By Dr. Guy Sayles
Midlife is the autumn, the fall, of the human journey.
Who knows precisely how young or old a middle-aged person is? Chronologically it starts within sight of 40 and ends within range of 70. But, chronology is not the main marker of midlife. The realizations and emotions, the challenges and invitations, of this season come to some people when they are younger and never dawn on others, even though they draw Social Security checks and take annual distributions from their IRAs.
Fall comes when the harvest comes. Whatever our age, midlife begins when we know that we are reaping, as Paul puts it in Galatians, what we have sown: what we have sown, not what our parents or our teachers or our culture planted in us—not merely the inevitable results of the unconscious assumptions and habits we received by inheritance or instruction and not the by-products of patterns we simply breathed-in from the atmosphere in which we lived.
Midlife begins when we taste the fruit, however sweet or bitter, that we planted: choices and decisions we made; results, however good or bad, which we produced by what we did and did not do; and consequences, however pleasant or painful, that we can trace to our own behavior.
There comes a point in life where the statute of limitations runs out on blaming other people for what our lives have become. Mature adults don’t keep protesting against the distant past and drawing up indictments against people who, long ago, failed them, hurt them, or disappointed them in some way. When it becomes clear that we can’t shift blame any more to “them”—to parents or teacher or bosses or spouses or children or God—then we are in midlife.
At midlife, we begin to see, if we haven’t before, that we are more responsible for who we are and for how things are with us than anyone else is. Yes, of course, people sometimes do maddeningly frustrating things: they let us down, betray us, and wound us. But, we choose how we will respond. We decide, even when we do not know we are deciding, whether to stew in the cauldron of resentment or to remove ourselves from their boiling anger. We decide, consciously or unconsciously, to be frozen in loneliness by their insensitivity and self-preoccupation or to seek the warmth of love. We decide, intentionally or unintentionally, to let ourselves be taken for granted or taken advantage of or to put in place the boundaries which protect us from having our lives leached away from us.
In the fall of life, we “get-it” that we are the only actor who is present in all the comedies and tragedies of our lives. If most of the reviews of our varied roles and life-performances say that we are too intense or too serious or too flighty or too passive or too aggressive or have problems with authority or have a tendency to procrastinate, then it might not be that all the reviewers are novices and amateurs who aren’t worth listening to; it might be that are lessons for us to learn and improvements for us to make.
If I keep running into the same kind of brick walls, whether at work or at home or in friendships, then it’s likely that I am the wall-builder, not someone else. If I continue to make the same kinds of mistakes, get the same kinds of feedback, and deal with the same kinds of problems, it’s probably the case that the issue belongs, not so much to “them,” but to me. It’s a midlife realization. We say, as the old spiritual says: “It’s not my mother or my father, not my brother or my sister, not the preacher or the deacon, but it’s me—me— O Lord, standin’ in the need of prayer.”
Midlife—fall-- is the season of harvest, of reaping what we have sown, and of assuming fuller responsibility for the shape and direction of our lives.
Guy Sayles is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Asheville, NC. This article was originally posted on his blog, “From the Intersection."