Life’s journey unfolds through childhood, youth, adulthood, mid-life and old age. Gradually we discover the secret of living. But it’s only when we make the journey inside ourselves that we discover the secret of life.
Does childhood seem like a foreign country to you now? When we look back as adults it can seem imbued with a fairy-tale lustre, for mostly we remember the good times. For me, I have fond recollections of summer picnics in rural Kent with my grandmother, collecting seashells with my mother and my sister in Cornwall, or curling up with a book on a cold winter’s night in our drafty old house. But life as a child wasn’t always halcyon for any of us - there were also times of bewilderment.
As we grow up we have to learn to cope in a complex world. We want to be loved and accepted and therefore we have to learn to understand those around us, step-by-painful-step. We learned about ourselves from adults and we created a future based on what our parents and teachers told us, but we also created a future based on our dreams. They might well have been sparked by what someone we admired told us, or what we saw on TV or at the cinema, or what we read about in a book.
One of my favourite books as a child was Wind in the Willows. Mole dreamed of getting a black velvet smoking suit just as soon as he could afford it; Toad dreamed of owning a brand new car; the Water Rat dreamed about the world far beyond the riverbank - ‘What seas lay beyond, green, leaping and crested! What sun-bathed coasts, along which white villas glittered against the olive woods! What quiet harbours, thronged with gallant shipping bound for purple islands of wine and spice, islands set low in languorous waters!’
Day-dreaming, stories and fairy tales helped us make sense of what we actually felt as children - our emotions, imagination and intellect worked together to enrich our world. They also helped us to understand that a good or happy life was only possible if we were prepared to make effort and endure hardship on the way.
Paradoxically, as we grew older, we came to believe in a different kind of fairy tale - about who we are and what we might become. That fairy tale is our identity and we built it in response to what happened in our childhood, believing it to be reality. But it’s no more real than Goldilocks or Snow White - it’s an illusion - something we constructed to survive the pains of growing up. And so many of the problems we encounter later in life are to do with this thing we’ve constructed, this identity.
Gradually, as we move from childhood into adulthood and beyond, we’re happier if we can let go of this identity for it becomes prescriptive and a self-fulfilling prophecy. Slowly we come to see that life isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, which is what our identity expects, but the way it is. Understanding that takes a lifetime.
Once the golden gates of childhood have closed behind us, we cross the threshold into youth, with all its challenges. Both liberating and daunting, adolescence forces us to mature and move towards adulthood. Youth is all about aspirations, but it’s also a time of confusion. Based on what we learned through our experiences in childhood from those around us, we developed an identity to help us make sense of the world.
We end up with all sorts of confused ideas about what we’re supposed to be, but really don’t know who we are at all. Pulled in many different directions - by our emotions, our hormones and the ideas of our peers - we struggle to become independent. We have to learn to deal with doubt, anxiety, responsibility, rebellion and reconciliation. Gradually we acquire self-esteem and self-reliance as we try new things, meet new people and achieve things we would never have thought possible.
We long to realize our dreams, but life doesn’t always unfold as we would wish. Often we’re disappointed. Disappointment can be a spur to try harder (I learned that from my father, who urged me never to give up, no matter how often I failed), or it can deter us from never trying again. Either way, our identity gets honed by our reactions to life’s events and the attitudes of those around us.
If we focus on our dreams and strive to achieve them, we may well succeed - but, we may also find that achieving them doesn’t necessarily make us happy. We have to be careful what we wish for - we may just get it!
Often getting what we want brings only a temporary satisfaction, and then we want something else. It’s as if there’s a hole at the very centre of our selves - a vacuum all too easily filled these days with alcohol, sex, drugs, TV, or even work, or the gym… Too often we’re seduced by what the media portray - glamour, wealth, power, celebrity. But it’s an illusion created by the consumer society in which we live, one which encourages us to be part of it. We can live an illusory existence if we want to - life might seem fun for a while - but are we really happy?
Materially we’re all far better off than we were in previous decades, but it would seem we’re no happier. Sadly our youthful aspirations may keep us in chains until such time as we realize it and come to see that it’s only by connecting with what’s real that we can experience the satisfaction in life that we’re looking for.
As adults we’re surer of ourselves than in our youth, or so we like to think. The identity we took such pains to build up now dictates the pattern of our life. We’re attached to this illusory identity and do a great deal to protect it if threatened or criticized in any way - after all we constructed it to survive!
We may have suffered disappointments, hardship, or narrowly escaped danger, all of which is sobering, and we‘re less willing to take the kind of risks we took in our youth. The biological clock is ticking and we think perhaps we had better settle down, get a mortgage, apply ourselves to our career, and conform. We want safety, comfort and intimacy. We want control over our lives, not realizing that we’re always only a hair’s breadth away from losing control.
