These October Years posts of mine often deal with material taken from books---usually my own stories. It is, after all, a “Writer’s Blog.” This time, however, I’d like to consider a book that is not mine. Pilgrimage into the Last Third of Life is by Jane Marie Thibault and Richard L Morgan, and published by Upper Room Books. It was those authors and their book that started me down the path I am exploring here.
As you might guess, the insights Thibault and Morgan offer have a religious slant. I know some folks are uncomfortable with that. Yet when you are writing about “the last third of life,” blogging about “October Years,” or telling stories of Tanner seniors facing their own Octobers and Novembers---I happen to believe that you are treading on ground strewn with spiritual implications.
The challenge for us October types, whether its’s spiritual or not, is to move ahead in the face of a changing landscape. Think back for a moment. In one form or another you probably spent the middle third of your life, your July, August, and September looking ahead, focused on the future you hoped to create. For most of us it was a season of possibilities---nurturing a career and/or a family, becoming more tomorrow than you had been yesterday.
Early on in their book Thibault and Morgan suggest a metaphor to help us put that time of striving into context. They ask us to think of ourselves as having climbed a long hill---one that represents the first two-thirds of our life, from January to September---that time of “looking ahead.” In the course of our climb we were seeking expanded possibilities, and hoping for more and better rewards. It was, among other things, those mind pictures of future possibilites that kept us moving ahead, even when the going was hard.
Then we reached the summit of that hill, where it seemed that we had climbed as high as we could go. From there we paused to look down the other side towards what waited ahead---the last third of life, the time I call October and beyond. By then the seductive dreams that had pulled us up the hill were probably fading. As we stood there our first impulse may have been to take a deep breath and reluctantly prepare ourself for the not-so-seductive descent to the end.
From our vantage point on the hilltop, October and beyond may have had the look of a dead end decline---devoid of the affirmation, accomplishment, and recognition that had made midlife so exciting and powerful. Looking down on that cloudy, sometimes forbidding landscape we perhaps longed for the sunny and hopeful days of June and July, and mourned their passing---while wondering about what waited ahead.
Right there let’s take a second to expand the authors’ metaphor a bit. Remember those Tour de France cyclists you’ve watched on TV? Like them you pedaled hard to reach the top of your hill, the one that represents the first two-thirds of your life. From there, as the saying goes, it’s all downhill. But what if that “downhill” has the feel of something to be endured, not something to be looking forward to. Having spent your entire life, up to then, on the exhilarating climb to the top, it might be tempting to simply accept the new and not-so-exhilarating future awaiting you. In that case, why not just settle back and coast down the hill to the finish line?
As you can probably guess Thibault and Morgan recommend something more than “coasting to the finish line.” They write of a “pilgrimage,” a meaningful October journey. They speak of retirement and aging as a time of purpose. Truth to tell, their appeal sounds very much like the “thriving in our 60s & 70s” I write about.
I’ve made the point before. No matter how we label that time of life, it is not for sissies. It is literally a new life and lifestyle. We soon learn that the ways we dealt with life in June and July, the things that worked for us then, are probably not as effective, or even possible, in October and beyond.
You have read the numbers. In the last century science and medicine have added decades to our life expectancy. The October of our life is arriving at an older age. Our “October and beyond,” what the authors refer to as “last third of life,” will last longer. Twenty and thirty year retirements are common place today. The question for us has become---will we spend those years passively waiting for the finish line to come meet us? Or will we choose to use our remaining years in a more productive manner?
If you vote for “something more productive,” be aware that the best part of thriving in October is that we CAN choose the form of our thriving. On the other hand, the hardest part of thriving in October is that we MUST choose how we will thrive. No one else can do that for us. We have to make that choice ourselves. After a lifetime of having our choices dictated by career and/or family, the opportunity and the challenge of thriving in October rests squarely on our shoulders.
Having tread that path and descended that hill in the course of nine Tanner Chronicles stories, as well as my own life, I have some experience in the matter. Why else would I have posted Retirement - If it’s so easy why did I nearly flunk it? a few months back. Still, I understand that most folks are not looking forward to that “pilgrimage,” that descent to the finish line. Many of us would rather not think about it. It is, however, as vital to completing the wholeness of life as our birth and maturing---and better by far than the alternative.
So, since the choices are yours to make, why not choose to thrive in your October? Instead of tilting your recliner back and coasting to the finish line, select one of the many paths that lead down from the hilltop? Take the one, or ones, that offers the unique and satisfying “something” you seek. That thriving, of course, will not erase your October trials---the health, financial, or relational obstacles we all face. It may, however, soften those blows. So instead of coasting, choose a way that makes the most of your time and energy, and start pedaling. That sounds to me like a proper pilgrimage.