Male Spirituality and the Second Half
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Dante experienced the advent of middle age this way. In
the opening canto of The Inferno, he writes:
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
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!
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
the second half of life we can remember what we have forgotten;
we can attend to the things we’ve neglected.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
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
sit or move to and fro, some old, some young,
The young are beautiful—but the old are more beautiful than the young.
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.
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.
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.
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.
me, spirituality is daily life. It’s not so much
about transcendent and extraordinary experiences. It’s
about the stuff of ordinary existence.
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.
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
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.
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.