Evidence suggests that if we wish to flourish in the second half of life, we’ll need to adjust.
As Carl Jung wrote, ‘What is a normal goal in a young person becomes a neurotic hindrance in old age.’
It was Jung who popularised the phrase ‘the two halves of life’. His clients were approaching life with the same mindset they’d grown up with and it wasn’t working.
As he said, ‘One cannot live the afternoon of life according to the programme of life’s morning. For what was good in the morning will be of little importance in the evening and what in the morning was true will by evening have become a lie.’
The first half of life is crucial for our development, providing us with an identity to take out into the world. These early years are about success, security and the affirmation of our peers.
In this first period, we build a strong sense of self through achievement and the applause of others. Perhaps we find fulfilment at work, or in bringing up a family, or in sport, church or amateur dramatics.
It is important we find an identity to give us a sense of purpose; to feel we have a role; that we matter on earth.
The second half of life is different and might arise through crisis of some sort – whether inner or outer. Something happens to make us look at life differently. Or it may arise simply through a desire for psychological and spiritual growth.
It’s the moment when we stop asking our personality for solutions, and allow ourselves to live the mystery.
In the second half of life, we cease to be defined by our achievements or the opinion of others or the labels we (or others) have stuck on us.
Previously, our ego was made to feel safe around a role we played or a perception we had of ourselves or a perception others had of us.
What was it for you? Mother? Father? Carer? Office joker? Shoulder to cry on? Provider? Everyone’s helper? Sports champion? Author? Feminist champion? Wise man? Strong person? Dutiful daughter? Decent bloke? The creative sort? Hard-headed business woman? Social activist? Mr Bloody Grumpy? Sizzling socialite?
Labels give us identity in the first half of life, which is important. But in the second half of life, we discard these clothes of self-definition, like we might discard old prison clothes.
We no longer have need.
But such radical shedding of attitudes, such letting go, does not suddenly make us useless. Indeed, in the second half of life we may become more useful rather than less.
And the difference is this: our sense of self is not now tied to these things.
Instead of saying, ‘I am my achievements’ or ‘I am what people think of me’ or ‘I am my role’, we can simply say, ‘I am.’
The human ego does not warm to this change, so many do not make it to the second half of life. It’s not inevitable, and age in itself does not bring it. You can be a ninety-year-old narcissist; live to a hundred and still be a determined first-half-of-lifer.
The process can start from about the age of thirty onwards, though this is unusual. It starts when it needs to, when we’re ready, when we want it.
It is a challenge, of course, and not suddenly arrived at; we can drift between the two for quite a while.
It can feel like we’re standing over an abyss at first.
If I imagine I am my achievements, that they define who I am, then to let go of them is like letting go of myself.
Or if I imagine I am what others think of me – in other words, if they hold the key to my self-worth, then without their praise, I might cease to exist, surely?
These are real fears and pose the age-old question: who am I?
But we’re kinder, happier and freer people when we come out from behind our labels and discover they are armour we no longer need.
We will sometimes forget this, and regress a little. But this is OK, it’s a normal emotional half-holiday…
…we’ll notice and return to health in due course.