The 50s: Flourishing or Floundering?

When I was in my 20s I met the work of a Dutch psychiatrist and educator named Bernard Lievegoed. He was well known in Holland and abroad, having founded the Netherlands Pedagogical Institute and written numerous books. He won a national award — the Gouden Ganzenveer — for his cultural contribution through the written word.

What registered most strongly for me was his work on stages of development — particularly in adulthood. Although his work seems quite outdated now due to the great societal change since his time (1905-1992), nevertheless he captures what I have come to believe is the quintessential journey through a lifetime based on seven-year cycles of development. Over the years, I’ve had a private practice focusing on people in midlife and have also been using Lievegoed’s ideas in training therapists. It finds a strong resonance with people.

It’s wrong to assume people don’t develop new faculties throughout life. When Erik Erikson developed the work of Freud into psychosocial stages of development, which became cornerstones for childhood psychology, he did not do justice to adulthood. To be fair, it’s not long ago that the vast majority of people began their working lives in their teens and had little leeway for self-reflection and personal growth. Those who do participate in effective self-learning, however, can become very attuned to the subtle but powerful inner shifts over the adult years.

The physical changes that mark the first three seven-year cycles of life are profound to the outer eye. The next three cycles up to the early 40s can be described as filling out the soul forces through finding our way in the world.

From the early 40s the path is an inward one — spiritual if you like. Our changes become much more subtle, almost invisible to the outside world, but it’s a mistake to think there’s not much brewing. This is where our individuality is finding definition and seeking to emerge. We can subdue it with alcohol or affairs, or buy bigger and better homes and holidays (the mid-life crisis can be seen as an attempt to dull the challenges of the inner voice). Essentially we are called upon to clarify our highest ideals and to walk our talk. It’s scary. We need to be bold. It’s an individual journey of authenticity from here on in and there is no roadmap. It’s also incredibly rich and rewarding for those who dare.

Land Rover on a barren gravel road in Northern Iceland 1972.

Thanks to Roger McLassus for this Wikimedia Commons image from Northern Iceland.

Now that I am in my late 50s, I am able to understand this stage in ways which were only theory until a few years back. I’d like to share the essence of my experience with those who might be struggling to keep momentum in their lives through the fifties.

What strikes me most about this time of life is how easy it is to turn your back on life-giving energy. Without even knowing it we can divest ourselves of a vital future where we can continue to grow and create. I am a busy man with a good life and yet, without even knowing it, on a couple of occasions I have caught myself going down a path of cruising toward later life with the assumption that I have less energy and therefore will do less. This has been quite unconscious and it’s not until some spark flares again, something that has energy to lead me into the future, that I become aware of how much I had been letting go of the life instincts.

I’ve mentioned the need for authenticity through the forties. In the 50s, it’s about meaning. What is it that provides me with enough vision and drive to continue to build up a life? The slide into comfortable oblivion sits there as a tempter.

It’s helpful to stay awake to yourself and the world around you. Many people talk about a bucket list. Don’t turn down opportunities because of a lack of energy. The energy will come from saying ‘yes’ to things. Take on new adventures. Be creative and bold.

And I hereby grant you permission to start fucket list. As you begin to grant yourself permission to step up, you can also stop doing the things that de-energize you. Let go of what no longer serves life. Shed stuff. Practice elegant simplicity.

I’ll leave you with the wise words of a good friend. Regarding aging, he says, more and more matters less and less. But what matters, matters more and more.