Fifty-four years ago, psychologist Rollie Larson's body spoke to him with considerable authority. He didn't listen. After all, he was on a fast track to "success" as he envisioned it.
So why should he slow down when things were going so well when he was an active, healthy young man? Result: a severe case of pneumonia—misdiagnosed, leading to a lengthy hospital stay, saving his life with 49 penicillin shots and lots of rest. Such inactivity gave him an opportunity to learn a bit about what his body was trying to tell him.
Little by little during the next few years Rollie began asking himself the big questions: "Who am I, really? Where am I going? Is this all there is? If not, what else is out there? Do I trust this inner voice that seems to nudge me at times? Do I need to keep pursuing the same old things on the job, duties that are increasingly repetitious and boring? Who's in charge, anyhow?"
It was a time when he had reached many of his career goals, with little challenge left. At age 46 he was (unknowingly) ripe for change. But he had not really considered changing his job because it represented everything he wanted: adequate compensation, security, recognition, use of his talents, great working conditions, and wonderful colleagues. But something was missing. Rollie recalls, "I knew it and I didn't know it. My life was just too busy, living the whole success lifestyle of a public school supervisor."
It was a time when, in many ways, Rollie was at his peak. His department had just been commended as a "model for the nation" by a team of educators sent from Washington to learn what he was doing and how he did it. With all of this happening it seemed there was no logical reason to change his vocation.
It was a time, however, when his body was sending messages that he was slow to pick up. He recalls, "In retrospect I now see things more clearly. I was tired a great deal, yawned a lot, and often had tight feelings in my chest. Periodic chest pains would accelerate during times of tension from work-related problems."
It was also a time when a friend encouraged Rollie to join him in a pioneering effort in a small, start-up nonprofit organization. His encouragement made it sound possible and exciting. Rollie said, "For the first time I realized 1 could not spend another 20 years where I was. I felt boxed in, trapped, and hadn't realized it."
Rollie wanted badly to take the new position, but he also needed the security features of his present job. He would need to give up his accelerating pension plan, 120 days of accumulated sick leave, and other fringe benefits for a job that was grant-funded for only three years. He would also take a salary cut of 30 percent to leave what he had considered to be his ideal job. He recalls, "It seemed crazy to give up all of this with four kids in school, ages 11 to 17 and a wife not employed outside of the home. We had no savings!"
Fortunately, Rollie's wife, Doris, was there to listen and help him clarify. They grew closer, and he began to realize that security in the conventional sense did not mean everything. He began to experience a feeling of freedom and control of his future. Security took on new meaning. "Security," Rollie learned, "is largely within me."
Rollie felt more alive than he had in a long time. Continuing to develop his talents made him feel as if life were beginning again. He felt younger, yet unsure and self-doubting at times. He recalls, "I was certain that the choice to leave my secure position was the right one. It was as if Goethe had written these lines for me: whatever you can do or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it."
The decision Rollie made at age 46 eventually led to opportunities that he could never have imagined. Working alongside a highly creative colleague in an exciting, challenging career was followed, seven years later, by Rollie, and his wife Doris, going into private practice together. Prior to retiring they conducted over 800 workshops and seminars world-wide and co-authored four books.
In retrospect, now at age 82, new elder Rollie claims, "Within my heart is a feeling of deep gratitude. It is like a priceless gift was given to me as I trusted a spiritual process of growth at a critical juncture of life. Doris and I learned that honest communication, listening, and risk taking are our best friends. I cringe when I think of the opportunities and life satisfaction we might have missed if we had not 'just done it' at age 46!"
"At 82," says Rollie, "it's easy to lose your motivation. My purpose keeps me motivated. Sun City turns me off. I don't want to spend all my time with old people. Keeping a youthfulness (and mentoring youth) is critical to me. Working out brings me to life! And giving something away brings me to life. I don't want to hold onto stuff anymore. If there is joy in giving, I want to give it now. A lot of people give money and things away, but the ultimate contribution is giving of yourself. My purpose is to give myself now, through deep listening. 'Listen to someone today!' has been and still is my daily mantra."
