“Sometimes I fantasize about hopping on a jet to South America and starting a whole new life,” admitted one recently divorced man. “But the trouble is, I know I’ll be there waiting for me when I get off the plane.”
This wry comment contains a profound truth about the mid-life lust for change: It is futile for a man to change his situation dramatically without also changing himself. Movement per se—a move from place to place, or person to person—is not enough. Changing locales cannot heal a man’s wounds, eradicate his worries, or transform his life. To be successful, the journey must have an internal dimension too.
Not long ago, Dr. John R. Coleman caused a stir when, at the age of fifty-one, he took a two-month sabbatical from his job as president of Haverford College to work as a laborer. Traveling from Georgia to Maryland, Coleman worked as a ditchdigger, a garbage collector, and a sandwich-and-salad man in a Boston restaurant.
In Blue-collar Journal, a book he later wrote about his adventures, Coleman explains why he kept his intentions secret. “I did not tell anyone what I planned to do with my sabbatical,” he confessed, “because I was afraid the response would be what part of me also said, ‘Jack, that’s crazy.’
But the move was in keeping with his convictions and desires. Although Coleman had often urged students to break the “lockstep,” to take time out to vary the rhythms of their life, he knew that the advice he was giving to others was really meant for himself. Despite the real rewards of his presidential post, he felt keenly the peculiar loneliness that so often accompanies being in the top office. Describing the frustrations of always being regarded as “the president” but never simply as a man named Jack Coleman, he said: “I also knew I needed some other experiences. I wanted another me to come out from time to time.”
This is exactly what happened during his travels: Not just a flight of fancy, Coleman’s sabbatical was actually a journey of spiritual renewal and self-discovery. He put himself in situations where he was not defined or limited by his usual identity—the job—but could experiment with new ways of behaving and responding, bringing to life parts of himself that were ordinarily forced underground. The result? He reclaimed a disowned part of himself, thus enlarging his own sense of self and his inner resources.
“Once, I thought I was leaving my identity behind when I set out on this leave,” Coleman reveals at the end of his journal. “Now I think I may even have found some part of it along the way.”
Though Coleman’s sabbatical was only a brief adventure in dropping out, it illuminates what the mid-life journey is really about: personal growth. A voyage of self-exploration, this journey—if it is to be fruitful—should be inspired by the myth of Odysseus rather than Gauguin.
In the Odyssey the hero withdraws temporarily from a life situation that is no longer nourishing, in order to return refreshed, with his perspectives enlarged and a new sense of life’s possibilities and his own potentials. The voyage is essential because it permits a man to withdraw from conventional roles and explore concealed aspects of a self that has shriveled within the boundaries of a repetitive, repressive situation.
During this journey awareness expands and consciousness is
transformed. In turn, this new awareness provides new ways
to see one’s future.
This metaphor of the Odyssean cycle as a means for self-renewal has important implications for all men in their middle years who want to infuse with new vitality a life that has lost meaning or become monotonous. Whether they embark on a voyage literally, or only symbolically—by disengaging from accustomed roles and retreating into the self—the process of separation is essential. It provides some solitary space, some silence, in which a man can listen to his inner voices.
The purpose of this temporary withdrawal is for a man to liberate himself from the clutch of the past and augment his sense of self, so he can create a better, more fully human future for the second part of his life. Instead, this enlargement is what makes meaningful new choices possible, because if they spring from the desires of the authentic self, these choices will not be arbitrary or random.
When a man disengages from familiar patterns and roles to embark on a mid-life journey, altitudes count as much as actions—especially how he views himself. If he is dissatisfied with himself and inclined to blame others for his discontent, or if he sees himself as a passive victim of fate with no control over his own life, any changes he attempts will be contaminated by this sense of futility. And therefore will be likely to fail.
By contrast, positive attitudes generally lead to positive actions. As we shall see in the following chapters, many men in their middle years are rapidly invalidating F. Scott Fitzgerald’s contention “There are no second acts in American lives.” They are creating brave new possibilities for the second half of life—not by running away, but by reinventing themselves. Despite society’s disapproval, they are renewing their options, revitalizing their lives, and designing new directions.
Courageous pioneers, these men are seekers, not dropouts. They have discovered that the new frontier is inner space: the self. Exploring this boundless territory requires risking adventures within the depths of one’s being. It is a lonely and often hazardous voyage, but essential nonetheless, because in this day and age there are no more magical solutions. “In the eclipse of God,” writes cultural critic Theodore Roszak, “we have no place to begin but with ourselves. Within ourselves. All we have lost in the course of becoming this torn and tormented creatures called modern man … we discover again in the depths of our identity. There or not at all.”
In order to transform his life after forty, a man must start by transforming himself.