Life actually becomes narrower as we try to control it. We cocoon ourselves, wanting only to experience what is pleasurable and avoiding pain and suffering. But life is fraught with difficulties, and pain and suffering are inescapable - betrayal, divorce, loss, illness and death are unpredictable, and when they happen, our belief in ourselves is shaken and our identity begins to crack. As the Lebanese poet, Kahlil Gibran wrote:
‘Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.
Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain. And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy.’
Our problem is that we want life to be other than it is. We keep ourselves from living an authentic life by idealized images of how life is supposed to be, and by our blind spots and the behaviour we employ to protect our identity. Our whole experience of life is shaped by our self-image and the opinions and judgements we’ve formed, and we make the mistake of thinking these are the reality, when in fact they’re no more than fantasy.
Almost all our difficulties in life come from wanting someone or something to be different from the way they are. As a result, we get mad, sad and depressed when things don’t go our way. And then we find ourselves wondering - there must be more to life than this. And as we ask those questions about who we really are and what life is really about - then we have begun the journey to maturity.
With midlife - the mid-day of our lives - you could think it was all downhill after that. In fact, it’s our greatest opportunity for revelation and real growth. With our careers coming to an end, children flown from the nest, we have to ask ourselves - what lies ahead? We need to reassess our lives. We may find that we’ve spent all our lives climbing the ladder, only to find it’s against the wrong wall - at least that’s how it may feel, though life being what it is, nothing is ever wasted.
The famous fourteenth-century Italian poet, Dante, opens his great work, The Divine Comedy with the words: ‘In the middle of this road we call our life I found myself in a dark wood with no clear path through...’ He then makes a journey looking in effect for the secret of life. I’m reminded of the old Hindu story about the secret of life:
The gods were arguing about where to hide the secret of life so men and women wouldn’t find it.
Bury it under a mountain, suggested the first god - they’ll never find it.
Another god suggested hiding it deep in the ocean.
But it was thought since man was so ingenious he would discover a way to find it.
Eventually they hit upon the solution. The secret of life should be placed inside man - he would never think of looking there!
The inner journey we undertake doesn’t really get going until midlife. Gradually we begin to understand that we’ve constructed this identity which is false. As it weakens the real self begins to emerge. When we observe ourselves more closely we open up to new possibilities that give meaning and purpose to our lives. With greater awareness we see how we react in certain situations and with certain people, and we begin to understand that we are human and that others are too. We have fewer expectations and more realism and tolerance. We become kinder. We feel more comfortable with ourselves because we no longer have to pretend that we’re something we’re not. It’s so much easier. We are grateful and count our blessings - for we now know how precious life is and how privileged we are.
5 Old Age
In the autumn of life, the once burning preoccupations of youth and adulthood now seem unimportant. We wake early now (no more pulling the duvet up over our head trying to snatch more sleep!) and we clamber out of bed somewhat creakily. We look in the mirror, puzzled by the jowls, pouches and wrinkles of our lived-in face. Though constantly reminded of the body’s fragility, we still feel ourselves to be of some indefinable age of 30-plus inside. Though part of us may want to try and maintain the image of ourselves we once had, we know there’s no point in seeking a youth long since gone - even though this state we’re in is eerily akin to childhood.
Neither is there any sense in being afraid of old age. At the age of 80 Lady Astor said that she had always hated the idea of growing old because of all the things old age would prevent her from doing; but that, having now grown old, she found that the things she was prevented from doing were things she no longer wanted to do.
So surrendering to old age, embracing it for what it is - a time to transform ourselves - is the wisest course. Exploring a host of rich memories and reflecting on our lives, we come to accept that we can let go of any remaining hurts and disappointments that may have marred our happiness. We can re-evaluate our vision of ourselves. Maybe a truer identity is visible in old age - the prejudices and false opinions and beliefs we acquired in the earlier part of our lives fall away, and we can be who we truly are. Now we really understand that life is not a dress rehearsal!
We know as we grow older that ultimately we have to face death. As friends get sick and die, we’re reminded of our own mortality. Rather than becoming depressed by this, it’s better to remind ourselves to devote each day to living fully - being in the present moment (so hard to do when we’re young, conditioned by the past and constantly dreaming of the future). Once we accept the ageing process as part of life’s circle, we’re more likely to find the inner peace and calm that we’ve always longed for.
As Winston Churchill said, ‘We are happier in many ways when we are old than when we were young. The young sow wild oats. The old grow sage.’
I explore this subject further in my book The Woman’s Book of Joy: Listen to Your Heart, Live with Gratitude, and Find Your Bliss.
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