What Will I Do with the Rest of My Life?: A Woman's Guide to Discovering Peace, Power, and Purpose After 40

What Will I Do with the Rest of My Life?: A Woman's Guide to Discovering Peace, Power, and Purpose After 40

by Brenda Poinsett


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781576831519
Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers
Publication date: 05/28/2000
Pages: 212
Product dimensions: 5.57(w) x 8.57(h) x 0.59(d)

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A woman's Guide to Discovering Peace, Power and Purpose after 40


Copyright © 2000 Brenda Poinsett
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-57683-151-5

Chapter One


Why Do I Have So Many Questions?

I feel my life, like a river, moving steadily through the years and I am powerless to stop this process called aging. Questions plague me now in a way I have never experienced before and I feel restless, afraid. Paula Payne Hardin

Oh, no! Sandy told everyone I am fifty! I was dismayed as I looked at the promotional material she had created for my upcoming speaking engagement. The women at her church will never want to listen to me-they'll think I'm too old. Influential, quotable people are in their thirties and forties, not fifties.

In actuality I was a few months away from turning fifty. Sandy had looked at the birth year on my résumé without looking at the month. I was clinging to every day in my forties that I had left.

Turning thirty or forty bothers many people, but I breezed by those birthdays. I believed I still had time to dream, to be, and to do. But fifty said, "If you haven't done it by now, it's too late." All I could see before me was a settled life-even worse, a stagnant one.

My youngest child, Ben, would soon be leaving home. I was reluctant to let him go. Sometimes I would meet him at the door when he came in from school, throw my arms around him, and say, "I'm so glad to have a child coming home!" He must have thought I was crazy!

Sounds like a woman whose whole life was totally wrapped up in her children, doesn't it? Mine wasn't. I was a part-time college instructor, a writer, and a speaker; and I loved having children at home. I wanted my life to stay the way it was.

My days took on a wistful quality and my nights were filled with questions. Is my life over? What am I going to do now? Will anyone value my opinion? In the darkness I contemplated the future and didn't like any of the pictures I saw. But as I wrestled with my anxiety over aging, I felt something else. Something was pressing against my rib cage; it was as if something within me wanted to be released. I couldn't put a label on it-couldn't identify it. It was almost as if there were some force-dare I use the word power?-inside me wanting to be free.

I didn't mention my inner turmoil to anyone for fear I might have to tell my age! I probably would have gone on keeping it to myself-and missed out on some great discoveries-if I had not received two letters.

The Surprising Letters

The first letter was from a smart, talented professional colleague. She was so capable that I felt intimidated by her. Before mailing my letters to Gwen, I always checked and rechecked them for errors.

Somewhere along the line, our correspondence branched out beyond book ideas. We began mentioning personal details. She talked about problems with aging parents, and I talked about Ben leaving home. Then Gwen wrote that she had left her job as editor at a major publishing house. She didn't say why, only that she was going to school to pursue a graduate degree in theology. I assumed she may have been experiencing some burnout and needed some spiritual replenishment. Midway through the degree program, though, she switched to another course of study. She seemed at loose ends, as if she couldn't make up her mind what to do.

Her parents died, and she began experiencing physical problems. Menopause was proving to be difficult and she had developed arthritis in her knees. She wrote: "I think what's troubling me is an issue for many forty-five+ women. It's not the severity of the problems but the realization that my body is starting to break down and the future could hold a lot more of this. Also, with the death of my parents, the gut understanding that I am going to die and that few ways of dying are attractive bothers me."

I was surprised that a smart, savvy woman like Gwen would have such a hard time deciding what she wanted to do with her life and that she could feel so vulnerable about the future. I would have figured her to face the future with more confidence, but I could "hear" panic in her words.

The second letter was from Saundra, a longtime friend. Our friendship began when our children were preschoolers. Through the years I had admired Saundra's patience with her opinionated, quick-to-anger husband. Pleasant and compliant in personality, Saundra always tried to please Harry. I thought she epitomized the submissive wife the apostle Paul wrote about in Ephesians 5.

