memory gives a shape to fear.
Death could scarce be more bitter than that place!
But as Dante later learns, the dark wood, the arduous wilderness, was an absolutely necessary experience, integral to the completion of his life and to the enrichment of his soul.
And that is what I propose here: that midlife, even if it is experienced as a crisis and a disgrace, can be a blessing and the beginning point from which we can take the journey that completes and brings meaning to the circle of our individual lives. But for it to be such a blessing, midlife and the years that follow often require a radical reorientation of heart and soul.
It is instructive to observe that middle age is a rather modern condition, made possible principally by advances in medical science. In Judea in the first century, for instance, the life expectancy for a man was less than 35 years old. Jesus was probably not the young, vigorous man we often imagine him to be.
A thirty year old man in Judea was at a different place in the life cycle than a thirty year old today. Adulthood at that time began at 14 or 15 and the focus of manhood was principally begetting and raising children. The relatively short life-expectancy could almost be seen as nature’s way of saying that once you’ve completed your reproductive task, your business on earth is essentially over.
But now, since our life expectancies are twice what they were 2000 years ago, we enjoy—or some might say we are cursed with—a second half of life that does not have the same clear directives that the first half did. Nature, it may seem, has left us on our own. We must essentially chart our own road maps. But I believe that if we are sensitive to them our souls may provide us with some clues.
I contend that the second half of life can be our journey to wholeness, a deeper engagement with those aspects of life that we have tended to neglect in our earlier years.
The second half is about completing unfinished business and preparing to bring our earthly existence to fruition. For us modern western men, the second half can be an opportunity to liberate ourselves from a masculinity that has constricted—and, I would argue, distorted—us to this point.
Consider the character of our first forty years. For most of us, particularly men of the middle and upper-classes, the first half of life was about mastery: the acquisition of knowledge, the development of our bodies, establishing ourselves in our work (the principal source of male identity), and making our mark in the public sphere. It was about fighting wars, raising families, shaping our communities.
The character of our religion—if we even bothered with religion—suited our acquisitive, active, controlling lives, focusing on beliefs, doctrines, principles, and ethics–the rationalistic and performative aspects of religion. Our lives and our religion concerned taking charge of ourselves and transforming our world.
But in the second half of life, we meet a whole new set of factors, which require a whole new approach to religion. I would even say the second half of life demands that we move from religion to spirituality, if putting it that way conveys my meaning.
The second half of life ought to be about the deepening of our spiritual natures. It should not be about acquisition but about relinquishment, not about acting but acceptance, not mastery but mystery.
In the second half of life we can remember what we have forgotten; we can attend to the things we’ve neglected.
For many of us men, this spiritual reorientation is a daunting prospect because we are not accustomed to turning inward. Many of us do not really have much of a personal “spirituality” or even know what spirituality is.
One of the reasons for this is that the spiritual business has long been associated with the feminine in our culture. Traditional western masculinity discourages inwardness.
Other cultures not only recognize the need for men to develop their spirituality beyond midlife, they institutionalize this need and provide a pathway for it.
Hindus, for example, delineate four stages of life for males. The first two, the student stage and the householder, correspond with the first forty to fifty years of life. The focus is on mastery of skills and knowledge, acquisition of wealth and material goods, and the performance of one’s duties to family and society.
But as those concerns begin to change, men move into the third and fourth stages: the forest dweller and the renouncer (sannyasin). The elder begins to withdraw from society—and at the final stage, from the family itself—and lives alone, with almost no possessions, in quest for greater closeness to God.
This is a wholly different model of retirement than the one to which we’ve become accustomed, and it may not be the model most of us would wish to embrace. Still, there are elements in the Hindu pattern worth considering as components of a male spirituality in the second half of life.
We may recoil from the idea of renouncing absolutely everything as the sannyasin does, but relinquishment is unquestionably an important theme in deepening spirituality, particularly midlife spirituality. By “relinquishment” I mean the attitude of non-attachment, of letting go, of divestment.
