Navigating a life stage of active wisdom

Photo by Dose Juice @ Unsplash

With this piece I declare my intention to foreground a distinctive thread in my slowly expanding collection of Medium posts. Since a few years I have felt that I’m approaching a new phase in life. I’ll be turning 57 soon. Middle-aged, I find myself confronted with insistent questions about meaning and legacy. Under the heading Navigating the age of active wisdom — a notion I’m borrowing from Mary Catherine Bateson — I want to explore and share varied facets of this learning process.

This is not a completely fresh start. I merely highlight what has been a persistent feature of my thinking and writing for a while. Earlier posts hint at important themes in this reflection. I’ve mused on the role of mentorship, explored the roots of my systemic sensibilities, and articulated principles that nourish my approach to scholarly inquiry. The seeds around which these questions are crystallising, have been germinating for a while.

In his book-length essay A Second Life (Une seconde vie) the French philosopher and sinologist François Jullien holds that the idea of a ‘fresh start’ is a fiction. We are at liberty to change life partner, profession or domicile. But we always remain tethered to our past. We do well to recognise that a second life capitalises necessarily on what came before. It’s not marked by a radical transformation, a dramatic reversal of fortunes, an epiphany, a flash of insight. A verb often used by Jullien to evoke the quality of the transition between first and second life is ‘to decant’. The second is decanted from the first. It presupposes a long, gradual process of sedimentation and sublimation.

Having said that, something has been changing in my life. I started to become aware of that around the middle of 2019. I remember that as the summer holidays were approaching I was feeling very tired. In the three years leading up that point, my family and I had to work through a series of trenchant life events: our daughter had an accident, my dad was diagnosed with cancer and embraced euthanasia, my mother chose to leave her home in France, my family moved out of the city into the countryside after 22 years in the same house. All this demanded bucket loads of energy. I felt it was time to sit down and reflect about what it all meant. But I didn’t only think. That summer I engaged in a small hands-on experiment, guided by Judi Marshall’s approach to first-person inquiry. It led me to a small German village and a vein of vibrancy which I have cultivated ever since. From there onwards the process of decanting had my full attention and commitment.

Mary Catherine Bateson’s book Composing a Further Life helps me to articulate what this ‘second life’ may be about. She takes her cue from the observation that life expectancy has risen dramatically over the last century. Globally the average has passed the 70 years barrier. The population of many of the richest countries in the world have life expectancies of over 80 years. However, these extra years have not merely been tagged on to the life course. As a result something qualitatively has changed in the way we experience adulthood. One could say that a traditional tripartite structure of the life course — childhood, productive adulthood, old age — has now expanded with a fourth interval. Bateson labels it as Adulthood II or ‘the age of active wisdom’. It follows upon a stretch devoted to key commitments (life partner, children, career) and typically starts in the 55–65 age bracket. Life events such as retirement, the confrontation with empty nest syndrome, or the passing away of loved ones may trigger a reactive transition into adulthood II. The point made by the author is that we don’t have to wait for a crisis or an externally imposed change but would do well to proactively mould this new phase in life in a way that does justice to our earlier life experiences and opens up new areas for a meaningful contribution to a larger social context.

Bateson and Jullien are aligned on the fact that reframing our lives for active wisdom is not a matter of cleaning the slate. In working through our life questions we revisit and reframe the existential questions that have been with us since childhood.

Talking about wisdom may sound presumptuous. However, wisdom is not something one has, but rather the skillfulness to engage in a process of improvisation rooted in an ability to listen, both internally and interpersonally, and to learn. Musing about the lives of the actively wise people in her social network, Mary Catherine Bateson writes: “As I think about the different people I interviewed, what strikes me is not so much what they know but their ways of engaging with the world, which have been developed and honed over time … These are forms of wisdom acquired and modeled in action, examples of knowing how rather than knowing what … What I find in each of these lives is a pattern of learning, often through improvisation, often in spite of frustrations, that is ongoing.”

Since that summer of 2019 things good and bad have continued to come my way. In the fall of 2020 my business partner decided to end his own life. Not even a year later a great friend of our family, and one of my closest buddies, collapsed after a morning run. We continue to mourn the loss of these cherished companions. In parallel fresh, vigorous friendships blossomed. I responded to a felt invitation to apply myself more deeply to my artistic pursuits, photography and writing. I thought deeply about my professional practice and engaged in experiments to feel how it could be made more meaningful for myself and our clients. These first trials raised more questions than anything else. An invitation came to take up a PhD research in the field of architecture, which I accepted. In short, my process of decanting seems to intensify and widen the scope of the questing and bricolage that is asked for in an interval of active wisdom.

I am planning to share some of the questions and insights that are woven into my first-person inquiry around these themes. Feel free to share some your experiences with (or in anticipation of) Adulthood II. Thanks for reading!

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