Harry adamantly insisted that "a woman's place" was in the home. Through the years, Saundra had stayed home except when she had to take temporary jobs during financially difficult times. Even then she thought of herself as a full-time homemaker, and so did Harry. Now in her letter, Saundra said, "I'm thinking of making some changes in my life. I have been married for twenty-eight years to a man who needs to control me. His methods of control have been verbal abuse and anger. Until recently, I was a willing enabler of this behavior. I thought I was being a good, submissive wife and that God would change Harry or somehow rescue me out of this life if I just kept on being a 'good wife.' Well, my husband hasn't changed, and I'm contemplating how I want to spend the rest of my life. My nest will soon be empty. I want to build a life that would give me satisfaction and meaning, like raising our children has given me. I want to stay in this marriage, but to do that I need to find work outside of my home to help bring perspective and meaning to my life. I'm thinking about going back to college and finishing my degree so I can embark on a new career. What do you think?"

What did I think? I was shocked. I had expected that Saundra would always be a full-time homemaker. She had always seemed so contented, at least from a distance. Perhaps if I had seen her on a day-by-day basis and corresponded more than once or twice a year, I wouldn't have been so surprised. It was such a change for her.

I couldn't help comparing my experience with Gwen's and Saundra's. All three of us were near fifty, and we were all wrestling with our futures. Who were we going to be? What were we going to do? What was the future going to be like?

I wondered, Is what we are experiencing typical of women at midlife? Or could it be that our experiences were simply coincidental? I headed for the library.


What I learned was that we were being invited to grow. Midlife, which the Bureau of Census labels the years 45 to 64, is "a summons to grow and a challenge to change." So that's what it was; we were experiencing growing pains!

C. G. Jung [founder of analytical psychology] recognized that what works for the adult person in the first half of life will not work for the second half. Each person's journey will unfold in a way that calls him or her to growth. Many books on midlife have been written since Jung first proposed that this period of adult growth is every bit as painful and unpredictable as the age of adolescence. This stage is variously referred to by authors as "midlife," "middle age," "middle years," or "the middle passage."

Gail Sheehy popularized the idea of "passage" in her books Passages and New Passages. A passage or transition is "a period of change, growth, and disequilibrium that serves as a kind of bridge between one relatively stable point in life and another relatively stable but different point." In the transition, we go from "one pattern of life that no longer 'fits' into a new pattern that is different." This transition may involve so little emotional distress that it is barely noticed. On the other hand, it may be a time of wrestling and struggling, almost as if a birth is taking place. Indeed, one writer describes life transitions as "a time to give birth to our future and the quality of that future."

Sheehy's label for the passage/transition between first adulthood and second adulthood is "middlescence."

In adolescence, an earlier transition, we were separating from our parents, becoming autonomous, finding our own identity, and deciding what we were going to do with our lives. In middlescence, we leave young adulthood. For many of us, that involves redefining ourselves and deciding what we are going to do with the rest of our lives.

Ironic, isn't it? When we were in our late teens and early twenties, we asked ourselves, What will I do with my life? Assuming the answer covered a lifetime, we never thought we'd need to ask this question again. Now here we are at midlife, faced with the same question.

A Second Adult Life-Time

After turning forty-five, most of us will live for another thirty, forty, or even fifty years.

A woman who reaches age fifty today-and remains free of cancer and heart disease-can expect to see her ninety-second birthday.

Even when all women, sickly or well, from every income group and every IQ level across the United States are averaged together, they can still expect at least thirty-two years and likely a span of forty or more years... after reaching their fiftieth birthdays.

What do we want the quality of those years to be? A time of progressive decline, growing emptiness, and loss of vitality? Or a time of growth, fulfillment, and power? The difference depends on how we navigate the transition. Will we deal with its questions? Will we persist in looking for answers?