But I do not mean apathy, indifference, or aversion. I rather mean the practice of developing new relationships to ourselves, to others, and to the things of the world in which our sense of self and self-value is not at stake.
Relinquishment has to be learned and practiced. We give people all kinds of lessons concerning mastery (such as learning the piano or mathematics or basketball), but our society does not do a very good job at teaching relinquishment, or, for that matter, acceptance, forgiveness, compassion, and other important things.
The second half of life is the opportunity for learning and practicing the skills that we will increasingly need as we age and approach death.
Let me illustrate with some concrete examples. Midlife heralds, for one thing, the need for us to cultivate new relationships to our bodies. Our bodies no longer do what they used to. They don’t respond with the grace and ease they once did; they take longer to heal.
We begin to observe pot bellies that do not respond to our redoubled efforts to eliminate them. Our hair starts turning white and begins to grow in places we do not want and refuses to grow in the place we do. Our sexual desires may diminish or, if our desires remain, our equipment may not respond as we wish.
To quote Jesus in a totally different context, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” From an evolutionary point-of-view, we are superfluous; our reproductive tasks are presumed over, but the old urges still linger.
For many men, our response to these bodily changes is almost reflexive. We react as we did when we were younger and had to face a challenge, by intensifying our efforts to control our bodies and to resist their changes. Our culture, which worships youth and tries to persuade us that getting old is a problem, encourages these efforts.
Ultimately, we learn that resistance to these changes is futile and it does not serve to delude ourselves any longer: we are losing control over our bodies, a process that proceeds ineluctably until the moment we must yield completely at death.
Such acquiescence, however, is at odds with the ideals of western masculinity and goes against the grain of male conditioning. For most men entering midlife, the pattern of letting go must be learned, and it is only learned by being put into practice.
What better time to begin that practice and prepare for the day of ultimate relinquishment than now, as we observe our bodies begin to age? Let me be clear: I’m not saying that we should neglect our bodies or fail to do everything we can to keep our bodies healthy and fit.
I am saying that we ought to practice giving up the illusion that our bodies will always be the way we want them to be. Buddhist monks learn this by meditating in the presence of corpses and contemplating the future of their own bodies. This discipline is a very effective means of overcoming attachment to the body!
Our relationship to our bodies is not the only thing that is transformed in midlife spirituality; another is our relationship to work. The cultural ideals of masculinity encourage us to dedicate our best energies to our jobs and gain our sense of identity through work.
Our professions are not just something we do or a function we perform; they define who we are (so we believe). It is little wonder that many men end up as workaholics. In our society, it is hard not to be. But just as with a lifetime of alcohol abuse, long-term workaholism eventually becomes unsatisfying; work no longer provides the sense of purpose and meaning it once did.
This sense of dissatisfaction might manifest itself as the awareness that we will not accomplish what we thought we would. We may have to mourn the fact that we are not going to be the person we dreamed of becoming.
Even if we actually become the person we dreamed of being and achieve all of our goals, we often find that the achievement is vacuous, hallow, disappointing.
After his return to earth, Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, became depressed and alcoholic. Not achieving our goals is disillusioning; achieving our goals is disillusioning. But disillusionment is a divine gift! It allows—even demands—that we reorient ourselves to reality.
In the case of our work lives, disillusionment requires that we learn that our true selves are not defined by what we do or what we achieve. It impels us to the quest to find out who we are beyond our professional identities.
For most of us, this is an intimidating task because in the first half of life we were defined by our work; in the second half, we may not have a clue as to who we really are.
Learning to relinquish workaholism usually entails abandoning perfectionism and embracing the virtue of mediocrity. My practice of mediocrity involves pursuing something that I can do only fairly. A few years ago, it was singing; now it is playing racquetball.
In neither of these activities am I in any danger of becoming an expert. It is precisely because I cannot be a master of these arts that I enjoy them.
