Without any cultural signposts to guide us through the transition from the first to the second half of life, we may experience it as a frightening rupture, instead of an anticipated stage of maturation and opportunity.
Many other cultures do provide maps to guide people through the major transitions of life, and they can offer useful insights for those of us who are seeking to make sense of our own life passages.
Perhaps predictably this didn’t go that well for me, although our children had many valuable experiences. After returning to the UK I found, to my bewilderment, that I could no longer face the kind of managerial work I was doing before. I had become almost phobic about the life of meetings, offices and deadlines. Instead, I developed a passionate interest in working on the land. I retrained as an organic farmer and worked for several years on community food growing projects.
Dramatic shifts like this are a common pattern as people move into midlife. Many people discover a desire to change career or to explore different sides of themselves, especially those skills or capacities they have neglected in the first half of life.
These are signs of a transition to the second half of life, and the invitation to the forest dweller stage. Western culture recognises only the values of the first half of life, especially physical beauty, energy, status and achievement, and most of us try to cling onto these for as long as possible. Beyond youthful adulthood, ageing is usually thought of as an inevitable process of decline and deterioration. But the forest dweller stage has its own unique challenges and rewards.
But increasingly the focus of the forest dweller's life may become what the Anglican contemplative Maggie Ross calls 'the work of silence'. This is her term for all of those practices that enable us to deepen our relationship with the inward source of life. Whether through traditional religious practices, or other creative, contemplative or ritual activity, the forest dweller's life may come to be increasingly centred on
"The work of silence is so simple, yet to go against the grain of society and the culture is very difficult. But it is worth the effort: the work of silence and the way of being in the world that is beholding provide stability and even joy in a disintegrating world. People who undertake to live like this become beacons, islands of safety where others can find a refuge. The resonances of silence permeate the world around them, whether they are aware of them or not."