An Existential Shift?
I don’t know if it’s because I’m well into my 66th year or that I lost my dad recently. Admittedly, I’m noticing an increase in aches and pains, while even at the same time a growing awareness of a decrease in my physical and mental energy. I honestly just don’t have the drive I once did. I’m also thoughtful and at times outright discouraged by my inability to find the trail that leads me back to joy. I have always been a buoyant, resilient, even-keeled individual. I’ve been able to find pleasure and meaning in the little things of life. I’ve frequently been inspired by my naturally curious spirit. And have, by and large, been content. But more often now, I find myself mumbling to those who ask how I’m doing, “I don’t feel like myself” or “I feel unwell.”
It’s been this, my personal context, in which I have engaged the endless cycle of questions and conundrums voiced by the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes. I’m not sure whether or how these ancient words have triggered my current state, but I do know that I find myself resonating deeply with the desperate search for meaningful answers to such big, unanswerable questions. Maybe it's this that prompted me to seek to hear the Divine perspective from above, beneath, beside, and within this human experiment called aging.
Recently, Beth and I met back-to-back with our spiritual director, Nancy. She patiently listened to our individual musings as we sought to muddle through the places that seem both unknown and confusing about our stage of life. She then went on to share a few thoughts from Erik Erikson’s work on life stages. The ideas have given a glimmer of hope that here, at the last third of life, we’re not hopelessly lost, but still on the way.
Erikson outlined eight developmental stages all humans pass through. Each stage is described as a pairing that creates an unavoidable tension; one that pulls us into our depths as we seek to make our way forward. In the second to the last stage he identifies the journey of generativity vs. stagnation. These are the productive years. The years of accomplishments, of setting goals and achieving them. They can also be years of giving up, giving in—just going with the flow or going through the motions.
Beth and I are familiar with this epoch of our lives. We seem to have one foot still in it as we recall the vital energy that inspired us to make our lives what we have. But now, we also sense the need to shift our footsteps from this well-known trail and head in an unfamiliar and unknown direction that we may or may not have a name for.
Erickson gives it a name. It’s a helpful, even compelling name. He describes the last stage of the developmental journey as one in which we navigate the resolution between integrative wholeness or despair. As I read these paired terms, the stakes of the undertaking couldn’t seem higher. And on top of this, we are aware of the limited time we possess to attempt the completion of this interior task before us.
After Nancy shared Erikson’s basic framework, she then suggested that we are experiencing an existential shift. The term is still sinking in and taking on meaning for me, but the moment I heard it I felt relief! That’s it. I have a name for this unknown place in which I find myself. My life seems suspended between that which once gave meaning, focus and energy, and now, this new, uninvited place that yawns before me.
Nancy explained that each stage has a developmental question or task to resolve. The second to the last stage, generativity/stagnation, is seeking to resolve the question, “How do I live well into the future?” The question shifts in the final stage of integrative wholeness/despair to “How do I live well to the end?”
The shift in focus of these two questions is subtle and life altering, to say the least. Recognizing the difference has begun to give focus to our steps through this existential shift. In the second to the last stage, our eyes are on the horizon of the future with its seemingly unlimited possibilities and endless time. Mortality is abstract and distant. It’s an issue for other people to deal with. But in the final stage, the end, if not near, is becoming more definitive than it’s ever been. Living well to the end focuses on that which is my life, and not what could be. How do I deepen this one life that is mine? How do I bring to completion what really matters to me? If I only had a year left to live would I still be doing X, Y or Z?
As helpful as these developmental categories are in this present moment, the actual experience is far more steeped with emotion, with anxiety, with the possibilities of regret. The interiority of this part of the journey seems to be taking me down a path I truly haven’t been before; one I’ve likely seen but avoided stepping foot on. But no longer. It now seems unavoidable and even essential. Its necessity, however, doesn’t make the confusion of the unknown any more appealing.
And perhaps this is where the book of Ecclesiastes comes in. As I shared in the introduction, I began reading this short book a month before I turned 66. It seemed like a good place to land as I considered the years behind me as well as the ones ahead. After several weeks of experiencing the author’s questions and confusion, I laughed to myself and said, “This is a book to be read in the last third of life. It should be banned for those who are younger than 60. It may squash the bright-eyed idealism and the optimistic drive they still need.”
So maybe the gift offered to us in this most unique book in the Jewish and Christian scriptures is this: It gives us permission to muddle and meander through life’s incongruencies. It invites us to hold onto the depths of our despair and the wonders of human potential in the container of our aging souls. As I have heard God whisper an answer to these perennial and agonizing questions, I seem to have found some much needed glimmers of hope to continue in this divine experiment which is my life.
It’s been almost 50 years now since Jesus went from being an historical figure to a living person in my life. Over the years and decades, various names and ways of seeing the Eternal One have been meaningful for a season and then gradually receded: Savior, Shepherd, Creator, Lord, Lover, Brother. These all still hold a special place in my journey, but as I was writing Wisdom for Old Souls a new name, a familiar and endearing name kept coming up: Old Friend.
As I sat outside this morning, coffee clutched to my chest, warmed by a small fire in the backyard, I sat there, taking in life—my life, the life of the world—and I felt the nearness of my Old Friend. It’s a term God and I seem to be exchanging and settling into with one another these days. I’m not sure I’ve ever used it or heard it before, but at this point, it seems to sum up all that has come before and offer a way of addressing and being addressed by the Divine.
Wisdom for Old Souls available in our Resource Section