Reaching middle age terrifies many of us. We look enviously at the energy and ambitions of the young and assume that the best years are behind us. We dwell on “lost years” and missed opportunities, forgetting that every life stage opens new vistas for growth and explorations. In her wise and inspiring classic book, Gift from the Sea, American aviator and author, Anne Morrow Lindberg offers her timeless advice on the art of graceful aging. The gist of her message is that far from being a dead-end, middle age is a golden opportunity for people to pivot from the encumbrances of life, both at work and in the home. to a new freedom where one can finally breathe more easily and devote more time to nourish ourselves intellectually, culturally and spiritually.
Without much ado, here are excerpts from chapter 5 of Lindberg’s book (presented with minor edits.)
“Perhaps middle age is, or should be a period of shedding shells – the shells of ambition, the shell of material accumulations and possessions, … one’s pride, one’s mask, one’s armor. Was that armor not put on to protect one from the competitive world? If one ceases to compete, does one need it? Perhaps one can, at last in middle age, if not earlier, be completely oneself. And what a liberation that would be!
At this stage in life, the adventures of youth are less open to us. Most of us cannot, at this point, start a new career or raise a new family. Many of the physical, material, and worldly ambitions are less attainable than they were twenty years ago. But is this not often a relief? I always like that Virginia Woolf hero who meets middle age admitting: “Things have dropped from me. I have outlived certain desires …”
The primitive, physical, functional pattern of the morning of life, the active years before forty or fifty, is outlived. But there is still the afternoon opening up, which one can spend, not in the feverish pace of the morning but in having time at least for those intellectual, cultural, and spiritual activities that were pushed aside in the heat of the race.
We Americans, with our terrific emphasis on youth, action, and material success, certainly tend to belittle the afternoon of life and even to pretend it never comes. We push the clock back and try to prolong the morning, overreaching and overstraining ourselves in the unnatural effort. We do not succeed, of course. We cannot compete with our sons and daughters. And what a struggle it is to race with these overactive and under-wise adults! In our breathless attempts, we often miss the flowering that waits for afternoon. For is it not possible that middle age can be looked upon as a period of second flowering, second growth, even a kind of second adolescence? Because of the false assumption that it is a period of decline, one interprets the life-signs of middle age, as signs of approaching death. One escapes into depressions, nervous breakdowns, drinks, love affairs, or frantic, thoughtless, fruitless overwork. Anything rather than stand still and learn. One tries to cure the signs of growth, to exorcise them, as if they were devils, when really, they might be angels of annunciation.
Angels of annunciation of what? Of a new stage in living when, having shed many of the physical struggles, the worldly ambitions, the material encumbrances of active life, one might be free to fulfil the neglected side of one’s self. One might be free for growth of mind, heart, and talent: free at last for spiritual growth …”
About Gift from the Sea (first edition: 1955)
In this beloved modern classic, Anne Morrow Lindbergh (1906–2001), author and aviator, wife of decorated pioneer aviator Charles Lindbergh, casts an unsentimental eye on the trappings of modernity that threaten to overwhelm us: the time-saving gadgets that complicate rather than simplify, the multiple commitments that take us from our families. LIndbergh, who was a mother of five, shares her meditations on youth and age; love and marriage; peace, solitude and contentment as she set them down during a brief vacation by the sea. Drawing inspiration from the shells on the shore, her musings on the shape of a woman’s life provides a rich source of ideas for readers of both sex to find space for enrichment through contemplation and creativity within their own lives.