Now and Then

When I was an adolescent, I took my questions about my future to God; at fifty, I hesitated. When I was young I had a fresh, confident God-can-do-anything, all-will-turn-out-well kind of faith. At midlife, my faith was more realistic. It had been tempered by the stresses and disappointments of life. Experience had taught me that God's ways are not as understandable as I once thought. Following hard after God is no guarantee that our lives will turn out as we expect or hope.

Recently, I sat in a large audience where the speaker told us that if we just turn our lives over to Christ we would have happy homes. I found myself thinking, I just don't believe that anymore. I looked around at some women I knew in the audience-women of faith who did not have happy homes. Like Saundra, they had turned their lives over to Christ a long time ago and, from what I could tell, had served Him consistently. Like Saundra, who had waited for a happy marriage, they had waited for happy homes. And like Saundra, they were still waiting.

I also thought about Gwen. If she had told that speaker of her anxieties about her future, he likely would have responded by saying, "There's nothing to fear about the future; just have faith." Cut and dried. Pure and simple. But experience had taught me things are rarely simple.

Was I wrong to be so realistic? Did my past experiences have something to do with my reluctance to embrace the future? God had disappointed me in the past. Could I trust Him with my future? I kept my questions to myself because I didn't want simplistic, adolescent answers for middlescent questions. I did, though, want to serve God and to please Him. I had learned from struggling with depression in my late thirties that I can't-nor do I even want to-live without God. Now I wanted to know: what does it mean to follow Christ as a woman of forty-seven, fifty-three, or fifty-eight? Does God have meaningful work for me to do? If He does, how can I discover it? How do I serve Him without youthful vigor and idealism? What kind of faith do I need for the second half of life?

Those Nagging Questions

Spiritual questions like these are characteristic of the middlescent transition, which takes place in the mind, the heart, and the spirit. It begins with:

* inner discontent

* hazy fears

* nagging questions

* impulses or pressure toward change

* seeing ourselves, our roles, or others differently

* disturbing dreams, or

* a sense that the old pattern no longer fits.

This is not to say that midlife growth cannot be precipitated by or exacerbated by concrete events in our lives: job loss, empty nest, death of friends and loved ones, menopause, the onset of a chronic illness, aches and pains, bifocals, even our birthday or someone's casual remark. (I was in a slump for three days after a twenty-year-old student said to me, "I hope I have your attitude when I'm your age.")

In our minds and our hearts we interpret these events and register their meaning, and the questions start coming. David J. Maitland, a campus minister, chaplain, and teacher, writes, "For it is only as we are willing to live with the questions which our experience poses that it is possible for God gradually to make clear to us directions in which answers lie."

Women live with the spiritual questions of middlescence in various ways. I began by articulating mine because I made no progress by keeping them to myself. They were filling my inner house. I needed to sweep it clean so I could give God space to direct me.

I started talking with other Christian women about my struggle-and yes, I started admitting how old I was! I brought up my questions in casual conversations with women I knew who would be candid. I organized discussion groups with other middlescent women. With the help of a friend, I developed a questionnaire and circulated it among Christian women ages forty-five to sixty-five.

I sent the questionnaire to names gathered at a speaking engagement and to women in my address book. When these women responded, they sent me names and addresses of other women until I had 169 completed questionnaires from women ages forty-one to sixty-nine, who lived in twenty-four different states and in Germany.

I asked broad, open-ended questions because I wanted the women to express themselves; I wanted to "hear" what the respondents were thinking and feeling so I could connect with them. They must have wanted the same thing because many of them said, "Thanks for asking." Naturally, a survey of this nature wouldn't qualify as scientific, but that was not its purpose. It was an exploration process for me, a way to "live with" the questions I was asking.


Excerpted from WHAT WILL I DO WITH THE REST OF MY LIFE? by BRENDA POINSETT Copyright © 2000 by Brenda Poinsett. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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