Without the tyranny of high standards looming over me, urging me to competition, I am freer to take pleasure in simply playing the game or singing the song.
Another part of my recovery from workaholism is the practice of creative not doing, which for me is the discipline of meditation. I find that a regular meditation practice forces me to confront the irrational impulses that drive me to activity.
Often we try to fill up our lives with activity—any activity—just so we don’t have to face the silence within or the deep voices that beckon our attention. But plumbing those depths is precisely what brings us wholeness. My advice is: don’t just do something, sit there!
Entering midlife also involves the development of new relationships to the beliefs and values that served us when we were younger. As they grow older, many people seem to cling to their beliefs with ever-increasing fervor. It is almost as if they grasp their values with greater tenacity in order to compensate for the loss of control they experience in the rest of their lives. They become more rigid, more dogmatic, less compromising, and less compassionate. Such qualities, it hardly needs to be said, benefit no one.
Thus for some, midlife spirituality may involve a thorough revision of their belief system, discarding outmoded ideas and ideals or adopting new ones. For men in particular, midlife is an opportune time (if we haven’t already done so) to critically scrutinize the masculine standards that have been held up for us and by which we have so often measured our lives.
For me, growing into midlife has meant trying to develop new aesthetic values, a new understanding of what constitutes beauty. For instance, I have been contemplating ways to regard the life cycle itself as appealing in all its stages. Walt Whitman expresses this idea in a brief poem entitled “Beautiful Women”:
Women sit or move to and fro, some old, some young,
The young are beautiful—but the old are more beautiful than the young.
Whitman invites us to see our aging selves and others with new eyes that not only do not loathe, but actually appreciate the wrinkles, the incorrigible pot bellies, the thinning of the hair. This is not an easy thing in our culture; it is an aesthetic that must be nurtured and practiced. But I am not merely suggesting that midlife is the time for theological housecleaning; I am also saying that midlife spirituality ought to entail a new approach to holding beliefs and values.
As with our bodies and our work, a wholesome midlife spirituality promotes the relaxation of our attachments to our value and belief systems. I’m not proposing that we give up our deeply cherished beliefs, only that we loosen our hold on them and entertain the possibility that we may be wrong. The older I get, the more comfortable I get in acknowledging how much I really do not know.
Finally, midlife spirituality may mean a new understanding of spirituality itself. Too often, our secularized culture persuades us that our spiritual lives are supposed to be confined to a circumscribed area and the smaller this area, the better. Surprisingly, many religious folk accept this view and restrict their spirituality to Sunday mornings or to private moments of transcendence.
This constriction of the spiritual, however, is quite at odds with what I take to be the heart of spirituality: connection. Although the word “spirituality” is used a lot these days, its meaning is far from precise.
I take spirituality to refer to that dimension of our lives that concerns our understanding of self, the world, the divine, and the relationships among them.
To me, spirituality is daily life. It’s not so much about transcendent and extraordinary experiences. It’s about the stuff of ordinary existence.
Spirituality concerns itself with white hair and wrinkles, backaches, and playing a mediocre game of racquetball. It is about sitting, walking, eating, and doing nothing–as well as doing something.
It is less about beliefs and doctrine and more about the simple appreciation of the sacredness of daily living.
I am persuaded that the second half of life can be the better half because it offers the opportunity for genuine freedom. It can be the time when we learn that it is not necessary to conform to the ridiculous standards of masculinity that we imbibed in our younger years.
The crippling demands on our lives that were handed to us, and which we accepted as inevitable, can be seen for what they are, because we are beginning to realize how impossible they are to fulfill.
We can truly learn that our value as persons does not reside in what we have done, what social status we have, what we own, or how many push-ups we can do. We can embrace, perhaps for the first time, an authentic spirituality comprising not the rules of duty or dogma but vital relationships to ourselves, others, the world of nature, and the sacred that permeates it all.
“This article, by Dr. Mark Muesse, first appeared on ExploreFaith.org“