Mabon New Moon of the First Snow
Friend Tom Crane wrote this morning: “Third phase (or whatever the hell it is we are in) is stereotyped as winding down, dealing with fewer issues (because they have all been dealt with already) and generally a slowing down. Now that we are all really fully into whatever this is it seems to me there is a good bit of the opposite of that energy. We are dealing with really significant stuff (body and health related, for instance) that never came to us when we were younger and more vital. There is more change per square minute that we have ever seen before in spite of the stability of key relationships and situations. And yet it is curious that we seem to be demonstrating greater capability than ever before as we navigate all this with the experience and wisdom(?) gained through decades of experimentation with who we are.”
The third phase notion is my attempt to decouple this period of life from the concept of retirement, an idea that this period of life defines itself as not-doing something. Winding down, dealing with fewer issues, slowing down featured prominently in the finish line model of retirement. We were done with the workaday world, no more 9-5. No longer the buzzing, blooming world of business with its implacable demands. Now we could kick back, put our feet up, pop a PBR and watch football without guilt. Or go fishing. Or golfing. Or quilt. Or spend more time with the grandkids.
And, when work finished up followed by four or five years of leisure, then disability or death, that model, retirement, the time of not-working, probably made sense. That is, it described life post-work for the bulk of retirees.
Lengthening lifespans have caused not-working to become inadequate for understanding life after the second phase of family building and career. In fact for some who enter the third phase they may not have given up their career, though family building is likely behind them. Still, even those still active in work often now see work as much less central, much less definitive for their identity.
If you agree to any degree with this: “I believe that the true norm of the third phase is to wander, to become like a planet to your Self, pulled by the gravitational attractions of its values and its directions. Now is the time, if you have not availed yourself of it earlier, to listen to the voices of your own heart, your own dreams, your own ancientrail.”, then, this time, call it the third phase or aging (though I’ve always found this an odd term since by definition we begin aging at birth) or old age, is qualitatively different from what has gone before.
It no longer focuses on getting somewhere, accomplishing something (though we may get somewhere and things may well be accomplished), but on the journey of your uniqueness. In this way we can arrive at the paradox, the apparent contradiction that Tom identifies: “…there is a good bit of the opposite of that energy. We are dealing with really significant stuff (body and health related, for instance) that never came to us when we were younger and more vital…There is more change per square minute that we have ever seen before in spite of the stability of key relationships and situations.”
Once we have made or not made our family, stumbled on or victoriously walked the path of work/career, then the shift can be made to a time of self-understanding, self-expression. Perhaps the second phase could be characterized as a “we” phase and the third the “I” phase, in this sense the third phase and the first have much in common. In none of the phases do we exist solely in a we mode or solely in an I mode. I refer to a matter of emphasis, one dictated not so much by personal desire or even cultural norms, but by matters of biology.
How so? In the first phase we are young, inexperienced, naive to the world. As we grow and our bodies change, the emphasis is necessarily on personal learning: socialization, athleticism, school curriculum or skill set development. At some point in our twenties, early or late depending on the amount of schooling undertaken, the idea of family begins to take hold for most of us. This reflects a maturation of the body and an acquiescence to the species imperative for propagation. Work and/or career follows from the learning of the first phase and becomes, again for most of us, intricately entwined with family.
We are not eternal though. The body begins a decline, at first gradual, then more pronounced. At some point the children are launched, either into the workforce or into higher education then the workforce, and our own work/career reaches a peak. Sometime after we begin to contemplate a time when neither work nor family building will be central to our lives. Yes, family will still be important, probably, and even work might continue in some fashion, but neither will be at the center of our lives anymore.
What will be at the center? Individuation. The final process of personal development. Does this mean a collapse of the we and an ascendance of the I? Not at all. Your individuation may well carry you more deeply into the world. Or, it may not. It may carry you into the study, the sewing room, the world of rocks and minerals, even the development of a brand new way of human interaction. Wherever it carries you, if you are true to the defining character of the third phase, that it ends in death, you will become more of who you really are. Because, you see, it is, finally, only you that dies.
So, then, the paradox. When we are at our most authentic, are most keen to explore and liberate our gifts, the body is well into its senescence. So, the signals of mortality come fast and often: cancer, arthritis, glaucoma, weakening, imbalance at the same time the Self, the integration of body/mind, is at its most flourishing.
Though it doesn’t have to make sense, since this is a biological process and has its own timing, it does make sense to me that our most fully evolved person can be the one who faces the physical challenges of aging. By now, hopefully, we have learned of our finitude and understand biological deterioration. What a gift it is to see our frailties for what they are, accidents of our biology, and not determinative of our Self, its worth. In this way our best Self confronts the dangers and agonies that would have terrified, perhaps frozen, our younger Selves, and sees in them not the hand of a cruel fate, but the working out of a truth known since birth. We are mortal.
But, we can die as the flaming aspen does, a brilliant luminosity apparent just before the winter sets in.