Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Life's Afternoon

Photo: Eric Sheppard
We must be confident that there is still more ‘life’ to be ‘lived’ and yet more heights to be scaled. The tragedy of middle age is that, so often, men and women cease to press ‘towards the goal of their high calling’. They cease learning, cease growing; they give up and resign from life. As wisdom dawns with age, we begin to measure our experiences not by what life gives to us, not by the things withheld from us, but by their power to help us to grow in spiritual wisdom.
(Evelyn Sturge, 1949, Quaker faith & practice 21.45)

The passage from adolescence to adulthood is a familiar life-challenge. For most of us it involves discovering a sense of identity, establishing ourselves in the world of work, finding a partner and creating a family. For some, the challenge of adulthood includes pursuing the ambition to make their mark on the world, to succeed in a career or to 'make a difference', perhaps following a sense of calling or vocation.

Later in life there arrives the invitation to a second passage that is less well-charted. We approach this when we begin to recognise that the future is no longer open to endless possibilities. This is the life we have ended up with; this is the marriage or divorce or single life that we have made. It is now too late to have chosen a different direction, lived a different life and become a different person. We realise that we will now never achieve most of our early ambitions; that even our successes turned out not to bring the kind of fulfilment we had expected. This is the beginning of the transition to what is sometimes known as a 'second adulthood'.

It is at this point, perhaps, that so many men and women 'give up and resign from life.' Others attempt to fight against the failure of their hopes by redoubling their efforts to become more successful, or searching for a different, more satisfactory partner. On the verge of the second adulthood, all the life that we have left unlived clamours for our attention. We may be tempted to fight against it by clinging tightly to the same strategies and ideals that have guided us so far, when life is asking of us something very different.

Wholly unprepared, we embark upon the second half of life... worse still, we take this step with the false assumption that our truths and ideals will serve us as hitherto. But we cannot live the afternoon according to the programme of life's morning; for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie.
(Carl Jung, Psychological Reflections, 1953)

This stage of life brings many people to a Quaker meeting for the first time; disillusioned with their former identities and on a journey of inward discovery. For some, it is a path out of some form of fundamentalism, whether religious or secular, that has occupied all their energies and provided a strong sense of purpose for their adult life so far.

Dogmatic thinking represents a strong temptation for many people in the first half of life, as they struggle to forge a strong sense of self and to find a way of making a mark on the world. Fundamentalist religious beliefs, political ideologies or dogmatic rationalism all demand that we exclude parts of our experience from awareness. They require us to be righteous and right-thinking, to deny everything in us that is mysterious and subversive, and all the ways that the world fails to match up to the creed's authorised narrative. The longer we try to live up to these demands, the more denied and unacknowledged experience we accumulate, and the greater the effort needed to defend an increasingly fragile world view. Eventually, if the weight of contradictory reality becomes too great to sustain, we face the collapse of our former certainties and the call to a new, more inclusive understanding of reality.

We are challenged to discover who we are when we find that we are not the person we tried to be. If we are patient and compassionate with ourselves, and are fortunate to have friends who can listen to everything in us that we find hard to acknowledge, we may come to accept our failings and darkness as indispensable to living on the far side of disillusionment.

You finally discover that it is not good to spend your life trying to be good and aligning yourself with the virtuous people of the world. It might be better to avoid that divided self altogether and instead simply live with compassion for yourself and others. You are not perfect and you never will be.
(Thomas Moore, Dark Nights of the Soul, 2004)

The Quaker way offers a path of spiritual discovery that moves in the opposite direction to all forms of ideological thinking. It is based on the practice of openness to reality; developing sensitivity and responsiveness to the subtle movements of the inward Guide. The Quaker meeting for worship offers a practice for developing the awareness of what is, rather than insisting that reality conform to our ideas of what it should be. It is an opportunity to sink down to the Seed of presence within us, to recognise that we are engaged in the mysterious process that Thomas Moore calls 'incubating your soul, not living a heroic adventure' (ibid).

Abandoning the dream of 'aligning yourself with the virtuous people of the world' does not mean giving up any attempt to have a positive influence or to challenge those things that need changing. But without so much ego invested in our work we may act differently, and with fewer unwanted side-effects. Those who have discovered their own limitations and mixed motives don't need to use their actions to constantly prop up a fragile sense of self. They are freer to act with detachment from results; to respond from compassion rather than frustration, and to reach out to people whom they are no longer inclined to treat as enemies. This is the place of deepening practical wisdom expressed by Thomas Merton in his famous letter to the young peace activist Jim Forest during the Vietnam War:

Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the truth of the work itself. And there, too, a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually as you struggle less and less for an idea, and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.

