Middle age is a crucial developmental phase in which people often mellow into fruitfulness or sour into discontentment. And there is immense social pressure for this to be the latter.
I’ll admit it: two days before Christmas in 2012 I will hit fifty. It’s no big deal, even if the way we measure numbers suggests otherwise. On reaching forty, the first person I opened the door to was a grinning undertaker, which was a cruel reality check. Complaining about ageing is counter-productive anyway: those who are older give short shrift to the suggestion you feel past it when they might wish they could be that age again; for anyone younger it’s confirmation you are past it anyway. Even if the body shows signs of ageing (another too easily torn muscle this year, for instance), it’s true what most people say about the ageing process: you always feel younger than you are. Mentally we don’t catch up with ourselves – or at least we think we don’t. I sometimes wonder if it is just a reassuring cliché which ignores the subtle way in which people become more resistant to change; a tendency we just aren’t prepared to admit. I hope this isn’t the case, because it’s one thing I always said I wouldn’t do. Perhaps people make an issue out of being fifty because, on balance, we assume that more of our life lies behind us than in front of us – something we are less sure of at forty. Yet even here we delude ourselves, for we cannot predict one day in front of another in this precarious life.
One of the reasons I have eschewed much social media is because I don’t want to subject people to the stream of consciousness the previous paragraph represents. The point of this website is to spare people too much detail about me, which I suspect is not that interesting to others, but to try and inspire people with the joyful and unexpected way in which grace is manifest in this world; to encourage curiosity in the work of God. Hopefully people gain an insight into what I care about through the themes and priorities of this site anyway.
Marcus Berkmann’s ‘A Shed of One’s Own’ (Little, Brown 2012) is just the kind of whimsical and witty reflection on early middle age that is worth buying the right person at Christmas. One American picked it up in my study, skimmed it and dismissed Berkmann as ‘another angry middle aged Brit’ which is a little rich, when you think about the origins of the Tea Party, but we won’t go there. Yet he had a point. There is a whole genre of middle aged anger, tapping a poisonous subterranean seam in British society. Why do so many people become trapped in this embittered state? If it were purely life’s victims it would be more readily understandable, but it is often to be heard on the lips of people who have done extremely well out of life. A whole series of reasons are offered for this: rapid social change which the younger cope better with; impending mortality; the duties of the middle generation, caring for parents and children at the same time. Yet previous generations have all had challenges to endure. Once cultures become apparent, people subconsciously begin to copy them in order to fit in. Anger in today’s Britain is imitative and not inevitable.
Underlying such questions lies the faith journey. Middle age is one of the riskiest moments for spiritual drift. The New Testament leaves us in no doubt that we are engaged in a life-long struggle to be formed in Christ and made ready for the day when we shall meet him as he is. St. Paul said to the Romans:
Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers (13:11)
Yet as this time nears, it is easy to let days of spiritual drift become months and years. The risks that Jesus demonstrated in the Parable of the Sower – of people’s freedom in God being constricted by wealth and anxiety – are especially dangerous for the middle generation. Social research even backs this up, showing the dip in happiness which they endure relative to the young and the old, which may surprise people, given this generation pretty much rules the world.
We speak of key developmental phases in life, but rarely think of middle age in this way; yet this is the crucial period in which people mellow into fruitfulness or sour into discontentment. And there is immense social pressure for this to be the latter; it is one of the hidden challenges of life to become more generous and thankful when the presumed lifestyle of the middle aged is the reverse. I have noted those Christians who have aged in the grace of God and I am deeply grateful to them for the inspiration they afford. Their capacity for forgiveness and kindness and the determination they show to be open to change and growth in God both in themselves and the churches they inhabit deserves to be imitated.
It is characteristic of the baby boomer generation to evaluate a life well lived by the sheer quantity of things they achieve. Round birthdays can tempt people into this kind of calculation, but it is only the journey into the loving realisation of being a child of God that counts. This is not something many middle aged people find easy as they wrestle with the contradictions and disappointments of their life. But it is only out of this rootedness that we make a lasting difference.
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