“Spring passes and one remembers one’s innocence.
Summer passes and one remembers one’s exuberance.
Autumn passes and one remembers one’s reverence.
Winter passes and one remembers one’s perseverance.”
~ Yoko Ono
The undeniable constant in life is change. Nature demonstrates the predictable wisdom of life in flux as year-after-year we witness a cyclical intelligence that perpetuates the evolution of the seasons.
Spring is a time of cultivating the soil to render fertile ground in which to plant seeds. Summer is marked by the magic of new life emerging, as the seeds that were planted in spring mature and yield the beauty of blossoms and blooms, hinting at the bounty of the coming harvest. The lazier days of summer evolve into Autumn, the traditional season of harvest producing an emerging cornucopia to be shared and celebrated, marking the effort of the earlier seasons. And ultimately Autumn yields to the season of Winter, a time of year when nature surrenders to a cycle of rest and relaxed movement.
HUMANS MIRROR THE SEASONS OF NATURE
When we pay attention to the cycles that govern the natural universe we inhabit, we can observe how particular patterns of energy move harmoniously through time. There is a mystery and magic revealing recurring intervals such as years, seasons, the lives of plants, animals, and also humans.
I have learned that when I pay attention to what happens effortlessly in the natural world, I am better able to understand the expression of my own individual nature, and respect the movement of my own rhythm, cycles, and seasons of life.
It is all too common, almost a rite of passage in the western world, for the activity of our lives to reach a frenzied pace emphasized by the cultural values of productivity, performance, profit, power, and perfectionism. In my experience, this can create a vortex of relentless striving and driving ourselves to do, achieve, have, and be more which has become an illusory badge of honor.
Over time this mindset and pace of living diminishes our capacity to accept and trust the wisdom inherent in the particular season of life we are in.
An aphorism is a concise statement that communicates an important truth derived from experience. An example would be “the macro mirrors the micro and vice versa”. The seasons of the natural world (macro) in many ways mirror our own seasons of life (micro). Thus, we humans are in a symbiotic relationship with nature.
By definition, to live in symbiosis means we are having an interdependent relationship with some other expression of life. Many people, myself included, feel the relationship with their dog or cat to be symbiotic.
Similarly, as we learn to appreciate the changing seasons that occur naturally as we move into each new decade within an average human lifetime, we can choose to engage in a complementary relationship with the passage of time and the process of aging. We have the opportunity to learn how to embrace the unique gifts that are waiting when we trust the ripening process of moving into a new season.
RIPENING ON THE VINE OF LIFE
Ripening is a maturation process in fruit and vegetables that causes them to become more palatable, sweeter, less green, and softer as they age. As the fruit is allowed to ripen, it reaches its peak. Consider that humans are just another variation of a living organism also capable of ripening to eventually evolve into a sweeter, more palatable, softer relationship with the experience of living as we embrace each new season of life.
“All the trees are losing their leaves, and not one of them is worried” ~ Donald Miller
Sadly, in our pathologically youth-obsessed culture we have lost sight of the importance of ripening. We have the capacity to ripen spiritually and psychologically only when we move through the seasons of life with acceptance, humor, respect, and enjoy the insight that emerges when we embrace and share the fruits of the particular season we are in.
MORNING – AFTERNOON – EVENING OF LIFE
Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung, performed in-depth analysis on the changing nature of the human psyche as people move through the chronological cycles and seasons of life. Consider his following well-known prose:
“Thoroughly unprepared, we take the step into the afternoon of life. Worse still, we take this step with the false presupposition that our truths and our ideals will serve us as hitherto. But we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning, for what was great in the morning will be little at evening and what in the morning was true, at evening will have become a lie.” ~Carl G. Jung
This quote has been widely interpreted to suggest that when we enter the afternoon season of our lives, in order to evolve toward our full and ripest expression as we age, we must be willing to identify whether our values, priorities, ideals are changing. If not, we are often imprisoned by what held meaning and significance from our past and we find ourselves in the afternoon of life clinging to an identity we have outgrown.
Dr. Jung wrote: “A human being would certainly not grow to be 70, 80, or 90 years old if this longevity had no meaning for the species to which he belongs. The afternoon of human life must also have a significance of its own and cannot be merely a pitiful appendage to life’s morning.”
A sidebar here: Per the CDC’s Natural Center for Health Statistics, the life expectancy for the United States has dropped over the past three years. Why has the U.S., a global leader in the length of life for its citizens since the 1960s, fallen in this metric for quality of the nation’s health? A new study published in the BMJ, one of the world’s oldest peer-reviewed medical journals, looked into a broader cause behind the decline: despair.
