August 25, 2022
I was 61 when I read Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot’s book The Third Chapter, Passion, Risk and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50, published in 2009. I am now 74 and almost at the end of the time of life Lawrence-Lightfoot writes about in the book.
This book was pivotal in my aging evolution.
We were living in Madison, WI, at the time, and I had not found my place in that community. I had trained as a spiritual director when we lived in Ohio and had a private practice there. I had led spirituality groups in an organization for those touched by cancer and also facilitated retreats and taught T’ai Chi in a variety of places, but in my current life I simply had not found a foothold. That was for a variety of reasons, I realize now, but at the time I had no idea how to adjust to this unexpected loss of role, let alone what might be next.
The Third Chapter helped me acknowledge the sadness and grief I felt, but also opened me to imagine new possibilities; new ways of viewing myself and who I might become as I aged. When we moved back to St Paul, after almost 20 years away, I was thrilled to discover ways I could live with purpose and meaning. The time described in The Third Chapter has been and continues to be a time of thriving for me.
The book also gave me a name for this stage of life. “The Third Chapter.” The other day a writer friend, who was feeling certain life changes swirling around her, said she felt as if she was experiencing a midlife crisis again, but of course, we are well beyond our midlife years. How important it is, I think, to give voice to these elder years.
In the inside cover of the book I wrote two questions: What are the words you use to describe this stage of life? What words do you find yourself using frequently when you talk about yourself? I didn’t know when I wrote those words how those would not only be key questions for my own reflection, but they would become questions as I helped develop Third Chapter programs at my church.
So back to the book. By telling others’ stories, Lawrence-Lightfoot focuses on the creative and purposeful learning that goes on in this stage of life and explores the ways men and women at this stage
find ways of changing, adapting, exploring, mastering, and channeling their energies, skills, and passions into new domains of learning. I believe that successful aging requires that people continue–across their lifetime–to express a curiosity about their changing world, an ability to adapt to shifts in their developmental and physical capacities, and an eagerness to engage new perspectives, skills, and appetites. This requires the willingness to take risks, experience vulnerability and uncertainty, learn from experimentation and failure, seek guidance and counsel from younger generations, and develop new relationships of support and intimacy.p. 7
No small task. That should keep us engaged!
This book was the first of what is now my extensive collection of books and aging and spirituality. I am still in my “third chapter,” but I would welcome a new book from Lawrence-Lightfoot about the years after 75. Hint, hint.
In the meantime I found another book by her, Exit, The Endings That Set Us Free (2012). Once again deftly telling others’ stories, she explores the variety of endings in our lives and how to navigate them. She notes that our culture values beginnings, launchings. We hold entrepreneurs in high regard. But exits are ignored and often viewed as failures.
We often slink our way out the door, becoming invisible as we do so. One of the women she interviews says, “I don’t want the exit to be about closed doors. Where is the open door! Where is the new life?” (p. 68)
How do we open a door when we end a relationship, a job or career, a role, a major project? And how do we purposefully and meaningful approach the final exit, our own death or the death of a loved one? This book, like The Third Chapter, tells illustrative stories so well, encouraging readers to reflect on our own lives and the endings we have experienced or will experience.
I thought about the acknowledged ending to a job I loved–how I felt celebrated and honored and how that helped me let go. But I also remember another time when my last day in a role I had also loved was totally ignored. No “Thank you.” No “We’ll miss you.” I am sorry I didn’t take it upon myself to create an exit ritual.
A note about Lawrence-Lightfoot: She is a MacArthur prize-winning sociologist, the author of ten books, and is the first African-American woman in Harvard’s history to have an endowed professorship named in her honor. She is someone worth reading, for sure.
Have any books been a guide for you in this aging evolution? I would love to know.
On another topic, for those of you in the St Paul, MN area, my husband Bruce is having his second garage sale of the season this weekend, Friday and Saturday, August 26-27, at our house, 2025 Wellesley Ave. As many of you know, he paints discarded furniture and accessories and the proceeds from his sales go to support the work of Lutheran Social Service’s Rezik House, a residence for homeless youth. Access to the sale is through the alley only.