Read an Excerpt
The Four Flames of Vital Aging
Living on Purpose in the Second Half of Life
In our earlier book, Repacking Your Bags: Lighten Your Load for the Rest of Your Life, we developed a definition of the “good life” that included four components: place, people, work, and purpose. We defined the good life as “Living in the place you belong, with people you love, doing the right work, on purpose.” While this definition applied to people who were in the first half of their lives, we've found it to be no less pertinent to individuals who are entering into the second half.
In the second half of life, the same questions that drive our conception of the good life during the first half inevitably return. Who am I? Where do I belong? What do I care about? What is my life's purpose? Only now, in the second half, we have a unique opportunity to be the author of our own story. We have a chance to rewrite it, rather than simply replicate the first half.
It has become clear to us that becoming a new elder demands a rekindling of the good life. It requires drawing upon the wisdom we have gained in the first half.
With the four components of the good life in mind, we have been able to identify four common principles among those seasoned citizens who are becoming new elders—individuals who are living on purpose in the second half of their lives.
These principles have become apparent as we've observed the indicators around us. Unfortunately, unlike the Hadza, we have no Honey Guide to guide us. We have had, however, the good fortune to witness dozens of new elders— our own Honey Guides—in action. Their choices, behaviors, and ways of moving through the world have enabled us to identify the “four flames of vital aging”—the key components of a life lived on purpose during the second half.
These new elders have rekindled the good life for the second half. They have stoked the fire within and are sharing its warmth and light with others.
This fire metaphor does not arise by accident. It emerges naturally out of an ongoing exploration of what it means to be truly human. After all, nothing is more essential to the human experience than the experience of fire. Fire connects us to the deepest core of our shared humanity. Our most distant ancestors depended upon fire for their survival; our most distant descendents, like us, will employ fire in some form in order to live. The use of fire is quite literally what separates human beings from non-human beings. It is this understanding of the vital role that fire plays in our humanity that has given rise to the myths and stories of fire among indigenous peoples.
One of the most common ways that we talk about vitality is in terms of “keeping the fire alive.” For this reason—as well as for the abiding role fire plays in linking past, present, and future—the fire theme naturally emerges in our story of new elders. Each of the four key principles of new elders is embodied in a characteristic of fire. In claiming our place at the fire as new elders, we claim each of these aspects ourselves.
1. The Flame of Identity: Recalling Our Stories
Firestarter Question: Who Am I?
New elders harvest and transfer the wisdom of the past into the present. They know the important narratives of their culture, whatever that culture is. Joseph Campbell said, “The first requirement of any society is that its adult membership should realize and represent the fact it is they who constitute its life and being . . . and on which that society itself must depend for its existence.” Elders teach by story. But it isn't simply recalling stories about “the good old days.” Rather, it is an ability to touch the lives and lived experience of others through their own experiences in a manner that brings it alive in the present, through the past.
2. The Flame of Community: Refinding Our Place
Firestarter Question: Where Do I Belong?
New elders know where they belong in the world; they have a powerful sense of place—where they have come from, where they are, and where they are going.
Consequently, they are able to reaffirm who they are for the journey ahead; grounded in the rich history of their first half, they feel alive to the challenges of the second half.
3. The Flame of Passion: Renewing Our Calling
Principle: Caring Firestarter Question: What Do I Care About?
Perhaps no challenge is greater for people in the second half of life than to find something meaningful and valuable to do with their gifts. New elders consistently meet that challenge by applying their gifts in support of young people and the community at large. New elders care passionately about those who follow in their footsteps. They find deep satisfaction in giving their gifts in new ways that serve others rather than just themselves. And they accept this as a critical responsibility of their elderhood. Consequently, new elders are all about “giving it away.” They know that a person is strong not in proportion to what he or she can hold on to, but rather, according to what the person can give up. This doesn't necessarily mean they are free-spending philanthropists when it comes to money; it does, however, usually mean they are extremely generous with advice, counsel, and support. While elders may hold important positions in life, they realize that real power stems from the willingness and ability to share it with others. They see wisdom as something that is inherent within everyone and, like the ancient philosopher Socrates, are passionate about helping to inspire that depth of wisdom within those around them.