“We are seeing an alarming increase in deaths from substance abuse and suicide,” said Steven Woolf, an associate professor of emergency medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University and co-author of the report.
He added that the amount of the decrease in life expectancy is actually less alarming than the fact that addiction and a decline in the emotional wellbeing of Americans have been significant enough to drag down the country’s average length of life.
What is at the root of the current prevalence of despair which can manifest in addiction, depression, and myriad other ways? I think it’s irresponsible not to ask – does this epidemic of despair have anything to do with the lack of maturing, ripening, and subsequent shifting of attitudes and values that is woven into the collective obsession with remaining forever young?
Could an interruption in psychological and spiritual development correspond to the recent increase in despair and also be related to the lack of meaning many people say they experience, often despite the professional gains and personal acquisitions gained over time?
CRISIS AND PSYCHOLOGICAL/SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT
Erik Erikson is the developmental psychologist who was instrumental in mapping out the stages of developmental psychology and famous for coining the phrase identity crisis. Dr. Erikson’s work revealed that humans go through eight stages of psychosocial development to reach maturity.
During each stage everyone experiences a psychological/social crisis which shapes them through the outcome of that crisis, be it positive or negative. If the outcome is positive, meaning some lesson is learned, a corresponding virtue is woven into that person’s character providing a necessary building block for the next stage of development.
Relevant to the seasons of life and the gradual decline in the American life span, Erikson’s theory illustrated that the virtue of wisdom potentially acquired by people 65+ arises from the relationship between ego integrity and despair. In other words, midway along life’s journey if we still have regrets, are fixated on the poor choices we previously made, opportunities passed, etc., we are more likely to experience despair.
A healthier, growth-oriented approach is to accept what is, forgive ourselves and others for former mistakes, identify what was learned, and move on. This fosters a rounding-out of our personality that provides a level of ego integrity, and creates more fluidity to flow with life as we age versus remaining stuck in the past. Perhaps despair in many ways is being overly identified with our unresolved past which inhibits finding meaning and fulfillment in our present.
A summary explanation follows of the seasons in our human lives. I resist assigning a chronological age to each one as I have certainly known people in their 20s and 30s who are attending to the functions that are typical in the morning of life but also demonstrate wisdom and insight beyond their years. Conversely, I also know people who are in the evening season of life and are generally still attached to the values, priorities, and ideals they held in the morning. But in general:
Morning of Life
The morning of life encompasses the spring – the season of birth, growth, development, family attachment, and cultural socialization of a child through adolescence into early adulthood. This is generally fostered by the parents or primary caregivers of the individual.
Spring extends on into summer – the season of young adulthood where acquiring life skills, often through education or specialized training, gaining viable employment, often finding a mate, birthing and raising children. The priorities and values of life’s summer season include becoming financially responsible, secure in our individual identity, and capable of being participating members of the social system in which we live.
Afternoon of Life
The season of life’s afternoon is often marked by achievement of the earlier goals, i.e, we are established in a chosen vocation, have remained partnered with a mate or are functioning autonomously, are financially stable, and for those who had children are either in the cycle of child raising or have effectively ushered them out of the nest and into the world.
Thus, the goals, ideals, values, and priorities necessarily start shifting. In this stage, we realize that we are more than what we have accumulated – be it money, awards, possessions, good deeds, or milestones in life.
In the early afternoon it is common to experience growing discontent that can manifest as boredom, apathy, a low-level melancholy, and other expressions of dissatisfaction with one’s state.
“Aging is not a process of inexorable decline, but a time for the progressive refinement of what is essential” ~ C.G. Jung
The arising of these symptoms is usually the clue from a soul-level that it is time to go within and do some intentional self-examination to identify what needs refining at an essential level. Per Socrates’ wisdom: “the unexamined life is not worth living.” I specify here that self-examination is not self-judgment!
Evening of Life
The last decades of our lives have the potential for being rich and satisfying despite the many challenges common to this final season. There is enormous opportunity for continued spiritual and psychological growth. In addition, this time in life can be a time of expanded connection, creativity, and greater depth. This is a time of generativity, passing on to our loved ones and younger generations the wisdom and strength accrued from effectively weathering the previous seasons of life leading to evening.
At this stage, it becomes less important to worry about what others think and expect of us. To be unencumbered of this burden opens the way for the true rewards that result from genuine connections with others, learning and experiencing new things, more play and laughter. These qualities are balanced by the capacity to hold the disappointments, losses, and regrets that accumulate in everyone over the course of living the life of an imperfect human. This fosters an emerging state of equanimity created from the unique juxtaposition of gravitas and grace. This is frequently the deep and fertile ground where many find a sense of meaning.
