Can we re-create ourselves?

Midlife can be an age of new possibilities and opportunities. Many of my friends, male and female, embarked in new directions in their fifties or even sixties, pursuing long-suppressed dreams or exploring on an unexpected path. This came as a delightful surprise to me. Back in my twenties, I thought we were all making decisions for life.

For women, especially, midlife can be freeing. For mothers, it is usually a time when children leave the nest. Women who have left the workforce sometimes return to work full time in some area they once wished for – or find work they never imagined. Many of those who have spent decades in one field quit their jobs and find meaningful new endeavors. Now that we’re living longer, healthier lives, midlife can be a great time to go back to school, start a company, take up art or poetry, or devote your energy to a heartfelt cause.

Of the nine women I interviewed for Warm Cup of Wisdom, all switched directions at midlife. Two did so reluctantly, because of divorce, but found new passions to guide them in the second half of life. Most of the others took deliberate actions and created a new self-identity after the age of fifty. Several went back into classrooms to get master’s degrees. One founded her own consulting company, after realizing she didn’t want to be a partner in someone else’s firm. One began working for a local sculptor and then decided to collect stories about him for a book. Another became the director of a growing preschool – and led it for eighteen years. Another took up acting – and even now, in her eighties, appears on local TV commercials.

I admire their midlife gumption – and consider it a sign of wisdom. That’s one reason I found them to be good role models. I spent my fifties making the switch from journalism to book writing – a dream I had cherished since childhood.

“I think that the fifties are a remarkable decade,” one of them told me. “Maybe because the kids are off to college or gone, and you’ve decided what your strengths are. You have this period where you are still very vital, sought after, respected. I’ve watched many of my friends blossom and comes into their own in their fifties.”

What’s your story – from your life or that of someone you admire?  What’s the advantage of finding a new direction at midlife?

Can we truly forgive? If so, how?

Since forgiveness is a core teaching of Christianity, which is a core belief system in America, why is it that so many Americans find it hard to believe that it’s truly possible to forgive? My friend Sidney Rittenberg recently asked me this challenging question. Sidney is a man who was falsely imprisoned in China for 16 years, yet at age 93 he is remarkably free of bitterness or anger toward those who mistreated him.

His question feels especially relevant today, after the news that ISIS militants have beheaded a second American journalist in the Middle East. Our first reaction – often – is to demand revenge. When someone does something that is brutal or “unforgivable,” it seems only human to respond with violence. When I read in the paper about a woman who forgave the man who killed her husband while stealing his cell phone, I found that hard to believe. I wondered: Did she just say that because she knows her religion teaches that, or did she truly forgive?

When I asked the nine women I interviewed for the book Warm Cup of Wisdom “Can we truly forgive?” I found that several of them gave similar answers. The point of forgiving, they said, is not to let the perpetrator off the hook – or excuse what terrible things he did. You forgive because you need to let go of past hurts in order to move on with your life. “Forgiving can be extremely difficult, but if you do it, it is totally freeing,” said one woman who managed, after great effort, to forgive someone who had abused her when she was a little girl. “It made me realize what a burden I was carrying by keeping such pain inside.”

Another woman agreed in principle but has not yet forgiven some terrible things done to her during her childhood. The word forgiveness, she said, brings up “a knot here in my gut.” “Healing needs to happen before forgiveness,” she said. “You shouldn’t rush into forgiveness.” She is appalled by people who counsel battered wives to “forgive and forget.”

Responding to violence with more violence is obviously not wise. Nor is rushing into forgiveness before you are ready – or putting yourself in harm’s way again, or letting criminals get away with the same crime a second time.

What do you think?  Have you managed to forgive something that seemed unforgivable?

Is happiness a choice?

I’ve had spirited disagreements with friends over the nature of happiness. I like to think it’s a choice: we can choose to be happy or we can choose to be miserable. One friend insists it’s circumstantial: if you’ve had terrible things happen in your life, of course you are miserable. It seems cruel to expect someone whose spouse has recently died to perk up. Another friend assures me that it’s a matter of genetics: we each have a basic temperament or “set point” of happiness. Some people wake up every morning feeling sub-par, and it’s a struggle for them to get to a mood that’s neutral, let alone happy.

I’ve done some reading on this topic, especially in the field of positive psychology, the movement started by Martin Seligman. Psychology researchers have determined that our general state of happiness (they call it “chronic happiness!) is about 50% genetic, 10% circumstantial, and 40% choice (or “intentional activity”). It’s fascinating to read up on the research of how they could possibly arrive at these statistics. But this makes sense to me: Yes, of course, terrible circumstances and inborn personality traits make it harder for some people to be happy than others. But there is an element of choice.