Purpose is not a matter of theology. Our beliefs about the hereafter are not what ultimately matter. What matters is whether we live out our beliefs. Or as Stephen Levine puts it in Who Dies?: "Death is not the enemy. The enemy is ignorance and lovelessness."
The reason why the issue of purpose is so important to a vital second half of life is that it raises issues that, ultimately, are inevitable. None of us is going to get out of this life without facing the question "Why am I here?" None of us is going to be able to avoid confronting the question of our life's meaning. We don't really get away with not wondering what our legacy will be after we're gone.
By thinking intentionally about our life's purpose—by thoughtfully reflecting on our life's meaning—we give ourselves the time and space to think about things that sooner or later we're going to have to think about, whether we want to or not. And if we do this well and do it with intention, we can define our life's purpose and reclaim it so that we are able to integrate it successfully in all that we do throughout the second half of our lives. New elders do this and do so in ways that make their lives more vital for themselves and for family, friends, and, in many cases, clients and customers as well.
American industry spends 31 billion dollars a year on corporate education. The problem, though, is that few people who attend corporate training courses actually apply what they learn. All their good intentions to put into practice what they've learned in seminars, trainings, and workshops quickly evaporate once they are back on the job.
Cal Wick, the 60-year-old CEO of Fort Hill Company in Montchanin, Delaware, recognized this problem and has built a business in response to it."'Creating new ways to help people learn how to do important things is how I define my purpose." Cal has turned his purpose into a profitable enterprise in the second half of his life. He is passionate about the things that Fort Hill is doing as an expression of that purpose to help transform companies such as Pfizer, Home Depot, and Hewlett-Packard.
Cal, a former Episcopalian priest, is a new elder. Like the other new elders who appear on the pages of this book, he has life lessons to teach us.
Cal takes pains to stress that he is proud of being well into the second half of life; it's not at all something he is ashamed of, recoils from, or is afraid to admit. He is proud of the deepening of his emotions and the ripening of his faith that would have been impossible even five years earlier. He says,"I'm in roles that I've never had before. At times,I wake up with wisdom that was previously inaccessible to me—I'm like a child learning to speak." For Cal, learning how to lead has gone hand in hand with learning how to age.
In our interviews with new elders, we were struck by the similarities between what happens as we approach the second half of life and what happens to those who survive near-death experiences. After undergoing medical emergencies or accidents that brought them close to death, people report major changes in their lives and attitudes about living. These major changes include a deeper sense of purpose and a fuller appreciation for the inter-connectedness of all life.
At age 59, Cal found that he had potential throat can- cer and was losing his voice. This awareness of his mortality penetrated deeply into his consciousness. He says that as a direct result of this experience,"I feel much more open about saying what's on my mind. Having cancer you know that you don't know how much time you have left. It causes you to wrestle with your faith."
While passing by a San Francisco bookstore several years ago, he saw a book about honoring the Sabbath and it changed his life."I was working flat-out seven days a week and I was fried." Today, Cal Wick lives out his beliefs through his own "Sabbath practices."
Cal reports that, for him, Saturday and Sunday are both Sabbath days. He says,"In my prayers from Friday to Sunday, I only give thanks. I spend no money on Sundays. Through this practice, a real sense of gratitude has emerged. It slows me down enough to listen. Sometimes prayers come to me which I put on my website: www.greatprayers.com. The book of Genesis talks about time being holy. My Sabbath practice connects my living with eternity."
People who are living on purpose during the second half of life like Cal Wick are not drifting quietly onto the golf course but are using their gifts, purpose, and passion in service to others. For Cal, this means not only running a purposeful organization but also serving through preaching four or five times a year, plus doing weddings and coaching people through difficult life transitions. As Cal demonstrates, the gift of the second half of life is fully appreciated only when it is shared.