I write this piece from the afternoon of my own life. I have found that it takes intention, discipline, and a commitment to self-awareness to stay faithful to the truth that unfolds as I age. This cannot happen if I am clinging tenaciously to the habits, visions, and narratives of my past.
THE HUMAN IN OUR BEING
The truth that continues to unfold in myself has me more attentive to the human in my being. This is a curious process because, like so many, for decades what shaped my life and identity were the well-worn routines of a human doing. This modus operandi over time all but swallowed the essential elements of my nature, with a diminishing sense of feeling truly alive. In the afternoon of my life I now resonate more with the words of Howard Thurman: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
So, what becomes more important in this season of my life is to explore and move in the direction of that which makes me feel alive. Esther Perel is a psychotherapist more recently known for her work with couples and her presentations on eroticism. She says her work “is about how people connect to the quality of aliveness, vibrancy, vitality, and renewal. And that is way beyond the description of sexuality. It is actually a spiritual, mystical experience of life. A transcendent experience because it is an act of the imagination.”
I have both experienced and observed how ‘normal’ it has become for people to lose that sense of aliveness as they move through the seasons of life. Maybe the gradual drop in life expectancy as mentioned earlier, correlating to the growing degree of despair in US citizens is related to the diminishing aliveness, vibrancy, and vitality that somehow seems to parallel the passage of time.
The ‘decline’ so commonly associated with getting older is perhaps an accumulation of the many years of life as a human doing vs human being.
For me as I go through my days, I am still enjoying working in my chosen vocation, but the pace of the routine is more relaxed. This of course is highly influenced by the pace of my mind, combined with shifting values and priorities. I no longer define my ‘success’ by competitive performance, unrealistic standards of perfection, unrelenting productivity, and soaring profits.
The measure for success now comes from knowing when I am veering too far from what feeds my essential nature and this in turn shows me where I feel most alive.
It is important to note that feeling alive not only includes states of joy, peace, creativity, and enthusiasm. Just as important to feeling alive is also learning how to gently and compassionately turn toward the states of discomfort that are part of being human. The degree to which we can experience joy is proportionate the degree to which we will allow the feelings of loss, disappointment, sadness and grief.
We are all such unique creatures even though we are also remarkably the same. Yet in our singularity there will be a different process that unfolds for everyone, revealing the atmosphere and conditions that resonate with experiencing the aliveness and vibrancy of the deep and true self as we cross the threshold into the afternoon and finally the evening of life.
What follows is a sampling of what is emerging and continues to inform and inspire my own shift away from despair, turn toward my unfolding truth and movement toward more aliveness in this afternoon season of my life:
- Intentionally looking for and/or creating beauty each day. This world has far more beauty than ugliness, we just need to choose to see it and when we do there is a sense of opening to the expansive, exquisitely expressive nature of life.
- Prioritize high-quality alone time which is often held by silence. “Sometimes it takes the sweet confinement of your aloneness to learn anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.” ~ David Whyte
- As I pay closer attention to what makes me feel alive, this often parallels the discovery of what I love – and making more space for those experiences and people in my life. George Washington Carver wrote: ”Whatever you love opens its secrets to you” and I find that is mostly true.
- Greater awareness of how my body responds to people and situations. In general, when I feel physically relaxed and open with whatever or whomever I encounter I trust I am moving in a direction I am meant to explore.
- Slow down my pace of living! This is an ongoing challenge but it is possible when I slow down the pace of my mind. This requires pausing more, being quietly mindful of thoughts that hold a charge, learning to detach from a sense of urgency, and in general being okay at the end of the day with an unfinished to-do list. Tomorrow is another day.
- Continue with my ongoing process of self-development. Too often people use getting older as an excuse to stop developing themselves. Every living organism naturally leans toward its innate potential for optimal expression, humans are no different. Over time this fosters a rounding out of our essential personality as mentioned earlier which affords us to identify what matters to us – what holds meaning?
- Reconciling and making peace with mistakes from the past. I remind myself when this is particularly challenging that regret can go one of two ways: it can bind me to the past or be the driving force for change.
- Meet any states of loneliness with presence, non-judgment, and the willingness to explore the loneliness that exists for undeveloped parts of myself. To move toward being integrated requires my recognizing there are many pieces of the puzzle of my Self waiting to be identified, developed, and fit into the whole.
- “Waiting for the dawn to come, I open every door” is a line from Emily Dickinson reminding me to explore the unknown, stay willing to learn and experience the unfamiliar, the novel, and that which contributes to my enrichment as a human moving more fully into being.
I remind myself in the afternoon of my life that will hopefully extend into the evening, I always have the choice to ascend amidst the descending chronological trajectory in the human life cycle. This is one of the many profound paradoxes of life!
“Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul” ~ Samuel Ullman