4. The Flame of Meaning: Reclaiming Our Purpose
Firestarter Question: What Is My Legacy?
New elders know “why they get up in the morning,” and it isn't just because their alarm clock goes off. As a matter of fact, for many new elders, the alarm that dragged them out of bed for so many years has been permanently retired. Freed up from imposed schedules, they now find the freedom to make their own. And with that freedom, they are enthusiastically greeting the day, fired up about all they can do at last. These new elders burn with the beacon that guides them: their purpose. They light the way for themselves and for others to follow. The incandescence of such elders is powerfully illuminating. As they forge ahead, lit by the fire of purpose, they light the way into the future.
The four flames of vital aging represent choices available to all of us. We can make those choices no matter what age or stage we are in life. And while they are no doubt choices that lend themselves more naturally to those of us in the second half of life, new elders are by no means the elderly. In fact, as we may realize, it is often aging, or the fear of it, that prevents many of us from ever really becoming elders.
Now, more than ever, we need new elders among us. New elders are natural resources that are needed today by the family, the community, the organization, and the Earth. We can't wait for the wise ones to come. We need to become the new elders. It is incumbent upon us to accept the mantle of becoming new elders for ourselves, our loved ones, and the planet as a whole.
Stepping into the Elder Circle
In his powerful account of age and aging, Ram Dass discusses an activity called an Elder Circle, which he does with people in the second half of life to help them appreciate their power and wisdom. Employing a form common to traditional cultures, he invites the oldest members of groups he brings together to sit in the inner circle and share their wisdom with the younger members, who sit around them in an outer circle. He reports that many of the elders who take part in this exercise say that it is the first time their wisdom has ever been appreciated. In Ram Dass's words, “Because it does not know what to do with older people, our society has become impoverished of precisely those qualities its elders could offer. Unfortunately, most elders don't know, themselves, what it is they have to offer.”
Our intention in this book is similar to what Ram Dass does in that exercise. We hope to provide you with a framework for coming to respect and appreciate your own power— a power of purpose that grows with age.
To claim one's power as a new elder, a certain amount of reflection upon the past is necessary. The lessons learned in the first half of life must be revisited and reapplied to the second half. This book is structured to help you do that.
In the next chapter, The Flame of Identity: Recalling Our Stories, we explore the guidance that the power of narrative gives us as we wonder “Who Am I?” As we are becoming new elders, it is incumbent upon us to harvest the wisdom we have gained during the first half of life in order to sow its seeds for the second half. Recalling the stories that make us (and which have made us) who we are sets the context for connecting and reconnecting with friends, family, and community members. We are thus better positioned to expand upon and share our wisdom with others as new elders.
Chapter 2, The Flame of Community: Refinding Our Place, addresses the question “Where Do I Belong?” Becoming a new elder offers us a unique opportunity for reexamining our place in the world. This chapter guides us by helping us to wonder what makes a place “home” and what we can do to create a sense of sacred space for the second half of life.
Chapter 3, The Flame of Passion: Renewing Our Calling, is a guide to the “What Do I Care About?” question. We investigate how, as new elders, we can continue to heed our calling in the next phase of life. As we move from full participation in the work world to the vocation of elderhood, we can use our gifts in new ways, through mentoring and other sorts of relationships that connect us to others through meaningful work.
Chapter 4: The Flame of Meaning: Reclaiming Our Purpose offers guidance for the biggest of the big questions, “What Is My Legacy?” It examines the power of purpose within the framework of the recognition that becoming a new elder is ultimately spiritual work. As we move into the second half of our lives, it becomes more and more clear that the time we spend here on Earth is only part of our overall story. Coming to terms with our spirituality and making friends with death as a teacher are some of the topics examined in this chapter as we find ways to keep the fire burning long after our own life's fire has burned low.
In the epilogue, Keeping the Fire Alive, we pull together the principles and stories of the previous chapters and formulate them into a manifesto for new elders in the twenty-first century. We provide a challenge for all persons in the second half of their lives to live on purpose and claim their place at the fire!
