June 24th, 2019
Many models of human development seem to suggest there are two major tasks for each human life. The first task is to build a strong “container” or identity; the second is to find the contents that the container was meant to hold. The first task we take for granted as the very purpose of life. This does not mean we do it well, but because we’re so focused on it we may not even attempt the second task.
Western society is a “first-half-of-life” culture, largely concerned about surviving successfully. The first task life hands us has to do with establishing an identity, a home, relationships, friends, community, security, and building a proper platform for our only life.
It takes much longer to discover “the task within the task,” : what we are really doing when we are doing what we are doing. Two people can have the same job description, and one is holding a subtle or not-so-subtle life energy (POWER) in doing his or her job, while another is holding a subtle or not-so-subtle negative energy (FORCE) while doing the exact same job.
It is when we begin to pay attention, and to seek integrity in the task within the task, that we begin to move from the first to the second half of our own lives. Integrity largely has to do with purifying our intentions and being honest about our motives. It is hard work. Most often we don’t pay attention to that inner task until we have had some kind of fall or failure in our outer tasks.
During the first half of life we invest so much of our blood and sweat, tears and years that we often cannot imagine there is a second task, or that anything more could be expected of us. Because that usually means the container itself must stretch or die in its present form and be replaced with something better.
In the first half of our lives, we have no container for such content as true love or charity, Most people just keep doing the first half of life over and over again. Young people are made to think that the container is all there is and all they should expect. But now we are understanding we had to do the wanting and the trying and the achieving and the self-promoting and the accomplishing. The first half of life is all about some kind of performance principle. And it seems that it must be this way. We have to do it wrong before we know what right might be.
In the second half of life, we start to understand that life is not only about doing; it’s about being.
The second half of life presents a rich possibility for spiritual enlargement, for we are never going to have greater powers of choice, never have more lessons of history from which to learn, and never possess more emotional resilience, more insight into what works for us and what does not, or a deeper, sometimes more desperate, conviction of the importance of getting our life back.
Become fully responsible for who we are in this journey we call our life. So often the idea of individuation has been confused with self-indulgence or mere individualism, but what more often asks of us is the surrender of the ego’s agenda of security and emotional reinforcement, in favor of humbling service to the soul’s intent.
The agenda of the first half of life is predominantly . . . framed as “How can I enter this world, separate from my parents, create relationships, career, social identity?” Or put another way: “What does the world ask of me, and what resources can I muster to meet its demands?” But in the second half of life . . . the agenda shifts to re-framing our personal experience in the larger order of things, and the questions change. “What does the soul ask of me?” “What does it mean that I am here?” “Who am I apart from my roles, apart from my history?” . . . If the agenda of the first half of life is social, meeting the demands and expectations our milieu asks of us, then the questions of the second half of life are spiritual, addressing the larger issue of meaning.
The psychology of the first half of life is driven by the fantasy of acquisition: gaining ego strength to deal with separation, separating from the overt domination of parents, acquiring a standing in the world. But then the second half of life asks of us, and ultimately demands, relinquishment—relinquishment of identification with property, roles, status, provisional identities—and the embrace of other, inwardly confirmed values.
We must surrender to “die before we die”
In the second half of life the ego is periodically summoned to surrender its identifications with the values of others, the values received and reinforced by the world around it. It will have to face potential loneliness in living the life that comes from within rather than acceding to the noisy clamor of the external world. It will have to submit itself to that which is truly larger, sometimes intimidating, and always summoning us to grow up. And how scary is that, to each of us? No wonder so few ever feel connected to the soul. No wonder we are so isolated and afraid of being who we are.
Yet, paradoxically, the very achievement of ego strength is the source for our hope for something better. We need to be strong enough to examine our lives and make risky changes. A person strong enough to face what we most desires, the distractions of most cultural values, who can give up trying to be well adjusted to a neurotic culture, will find growth and greater purpose after all. The ego’s highest task is to go beyond itself into service, service to what is really desired by the soul.
During the second half of life, the ego will be asked to accept the absurdities of existence, seductive of comforts. How counterproductive our popular culture—with its fantasies of prolonged youthful appearance, continuous acquisition of objects with their planned obsolescence, and the incessant, restless search for magic: fads, rapid cures, quick fixes, new diversions from the task of soul.
The abandonment of ego ambition, One will be freed from having to do whatever supposedly reinforced one’s shaky identity, and then will be granted the liberty to do things because they are inherently worth doing. One can experience the quiet joy of living in relationship to the soul simply because it works better than the alternative. The revision of life feels better in the end, for such a person experiences his or her life as rich with meaning and opening to a larger and larger mystery.
This is the point when we don’t feel holy or worthy. We feel like a failure. When this experience of the “noonday devil” shows itself, the ego’s normal temptation is to be even stricter about following the first half of life’s rules. We think more is better, when in fact, less is more. We go back to laws and rituals instead of the always-risky fall into the ocean of mercy.
Yet that is the only path toward our larger and True Self, where we don’t need to prove ourselves anymore; where we know, “In love there can be no fear. Fear is driven out by perfect love. To fear is to still expect punishment. Anyone who is still afraid is still imperfect in the ways of love” (see 1 John 4:18).
We all came into this world gifted with innocence, but gradually, as we became more intelligent, we lost our innocence. We were born with silence, and as we grew up, we lost the silence and were filled with words. We lived in our hearts, and as time passed, we moved into our heads. Now the reversal of this journey is enlightenment. It is the journey from head back to the heart, from words, back to silence; getting back to our innocence in spite of our intelligence. Although very simple, this is a great achievement. Knowledge should lead you to that beautiful point of “I don’t know.” The whole evolution of man is from being somebody to being nobody and from being nobody to being everybody. —Sri Sri Ravi Shankar
The journey from order to disorder to reorder must happen for all of us; it is not something just to be admired in Gandhi, Mother Theresa. Our role is to listen and allow, and at least slightly cooperate with this almost natural progression.
This process of transformation is slow, and none of it happened without much prayer, self-doubt, study, and conversation.
It seems we all begin in innocence and eventually return to a “second inexperience” or simplicity, whether willingly or on our deathbed. This blessed simplicity is calm, knowing, patient, inclusive, and self-forgetful. It helps us move beyond anger, alienation, and ignorance. I believe this is the very goal of mature adulthood and mature spirituality.