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Ageing with grace

An article from BeliefNet came through to me the other day.

The author, Marianne Williamson, is an ex-minister, so she has beliefs that I don't share. Nevertheless, we are clearly both trying to understand how you make your place in the world in the second half of your life as opposed to the first.

She has some very valuable things to say about spirituality and you can read the full article here.

Among them are that when you think to yourself that if only you were younger X or Y would be better, it's an illusion.

"When I was younger," she says, "I was thinking, "If only I had another job, it would better. If I only lived in another place, it would be better. If only I was in a different relationship, it would be better." But the real issue, she says she came to realise, was not her age, or her circumstances. "The real issue was the mind struggling against itself."

By the time we're 45 or 40 life has given us some hard knocks, she adds. Few people are unscathed, and stress, grief, pain and suffering are all ageing. But, she says: "We all fall down. The issue is not who falls down, it's who gets back up and how." She urges people to capitalise on their experiences and mistakes to become wiser, more compassionate human beings.

Being a woman, she also doesn't escape that feeling that we all get at this stage - of looking in the mirror and knowing that you've looked your best, and that it was about 10 years ago. "Who wishes we didn't have the same thighs that we had twenty years ago, or the same rear end or that our breasts were in the same place?" she says.

"Who doesn't think wistfully about all that? You can't just pretend that you don't. You have to grieve it." But then, she adds, a wonderful thing happens and you learn that you can be as good as you can be for the person you are now, even if you'll never lift your leg so high in aerobics any more.

She also makes one point that I think is very true - that the decisions you make once you hit 40 result in more instant karma. "That which you get right bears even greater fruit, and that which you get wrong bears harsher consequences," she says. Williamson means in terms of both mind and spirit - such as your ability to forgive, your ability to let go - and to your physical self in terms of doing exercise or yoga etc.

Finally, says Williamson, "Once you've lived enough, it's not about getting more. It's learning to just be in joy with what you have."

Well, I couldn't agree more with that.

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Mid-life crisis? What mid-life crisis?

It's my birthday (again) soon, and maybe that's why I was reading a couple of articles on mid-life crises today.

One was on BeliefNet, courtesy of the Beyond Blue column by Therese Borchard. Borchard suffers from depression, and so do I, which is why I subscribe (you'd have to go a long way to find us atheists listed on BeliefNet after all - we're under 'other faiths', which I think is a bit rich). But she also referred to an article by Stephanie Weiss in the Wall Street Journal.

Weiss, currently 49, was keen to build an idea that mid-life crises are all to do with hitting the nines, which she calls 'harbingers of death', and set out to interview a number of experts on the subject. But personally, I preferred the conclusion from one of her experts, Carlo Strenger. Strenger is an associate professor of psychology at Tel Aviv University and co-author of a Harvard Business Review article on the "existential necessity of midlife change," and his belief is that today's midlife crisis is evidence of what he calls cultural lag. To quote Weiss:

Instead of joining the desperate effort to deny ageing, Strenger suggests that we knock down the myth of midlife as the onset of decline and build up the notion of a "second life cycle" full of new possibilities founded on self-knowledge and experience. "Imagine -- as we often have people do in psychology experiments -- that you're 20," he said, "and you're told you have an incurable illness. You'll be fine for the next 30 years, then you'll die at 50. What would you do? You'd live a full life. That's exactly the situation 50-year-olds are in now. Statistically you have another 30 years. What are you going to do with your next decades?"

It's time, Strenger said, to move "from midlife crisis to midlife transition."

I hit 45 in a couple of weeks, so I think I'll go with that idea. It's all too easy once you hit 40 to start thinking that 'It's too late now - I should have done X when I was younger', because the truth is, it isn't too late. It's not too late to travel, to train in a new skill, to experience a passionate relationship - whatever you feel you should have done, for good or ill, when you were younger. To put it another way, at 40 you can often waste timing feeling how OLD 40 is, but at 60, all you'll remember is how YOUNG 40 was.

Take my friend M as an example. He went to college last year, to train to be an architect and I can't tell you how much I admire this. Yes, he could have done it at 18, instead of dropping out of his A-levels to join a band. But now he brings his life experience to bear on his studies, which makes him more valuable, and also more dedicated.

Many of us would be afraid to sell our house and live off the income for three years while we qualify in a new skill. Too big a risk, we'd feel - and we're too dedicated to our stuff. But M's top of his class in everything he does and I don't think he's going to lack for job offers just because he'll be over 45 when he qualifies. Instead of closing a door in mid-life, he's forced a new one open. There's a lesson for all of us in that.

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