New! Distracted Featured in "Grace Notes" Exhibit at New York Society Library from January 19 to February 22 - New York City

Sculpting The Second Half of Life

I recently attended an intriguing dinner in Brooklyn Heights, initially set up to talk about the gift and burden of our longer lives.

The impetus was a visit by Jay Goldfarb, an American who runs a healing therapies retreat center in Switzerland. (As we nibbled on cheese and crackers, we talked about the last brown bear left in his part of the Alps.) Goldfarb recently created the Legacy of Wisdom project, an online compendium of video interviews with important thinkers from Mary Catherine Bateson to Ram Dass.

Goldfarb’s mission is age-old: preserving knowledge for future generations. But our new longevity now colors this quest. So many more of us will live to 80, 90 or 100 in good health. How can we collectively and individually harness the power of these added years? How can we ensure that the second half of life is meaningful, giving and “worthwhile” – by whatever definition we give to that term?

As I look around, I see many in my 50-something generation peering into the future, and seeing a frightening void, not a gift. They see a society that still does not value older minds. They feel economically insecure, and worry how they will support themselves with dignity during multiple future decades. Tackling these fears will be part of the challenge of cultivating the newly elongated second half of life.

The delicious grilled fish dinner was generously hosted by Mary and Tom Rothschild at their apartment overlooking the East River. As the founder of the non-profit Healthy Media Choices, Mary does pioneering work helping families, children and educators become more intentional about their use of media. Her husband Tom, a Quaker, is a mediation attorney who has written thoughtfully about the importance of silence.

Richard Lewis attended, too. He is a gentle poet and teacher whom I’ve long wanted to meet. Through his Touchstone Center, he’s spent decades helping children connect to their imaginations, through nature. We looked at one of the tiny seashells that Lewis uses in his work. Each child becomes a caretaker of this visitor from the sea; the shell is a jumping off point from which he/she can imagine worlds beyond their own. The essence of Lewis’ wide-ranging work, it seems to me, is reuniting children with a sense of possibility.

I didn’t take notes, but the memory of this dinner lingers. The hurried, pressured, test-driven nature of schooling today concerned us all.  Do children have time to daydream and play, spend time outdoors and chase a stray thought? Mary raised my use of the term “dark age” in the subtitle of Distracted, meaning an era that often is technologically inventive, but leads to cultural losses over time. I spoke of technology as potentially dehumanizing, and Jay pressed me to articulate what I meant. I responded that we are patterning ourselves after the machine, prizing point-and-click, easy answers and shallow communications. “We are not gadgets,” to paraphrase Jaron Lanier.

Into the evening, we talked about the astonishing scientific potential within our grasp. What could and should be passed on to future generations? What is wisdom? At one compelling point in the evening, Richard Lewis told us that his 18-year-old daughter recently had promised to carry on his decades-long work via the Touchstone Center.

A timely book inspired me to blog about this spring dinner. In Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, Father Richard Rohr writes about finding our way in later life. In the first half, we are preoccupied with achievement and performance – and finding our identity. Later, we need to find the task within the task – to understand why we’re doing what we do. In particular, we grow by tapping our failings, a challenge that many people refuse to face. “We are a ‘first-half-of-life culture,’ largely concerned about surviving successfully,” he writes. His message originates in a Christian perspective, yet serves us all, I believe. Remember this, Rohr writes, “your second journey is yours to walk or to avoid.”

Let’s get walking. Are you game?

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