You are fed up with words, and I don’t blame you. I am nauseated by them sometimes. I am also, to tell you the truth, nauseated by ideals and with causes. This sounds like heresy, but I think you will understand what I mean. It is so easy to get engrossed with ideas and slogans and myths that in the end one is left holding the bag, empty, with no trace of meaning left in it. And then the temptation is to yell louder than ever in order to make the meaning be there again by magic. Going through this kind of reaction helps you to guard against this. Your system is complaining of too much verbalizing, and it is right.

The big results are not in your hands or mine, but they suddenly happen, and we can share in them, but there is no point in building our lives on this personal satisfaction, which may be denied us and which after all is not that important.

The next step in the process is for you to see that your thinking about what you are doing is crucially important. You are probably striving to build yourself an identity in your work, out of your work and witness. You are using it, so to speak, to protect yourself against nothingness, annihilation. That is not the right use of your work. All the good that you will do will come, not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God’s love. Think of this more and gradually you will be free from the need to prove yourself, and you can be more open to the power that will work through you without your knowing it.

The great thing after all is to live, not to pour out your life in the service of a myth; and we turn the best things into myths. If you can get free from the domination of causes and just serve Christ’s truth, you will be able to do more and will be less crushed by the inevitable disappointments. Because I see nothing whatever in sight but much disappointment, frustration, and confusion.

The real hope, then, is not in something we think we can do, but in God who is making something good out of it in some way we cannot see. If we can do His will, we will be helping in this process. But we will not necessarily know all about it beforehand.

(Thomas Merton, Letter to a Young Activist, 1966)

How have you experienced the passage into a second adulthood? Have you discovered a way through disillusionment into the place where you are 'open to the power that will work through you without your knowing it'?

This post is a response to the Reading Quaker faith & practice project of the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group, which aims to encourage a national conversation about how Quaker faith & practice speaks to us and how it serves us as a Yearly Meeting. Next month's post will be a response to Chapter 23: Social responsibility. The full calendar of readings for use by local meetings, writers and individual Friends is available here.


  1. Yes, I've been struggling with this myself. Actually struggling is not the right word. It's a process of discovery, uncovering literally, of a self that was always there, and that's gradually set free in the processes of one's life's autumn. (For me autumn's the word, as afternoon is for you.) The struggle does go on, but it's not a struggle one has anything invested in any longer, rather as one has to eat and drink in the middle of a long and engrossing piece of work, but the eating and drinking is a side-issue, necessary as it is.

    I've written a few bits and bobs about this on my own blog, but maybe - partly in response to, or set off by, yours here - I need to say more about it. We'll see what happens, perhaps!

    1. Dear Mike,
      Many thanks for this lovely description of 'life's autumn'. I look forward to reading your further reflections.
      In Friendship,

  2. This does not speak to my condition I'm afraid. I am not disillusioned with life but with Quakerism itself. Now in the autumn of my life. I have always lived in the moment and continue to do the things I enjoy, creative writing, painting, volunteering and being with family, despite ill health.

    I have been a Quaker for thirty years and a Quaker healer. I find that my meeting has offered me conflict, egoism, bakckstabbing, emotional unkindness and I have had enough of it.

    I continue my spiritual life elsehwere.

    1. Dear Zoe,
      I'm sorry to hear that your meeting has been so disappointing, and glad that there are other things in your life that bring you joy.
      In Friendship,

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  4. Thank you for your thoughtful post. At the time I read this, I had just finished reading some of Thomas Kelly’s work and learning about his own spiritual crossroads during mid-life. Your description of life’s morning as being characterized by dogmatic thinking and fundamentalism as a way of giving ourselves a sense of place reminded me of what Kelly called his “feverish existence,” which for him took the form of academic ambition. I especially liked your point about how the disillusionment that follows this stage—when one’s previously reliable self-concept or “sense of purpose” is no longer tenable—doesn’t necessarily result in us accepting reality, but can instead result in a renewed effort to maintain our idealism. On a college campus you can find a multitude of “feverish existence,” but there seems to be an equal number of people in a state of flux, realizing that their life concepts are ego-centric and self-deluding, but not knowing how to move forward. Having patience and compassion is good advice to keep in mind.


"When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people's opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it possible that you may be mistaken."
(From Quaker Advices and Queries 17)