I visited my hometown about a decade after I graduated high school and stopped at the local greasy spoon joint for a nostalgic junk food meal. I was surprised to see one of the most popular guys in school, star gymnast Tim, behind the counter taking orders. I asked him how long he’d been working there and he shrugged. “Guess I never left high school.”
When I used to bemoan the fact that I wasn’t one of the popular kids, my grandmother would shake her head and tell me, “You don’t want to peak too early in life.” Running into Tim seemed to affirm her words. But as Arthur Brooks reminds us in a recent Atlantic essay titled “Your Professional Decline Is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think,” holding onto our peak achievements isn’t just for aging high school gymnasts. Many of us anchor our identity in accomplishments, but when our careers fade—which they inevitably do—our sense of self-worth fades with it and leaves us floundering.
Brooks, a social scientist and former president of the American Enterprise Institute, notes that many of us will have the most productive years of our work lives between ages 30 and 50. After that, we begin a long, slow slide into professional irrelevance. Certainly there are exceptions to the rule. However, while we can expect to make meaningful contributions in the workplace after age 50, we likely won’t be climbing the success ladder at the same rate we once did. And how we navigate that decline can make or break our retirement years.
The more your identity is linked to achievement, says Brooks, the greater the sense of loss when your career downshifts or ends. “Abundant evidence suggests that the waning of ability in people of high accomplishment is especially brutal psychologically. … I strongly suspect that the memory of remarkable ability, if that is the source of one’s self-worth, might, for some, provide an invidious contrast to a later, less remarkable life,” he writes.
Roughly a third of the US population is over age 50, which means a whole lot of us are facing this kind of professional decline, and most of us will eventually find ourselves frustrated and disoriented by a world that’s no longer interested in what we have to offer. For all of human history, people have been trying to make sense of this existential dark space—the downward arc that comes at the beginning of the end. Popular culture often brands it a “midlife crisis,” and indeed, coming to terms with mortality can first occur during the vicissitudes of our 40s and 50s. However, questions of purpose, identity, and meaning persist well into our final decades.
From a biblical perspective, there are two main antidotes: meditating on death and meditating on God.
First, it behooves us to think about our own mortality. This insight wouldn’t be news to Qohelet, the Preacher-King who penned the book of Ecclesiastes. He writes from the vantage point of someone who’s tasted an entire orchard of worldly fruits, including work, pleasure, power, wealth, and wisdom. His assessment in the end: Those successes were as permanent as the smoke from a fire and as meaningful as an unsolvable riddle. The Hebrew word hebel, which is translated as “meaningless” in the NIV and as “vanity” in the KJV, is used 33 times throughout the book. The word carries connotations of futility and delusion, but in context of the whole Book of Ecclesiastes, it also gestures toward the strange and subtle liberation that comes with embracing our own death.
In his book Living Life Backward: How Ecclesiastes Teaches Us to Live in Light of the End, David Gibson suggests that the author of Ecclesiastes understands the cure to the despair of a declining career:
The Preacher will argue that wisdom, pleasure, work, and possessions are very often the bubbles we live in to insulate ourselves from reality. And his needle, the sharp point he uses to burst the bubbles, is death. It is the great reality facing all human beings as they go about their business on earth. Death is the one ultimate certainty that we erase from our minds and busy ourselves to avoid facing.
Gibson concludes that contemplating death frees us to truly enjoy life by uncoupling us from a fascination with worldly success and affirmation. He writes, “This is the main message of Ecclesiastes in a nutshell: Life in God’s world is gift, not gain.”
While Qohelet urges his hearers to savor the sweet parts of their lives (Ecc.5:18–20), he also suggests that we can only fully appreciate that sweetness by taking a counterintuitive approach: “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting,” he writes, “for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart” (Ecc. 7:2).
For those of us nearing or inhabiting our so-called “retirement years,” this lesson is everywhere—in the death of loved ones, lost jobs, cancer diagnoses, and other life-altering illnesses. I’ve seen it myself. In the wake of being diagnosed recently with a rare immune system disorder, my earlier ambitions and accomplishments seem, well, mostly meaningless. And yet I feel less afraid and more free.
Brooks affirms this truth. “Embracing death reminds us that everything is temporary, and can make each day of life more meaningful,” he writes. “‘Death destroys a man,’ E. M. Forster wrote, but ‘the idea of Death saves him.’” He goes on to cite several “death-to-self” practices, including choosing an exit plan from your career while at your pinnacle (rather than trying to hold on to that peak), seeking to serve others by passing on knowledge and wisdom, and prioritizing relationships.
The other death-confronting practice familiar to Christians—one that Brooks touches on ever too briefly—is worship. While we often narrowly think of it in the context of corporate singing, Scripture gives us a much more expansive understanding of worship. The forebear of Qohelet, King David, is one example. In response to God’s command to build an altar on the threshing floor owned by Araunah the Jebusite, David asks to purchase the property. Araunah offers to give it to the king, but David is adamant: “No, I insist on paying you for it. I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing” (2 Sam. 24:24).
When we offer to God something that costs us—even our cherished “peak selves”—we are experiencing a measure of death. Jesus forged discipleship and death into a single, life-surrendering action when he said to his followers, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).
For those of us in the second half of life grappling with career decline, the process of relinquishment involves facing our mortality, embracing a self-denying posture, and worshiping the King. We see this in the story of Job. In the wake of losing his family, business, health, and reputation, Job doesn’t flinch from the temporal nature of life or the searing reality of death. Instead, he worships God. “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart,” he says. “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised” (Job 1:21).
We need models like this from Scripture. We also need them from the church today. Although we are all resurrection people, nonetheless, I’ve found that mature believers who are walking through (instead of fleeing from) the Valley of the Shadow can best translate the hope of resurrection for the rest of us. They have long been rehearsing the daily surrender to God that leads to generative, abundant life beyond the pinnacle of career success. At first sniff, their lives may smell like death, but on closer inspection, they’re saturated with the fragrance of worship.
My grandmother was half right. We don’t want to peak too early, but nor do we want to enshrine a peak that was never meant to be a destination. Those high points are but mile markers on the way to our true home.
Michelle Van Loon is an author and speaker. Her book Becoming Sage: Cultivating Meaning, Purpose, and Spirituality at Midlife releases next spring from Moody Publishers.