What If This Dream Were True?
As we began work on this book, Dave had a dream that could only have been inspired by the discussions and content. He recalls:
The dream began with my death. I was in an airplane and it plummeted to Earth, killing all of us on board
I found myself in the afterlife, where I was given a unique opportunity. I was permitted to return alive to Earth for 24 hours, during which time I would be able to say my goodbyes to loved ones. I felt a great sense of urgency to communicate my feelings for my daughter and wife, especially. In the dream, I returned home where my daughter was doing her usual 6-year-old things—being willful, testing boundaries, exploring life in ways that would typically make me want to steer clear or distract her with the TV or a video. Instead, I felt incredibly honored to be permitted to take part in her world. In the dream, I put my head right next to hers and absorbed the world from her perspective. I wanted nothing more than to just “be there” with her as she was being.
Similarly, in the dream, I was frantic to spend my allotted 24 hours rekindling the passion in my relationship with my wife. I wanted to set aside all the day-to-day negotiations and compromise that go along with making a marriage work and just get back to the essence of what initially drew us together. Again, in the dream, I remember thinking how vital it was that I just experience my wife, Jennifer, as a person, without trying to impose my expectations or wishes upon her. I just wanted to drink as deeply as I could of her in the time I had left.
When I awoke, I was terribly relieved that it was all just a dream and that I wasn't already dead. But all that day, I couldn't help thinking that, in a way, the dream captured what life is or could be all about. What if, I wondered, I tried to keep in mind what a great gift this life is and how critical it is that I use all the time I have to let those I love know that I love them—not for whom I expect them to be, but for whom they are.
As we move into the second half of our lives, suppose we were to wonder if Dave's dream was, in essence, true? It's certainly a possibility explored throughout history in many works from great literature to popular culture. Think of Dante's journey through heaven and hell as he strayed from the right path, midway upon the journey of life in The Divine Comedy. Or of George Bailey's chance to see what the world would be like if he'd never been born in It's a Wonderful Life.
Getting a second chance in the second half of life is a desire that tugs at us from the deepest levels. Having an opportunity to rewrite the second chapter by drawing upon what we've learned during the first is a dream we all share.
As we approach our fourth decade, we begin to think a lot about who we are and where we're going. We begin listening to the still, small voice gently whispering “what is my truest purpose?” The “second half” begins at that time in most of our lives—usually between the ages of 35 and 55—when we begin to realize we aren't going to live forever. We begin to seriously value our most precious currency, our remaining time. This universal, sometimes unspoken, realization ignites the desire to live on purpose in the second half.
At the same time, pondering this serves to remind us that what we mean by the “second half of life” is something of a moving target. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that, in 2001, the average life expectancy for men and women in the United States is about 77 years. So, statistically, most of us enter into the second half when we're about 38 and a half. Our 40th birthdays, of course, are more of a watershed point when we're apt to admit that we're finally entering “middle age.” But that's changing, too. These days, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, people turning 50 can expect to live another 30 to 32 years on average. That's up more than a decade from the start of the twentieth century. And with advances in health care and medical technology, who knows how long the second half will be for any us?
Ironically, though, even as the years before us promise to stretch longer, the time remaining becomes more precious. While the perspective gained in the first half of life typically leads to a certain sense of calm in the second half, it also tends to bring with it a heightened sense of urgency.
What if, we may begin to ask ourselves, we do have only a short time left to live? What if, as in Dave's dream, we have but a limited time to finish the unfinished business of our lives? In what ways would we act differently? In what ways would our best and truest purpose show itself in ways that it doesn't now? What would we say that we haven't said? What would we do that we haven't done? How would we contribute in ways we've always wanted to but for one reason or another have held back from?
The realization that we may have a span of years ahead that stretches out as long as our entire adult life so far, combined with the understanding that, at any moment, we may be far past the actual midpoint of our lives, gives rise to numerous questions that cannot be avoided if we hope to retain our sense of vitality and purpose. And yet, as varied as these questions are, we believe they can be summed up by the inquiry we intend to pursue in the pages that follow:
As we move into the second half of life, how do we most fully and authentically claim our place at the fire?