Almost 12 years ago I taught a course I called Conversations in the Third Act at the local branch of the University of Maine’s life-long learning center. If life is a drama in three acts, then all of us over 50 are in the third act and dealing with a whole new set of issues, questions, and challenges.
In the secret hour of life’s midday the parabola is reversed, death is born. The second half of life does not signify ascent, unfolding, increase, exuberance, but death, since the end is its goal. The negation of life’s fulfillment is synonymous with the refusal to accept its ending. Both mean not wanting to live, and not wanting to live is identical with not wanting to die. Waxing and Waning make one curve. ~ C.G. Jung
Coming to terms with the loss of youth and the dawning realization that life is finite is intrinsic to later life. Much has been written about the passage into midlife and we have no doubt all heard of the Mid-Life Crisis. One person may experience the fear of losing control and the sense of self that once worked. Another may feel the fear of further losing areas of self-expression. Frequently, there is the existential fear of mortality and diminishing time, the realization that half of life is gone. And for those of us in our 60s and 70s and beyond, an even deeper recognition of the finiteness of our lives.
It is common to experience anger or depression in response to lost time and opportunity for more authentic experience. Depression and underlying regret may reflect an emerging sense of emptiness and the superficial relationship to life of the “adapted self.”
These are calls to attend to life issues which have been neglected. As Jung said,
We cannot live the afternoon of life according to the programme of life’s morning, for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie.
In drama the first act is used to establish the dramatic situation and introduce the main characters. At the end of the first act, an inciting incident complicates the story and moves the screenplay into the second act. — This is childhood through young adulthood, when we set the stage for our lives, choose our work and relationships.
The second act, commonly described as “rising action”, typically depicts the protagonist attempting to solve the problems caused by the inciting incident. The Climax, which ends the second act, is the scene or sequence in which the main tension and dramatic questions of the story are brought to their most intense point. — This is the time from 35 or so to the 50s even 60, what has classically been known as midlife. At the end of this act, there is a dawning awareness of the end, even though it does not seem imminent.
Finally, the third act features the resolution of the story and its subplots. It is the third act that I have become most interested in, the time I myself now inhabit, This is the time in which life’s loose ends, unresolved plotlines, that is the denouement of life.
I know that I am younger at 72 than my mother was. Already at my age, she was old and seemed to have moved into just waiting for the end. Women become invisible around age 40 when we are seen as faded flowers, no longer attracting the eye of young men. That fading is even greater as we enter this last act of life. We are scarcely seen in movies or on television, in magazines or popular culture. In the last election, Hillary Clinton, younger than Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump or Joe Biden, was sometimes subject to open speculation about whether her age made her a bad choice for President. Men can be elder statesmen in the 70s; women of that age, no matter their accomplishments, are expected to disappear.
But this is a time of great possibilities as well. Look at me — I published my first book just 2 years ago . If you have HBO, watch Grace and Frankie — women in their 70s who are filled with ideas for new things to do, new businesses to launch while their husbands believe they must surrender to age and retire.
There is work to be done in this act. It is our last opportunity to make revisions to this story we living, the last chance to reconcile holes in the plot and to move the story forward to its inevitable end.
No Going Back
No, no, there is no going back.
Less and less you are
that possibility you were.
More and more you have become
those lives and deaths
that have belonged to you.
You have become a sort of grave
containing much that was
and is no more in time, beloved
then, now, and always.
And so you have become a sort of tree
standing over the grave.
Now more than ever you can be
generous toward each day
that comes, young, to disappear
forever, and yet remain
unaging in the mind.
Every day you have less reason
not to give yourself away.
~ Wendell Berry ~