Life in My 50s: wisdom’s slow burn
Every once in a while, something happens that gives me pause and makes me take note of the ways I am aging. I attempt to open a bottle of apple juice and find myself struggling to budge the screw cap that used to loosen without effort. I bend down to put away dishes and a shooting pain in my knee makes me straighten up, except that it’s not as easy as it used to be. Whenever one of these age jolts occurs, I think of my grandmother, who lived independently until she was closing in on 101. I wonder what it was like for her to notice the subtle changes in her abilities and strength as the years passed, and I wonder if I’ll be able to manage those same kinds of changes with anything close to the grace and chutzpah that marked her century of life.
If by some chance I’m as blessed and as lucky as my grandmother, I still have another 46 years to go on top of my current 54. That’s somewhat sobering, especially given the fact that I already find myself challenged by the shifts that make life’s landscape more difficult to navigate these days.
When I was younger, if I didn’t like something—be it a city or a job—I’d move on. Often I took leaps that scared me but one way or another got me to the next place I needed to go. When you get to midlife, however, it becomes clear—sometimes painfully so—that the braver thing to do in times of struggle or discomfort is not to cut and run but to stay put.
I had figured that by age 54 I’d be a wise, old woman, traveling along the familiar groove I’d worn into the carpet of my life through decades of work and experience. Now, I find myself with a new groove to navigate, one I can’t run from or ignore. It’s making me learn how to sit with difficulties, fears and obstacles. From this new vantage point, I am starting to see the wisdom and power in the pause, in looking at every situation as an observer, searching for the deeper takeaway hidden beneath what initially appears to be nothing more than pain or frustration.
History does have a tendency to repeat itself when we don’t learn our lessons the first time around. I can certainly see that cliché in action in my own life. Perhaps that’s really the Spirit at work, propelling us forward, knowing we can’t really make progress—spiritual or otherwise—until we come to terms with the part we play in making own lives more difficult. And maybe that’s finally the wisdom talking.
From the vantage point of youth, I think I once imagined that wisdom would descend on me like the Spirit descending upon the disciples in Scripture, that at some point I would know in some clear and defining way that I was now wise enough to manage the rest of my own journey effectively and perhaps even positively influence the journeys of others. As it turns out, wisdom is not a lightning bolt revelation but a slow burn fed by trust and love and acceptance. It does not culminate in knowing how to effectively manage the journey but in letting go of the need to manage it at all, in sitting still when the urge is to escape, in finding opportunities for growth in the places that scare us.
During the sacrament of confirmation, we pray to receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit, but that doesn’t happen all at once, like a magic trick. It often takes the rest of our lives to unpack those gifts. That happens only when we are willing to be forged by the fire of difficulty and discomfort into new creations—to pause, to pray and to stay put until the lesson is complete.
This column originally appeared in the Feb. 2, 2017, issue of Catholic New York.