What Calls You Beyond Midlife

by | Feb 3, 2015

We come full, not empty, to new callings beyond midlife. Mary Catherine Bateson says that we bring with us wisdom garnered from experience, combined with energy, and at least some freedom. She calls this rich accumulation active wisdom. But how do we determine which mitzvah calls us now? There are so many possibilities.

Many people at the cusp of big change, such as retirement, feel overwhelmed by the vast choices before them. Should they take a course? A trip? Get a job? What will they say when someone asks, “What are you doing these days?” It is challenging to figure out what is most compelling when we don’t have an external structure to guide us. To what do we want to say hineini–here I am?

Look Back to Give Forward

A place to start in identifying the callings that pull you is to examine your past, as Sara Lightfoot-Lawrence puts it, “look back to give forward.” Look for pursuits and engagements that gave you pleasure or meaning earlier in your life. You might notice threads you dropped, as did my students, Aliza, who had always been interested in art, and finally had a chance to seriously study painting around the time she retired. Even if you are doing something that is entirely new to you, you will, like Abraham and Moses, bring all that you have done and learned to this calling.

You might notice parts of yourself that you did not have a chance to engage, such as my 13 students in an independent living residence, who decided to study for, and celebrate, their belated Bat Mitzvah together. Perhaps you were an activist in your youth, but put that aside in the face of the demands of career or family, and now you will be drawn again to the work of tikkun olam, repairing the world. This work might become a job, what Marc Freedman calls, “encore careers,” in which the next chapter of effort is directed in service. Or, perhaps it is a non-paying passion that will draw you, such as the Granny Peace Brigade, a group of 90+ year-olds who gather in a Center City Philadelphia location every week to protest war and urge peace.


The terrain beyond midlife is new to us, and, in a sense, new to the world. It is unprecedented to have decades of life to engage beyond childbearing and career. We don’t have many models–this is not your grandfather’s–or grandmother’s–aging. So we need to be adventurers and explorers. As explorers, we should be prepared for false starts, for paths that lead to no particular destination. We may respond to a call, and find ourselves unsatisfied, uncomfortable, or under-stimulated. So we try another.

We need to give a calling time, reflect, adjust, and be ready to let go of this one if it doesn’t feel right. This is part of the journey. It is not a failure to try on something that doesn’t grab us; it is an act of bravery to admit it. We may start over again and again as we seek purpose later in life. This is not only because not every calling turns out to be compelling, but because we keep changing, and readying ourselves for new callings.

Even a calling we take on and stick with may change as our capacities change. It could be that we will need to wrestle with the question: how much is enough? And what if you can’t do what you used to, or what you aspire to? We are obligated to fulfill the mitzvah to the best of our abilities. We need to be honest with ourselves about what we are able to do, and what is too much. This requires humility; it is so easy to get our pride wrapped up in what we are able to do and how.

A way of thinking about this is an instruction I heard once from a yoga teacher. The task, she said, is to do a pose until it is full—effortful, perhaps challenging, but not painful or injurious. That, she said, is the practice–living in that tension between stretching to capacity and accepting limits. It is not about how perfectly we can stretch to do a particular pose, but that we have stretched as far as we can safely go.

Our mitzvah, our calling, can be full, whether we are working at it eight hours a day, or having a few minutes of engagement with it. It can be full if we are doing it from a desk, or a wheelchair, if we get to the task by car, by book, or by computer. Maggie Kuhn, the late founder of the Gray Panthers advocacy group, wrote in her memoir, No Stone Unturned:

What can we do, those of us who have survived to this advanced age? We can think and speak. We can remember. We can give advice and make judgments. We can dial the phone, write letters, and read. We may not be able to butter our bread, but we can still change the world.