When we flipped our new calendars to January 1, 2011, the first wave of baby boomers began turning 65. According to the Pew Research Center, every single day for the next nineteen years, ten thousand more will join them.
As psychologist Vivian Diller recently noted, midlife is being redefined by the boomers who are now marking their passage through this life stage. Twentieth century notions of aging and retirement are being challenged by a combination of generational preference and financial necessity. The fastest growing demographic enrolling in seminaries are people over 50.
Even with the boomer propensity toward reinvention, there is no way to re-brand (or circumvent) the spiritual crisis that happens at midlife as we move from the ambitions that forge the first half of our lives to our search for meaning in the second half. As author Dale Hanson Bourke noted at Her.meneutics last summer, "Few decisions made in our second stage of life represent a natural progression toward what has been built in the first half of life. It's as if we have to completely turn our backs on our first-half identities in order to invest fully in our second callings."
This is not an abstract question for me as a woman born at the tail end of the boom. My age-peers are asking a lot of hard questions these days, best captured in a conversation I had with a friend not long ago. Kim invited me to follow her into her youngest son's now-vacant bedroom as she searched an item I'd loaned her in a forgotten corner of the closet. As we stood in the empty space, she said wistfully, "I was prepared for the nest to empty. I am busy with work and church responsibilities. But I'm stuck. I feel I've stalled out spiritually. To tell you the truth, I think I was there long before Tyler started packing. I feel as empty as this room, and it scares the heck out of me."
Kim and I shared the same unsettling existential questions at that point in our lives: What's next for me? God, where are you in this confusion?
Each one of us could have used a mentor—an older, wiser woman to journey through midlife with us. Those who have had wise moms or generous older friends willing to share their experience have been handed the gift of a compass to help them navigate the upheaval of midlife.
However, I learned (via an admittedly informal poll of the midlife women I know) that many of us involved in intentional mentoring relationships with younger women have never had a mentor in our own lives. If there were ever a time we needed spiritual direction, it's during midlife.
Though it is certainly not the same as having a mentor, a canon of literature can help us begin to make sense of our experience at this crossroads, but it may not be found where we'd first think of looking, which might be in the self-help or women's section of a bookstore or online vendor.
Rather, it's found in the experiences of contemplatives through Christian history. Sister Rosemarie Carfagna notes, in Contemplation and Midlife Crisis, the profound connection between midlife crisis and the contemplative life:
People who try to describe what happens to them during a crisis frequently mention experiential signs that contemplatives also report … in crisis, their sense of identity seems to change. They become aware of apparently irreconcilable opposites. They realize vividly their own weaknesses and shortcomings. Emotions arise that can be very disturbing. There might be feelings of anxiety, even terror at what they find themselves facing.
Carfagna notes the powerful linkage between the spiritual crises experiences of contemplatives, which often come into flower during this life stage, and the specific developmental tasks and changes that happen to all of us at midlife. She says the contemplatives' example of spiritual struggle traces for all of us the jagged contours of transition and the promise—if we are patient and cooperative with God's work in the process—of a more mature and engaged spirituality. She affirms Hanson Bourke's observation about what can happen on the far side of the crisis, suggesting that we will no longer " … recognize ourselves by the benchmarks that previously defined us: status, security, predictability, possessions, comforts of all sorts. They are gone, but to our amazement they are hardly missed. The new life that is given us surpasses them all."
God's purposes for the disorientation of midlife can bear fruit out of the intimacy of the contemplative's experience. But perhaps the most lasting fruit will come if boomer women become a generation of generous, ruthlessly honest Titus 2 women who search for every opportunity to pass along own compasses to younger friends who are entering midlife. We are responsible to help them understand what happens when an empty room tells the story of their own echoing souls.