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Embracing Aging: Comparing Life to a Football Game

An acquaintance is reaching the milestone of 50 years. I’ve known him since his youth, witnessing his transformation into a prosperous entrepreneur and devoted family man. His mother devised a thoughtful plan: reaching out to individuals who have shared significant moments in her son’s life, requesting them to compose a one-page letter. These letters will be compiled and presented to him on his 50th birthday.

The concept of commemorating this pivotal juncture in his life’s journey — turning 50 — resonated with me as truly ingenious. Allow me to elaborate.

Reaching 50 marked a profound moment for me. Despite anticipating the impact, one can never be fully prepared for these profound shifts in our emotional foundation.

Throughout my years of instructing medical students on life phases, I often likened life to a football, eliciting subdued groans from my audience. Commencing from one end of the football’s narrow structure, life expands towards the center, mirroring our own growth from infancy, through childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. In midlife, life reaches its peak fullness, brimming with infinite possibilities. Subsequently, the football’s expansion, akin to life itself, begins to contract. Around the age of 50, individuals start noticing subtle signs of waning physical abilities, opportunities, and choices, signifying a reduction in life’s expanse as age progresses.

Analogies such as climbing a mountain to its zenith before descending to the base effectively capture this essence. Renowned American priest and author, Richard Rohr, illustrates the first half of life as the period for constructing the foundation — encompassing enduring relationships, marriage, family, career, and public engagements. In contrast, the latter half of life focuses on imbuing that constructed framework with significance, delving into internal, subjective realms like intuition, creativity, faith, deepening relationships, and realizing aspirations.

Despite years of imparting theories on lifespan development, I was caught off guard by the sense of “tucking in,” occurring just beyond the midpoint of life’s football structure, as I approached 50. Juggling two fulfilling occupations and a burgeoning family, I naively anticipated life’s continued expansion akin to a beach ball, only to be confronted by an inexplicable void within me. This void served as a harbinger of impending change, signaling that amplifying my current pursuits would not suffice.

Returning to my youthful friend on the brink of 50, I may not discern his current mental and emotional stance on his life voyage or whether he contemplates it as a journey at all. Nonetheless, navigating life’s stages authentically and embracing each phase on its own terms is paramount to discovering contentment.

So, what should my letter entail? What his mother seeks and what he necessitates — crucially — is not counsel but rather a testament.

I have borne witness to his evolution from adolescence to adulthood, his matrimony, family life, and his establishment of a new existence in a different city. Contemplating my message, I am inclined towards encapsulating the essence of my observations: “Here are the attributes and virtues I have observed in you as you’ve transitioned into manhood — qualities that I admire. Additionally, here’s my personal experience as I clumsily navigate life beyond 50.”

A certain internal coherence guides such a missive, stemming from introspection on a life voyage I intimately comprehend: my own. This underlying map furnishes a framework for crafting the letter.

Initially, acknowledging the triumph of traversing the journey thus far — the ascent up the mountain of life’s initial phase. Subsequently, posing reflective inquiries about this journey. For instance: What does your life’s architecture reveal about your passions? Your innate talents? Areas warranting further development? Has it delineated the foundational structure necessary to house the fruits of your labor across diverse domains?

Do inklings of your power source surface? What fuels your spirit and what drains it? Where might you seek rejuvenation — not merely fleeting energy spikes — to propel you towards the subsequent chapter of your life?

Moreover, what core value is crystallizing as your “pearl of great price?” On a profound level, do you sense a beckoning, an inner urging to embrace this value? What steps are essential to prepare the ground for its fruition?

This contemplation underscores the notion that contemplating a fulfilling and fruitful old age should commence well before reaching 65 or 70. The threshold may arise much earlier, possibly even preceding 50, yet this age could serve as a turning point when life confronts us with profound existential queries, necessitating a morale boost.

Hence, here’s a challenge that promises growth. Select an individual on the cusp of midlife and pen them a one-page letter. Concluding my letter, I impart:

“Take heed from me (my sole credential: 84 years) — upon summiting the metaphorical mountain, typically around 50 years, the descent on the other side unfolds as a more enchanting journey than the ascent. Curiosity peaks, offering a panoramic vista; you can leisurely pace, hum a tune, relish a picnic, pen a verse; extend support to fellow climbers, proffer guidance if sought. Perhaps, you may decipher the purpose of scaling the mountain in the first place.

“Turning 50 encapsulates this essence, in my view. Your prime endeavors and finest days lie ahead.”