The nine women I interviewed for the book had widely differing opinions on this topic. Four of them describe themselves as glass-half-full optimists, and five have struggled with occasional depression. Here are some of their observations:

  1. The word “happiness” evokes a giddy, temporary state. Satisfaction and contentment may be better goals than “happily ever after.”
  2. When you are pained in body or deeply troubled in mind, contentment is elusive.
  3. Still, it is possible to choose not to live in fear or misery.
  4. Contentment comes from the inside; external things can’t make you happy.
  5. We can’t make other people happy. If someone chooses to stay in misery or fear, we can’t pull him or her out of it.

After the suicide of Robin Williams, a lot is being written about depression. Is it a disease? Or a natural response to the hopeless state of the world today? Is it best treated with drugs or with talk therapy? If Robin Williams could not choose happiness, who could?

What do you think? In your experience, does happiness come mostly from circumstances, inborn traits, or choices we make?

For more on the scientific approach to happiness, I recommend this article.

Getting through tough times

What sustains you through tough times and gives you energy and hope?

This question cuts to the heart of what I hope to discover in this whole wisdom exercise.

When I asked this question, it unleashed a flood of stories, some of them tough to hear. Death of a spouse or parent or child, bitter divorce, wrenching illness . . . we all face tough times in our lives. The experts say everyone deals with loss in a unique way, but some people do seem to come through it with more resilience than others. When things are awful, giving advice seems wrong. Yet it may help to hear how others have coped. Among the guidance I heard from the women I interviewed were the following:

  • Renew your appreciation for the small joys of life: a latte on the way to work, the smell of fresh-ironed cotton, a narcissus on your desk.
  • Try “unconscious writing.” That means sitting down at the computer or with pen and paper and just letting the words flow. Let out all the bitterness and anger and sorrow and pain.
  • Notice gratitude –  for whatever is good in your life, for those who send notes or flowers or come to visit.
  • Surround yourself with your friends. One woman told me about her “chosen sisters” – girlfriends who circle around and comfort when something bad happens.
  • Take heart from the courage of others who have gone through tough times.
  • Seek out a therapist or pastor or support group.
  • Put one foot in front of the other. Look at the hand you’ve been dealt, figure out all the possibilities, and work from there.
  • Count your blessings along the way: when small things go right, when people reconnect, when you feel a surge of energy that helps you get through one day.

In my life, I’ve been fortunate, so far. My tough times have been fewer than most. But I appreciate the way these women shared their painful memories with me and gave specific suggestions.

What gets you through tough times?

Speaking up: Why it matters

Chapter Two of Warm Cup of Wisdom contains nine answers to the question: “What do you recall about a time when you learned to speak up and make sure your voice was heard?”

You might well ask: What does speaking up have to do with wisdom?

Here’s why I asked it. Many women hesitate to speak up, especially in large groups, and their wisdom is available only to those who know them well. This is not universally true; even in my small sample of nine women, two said they never hesitated to speak their minds. And certainly some men keep their thoughts to themselves. But in general, men are more likely to have the confidence to speak up, to give lectures or sermons, and to write books that share what they have learned. As a result they spread their knowledge and wisdom more widely than women do. The reason I interviewed only women for this book was to tap into that lesser known pool of women’s wisdom.

Most of us, women and men, recall a time when we screwed up the courage to speak up. That’s because all of us started life as children and gained confidence as we grew in knowledge and competence. The better you are at what you do, the more likely you are to have something worth sharing with others.

I recently read an interesting book on how women can overcome what seems like an innate tendency to hold back. Written by two accomplished female TV journalists, it’s called The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance – What Women Should Know. For it, they found that confidence is partly genetic, but we can rewire our brains by focusing less on people-pleasing and perfectionism and instead take action and risk failure.

That’s just what I found while interviewing women for my book. All of them grew up in a time when men were in charge at home and at work, so it took even more courage for them to learn to express an opinion publicly. My favorite story is about one woman who was listening as her church leaders decided to put a United States flag in their sanctuary. By nature a people pleaser, she swallowed hard and dared to speak up to oppose the idea. She had recently worshipped at a church in China and said she would have felt awkward if that church had displayed the flag of China. Her voice was heard, and the church decided to display the U.S. flag elsewhere. To her, this felt like a major victory.

Can you recall a time when you learned to speak up? How and why do you think men and women differ on this? Seriously! I’d really like to hear from you about this.

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