Life Reimagined

I discovered Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife in this article about how our experience of our faith changes as we mature. The book explores that long stretch of years we call middle age — from around 45-65 — and the perspective shifts, professional landscape, brain chemistry, and changing values associated with it.

I really enjoyed the book, despite a few aspects that bothered me. Do you want the good news, or the bad news, first? Since my overall experience was good, I’m going to get the complaints out of the way first, and save the best for last.

  • Though it’s possibly a minor point, Hagerty gets Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers totally wrong. She makes mention of it when discussing Eric Ericsson’s research about the importance of practice. In a note, she adds this qualifier: “See Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, which argued that talent is unnecessary as long as you practice ten years or ten thousand hours.” Sorry, but I’ve read Gladwell’s book twice. It doesn’t say that at all. It simply explores the factors in addition to talent that pertain to highly successful people. Her erroneous summary made me wonder how many other things she may have gotten wrong that I wouldn’t happen to know about.
  • The book never confronts the dilemma of causation vs. correlation. It points to many factors relevant to aging well, and the implication seems to be, “Do these things to achieve the same result as these people.” But do the habits — exercise, ongoing learning, novelty in marriage — cause the experience, or are they results in the life of someone who’s already aging well? Ultimately one’s quality of life boils down to our choices, and here we are in the realm of mystery. The title points to “science,” but while brain chemistry is an interesting factor, will may be the true rudder.

So much for criticism. What I liked far outweighed these niggling negatives.

For one thing, the book affirms common experiences, alleviating potential isolation. Age discrimination and financial struggle seem to be common experiences for those in mid-life, for example. Hagerty reports on an informal study conducted through the NPR website, one in which she simply asked, “How’s midlife treating you?” Many, many of the responses, even from the educated professional class that makes up NPR’s audience, testified to huge financial losses and job losses. Our tiresomely unanimous, uncritical news media keep insisting that this is a strong economy, the best we’ve had in years. But this is not borne out in the experience of many actual people.

For another thing, I enjoyed reading about the many factors that relate positively to aging: exercise, new learning, incorporating new experiences in marriage, volunteering, attitude, social life, purpose. The midlife crisis, it seems, is more myth than reality, and not necessarily a common experience for the majority. It was inspiring to read about the people Hagerty interviews as well as the ways she participates in her own research. In the course of the book, Hagerty

  • becomes an avid cyclist and enters the Senior Olympics (exercise/purpose);
  • participates in a brain study that involves working on particular mental tasks for a period of time and demonstrates measurable growth (neuroplasticity and memory);
  • rents an RV and goes on an extended camping trip with her husband (marital exploration) and another couple (social life);
  • and, ultimately, takes an NPR buyout and switches careers from reporter to author (finding purpose/meaningful work).

Structurally the book intersperses research, interviews, and personal experience in an engaging way. Hagerty is an entertaining writer who can explain technical material in clear and interesting prose.

As someone with Alzheimers firmly established in my genetic inheritance, I was delighted to learn that there exist people whose brains have the “plaques and tangles” of the disease, but none of the symptoms. I had no idea! What better testimony that it isn’t exclusively an issue of genetic determinism, but of lifestyle choices as well, whether a person falls victim to this tragic disease.

While I was glad to discover that I’m already incorporating a number of the “good habits” of productive midlife, there is one glaring weakness: friendships. I have a healthy marriage and family life, but when it comes to friends, well…. I would say I have many acquaintances, but few real friends at this point in my life. Much of this has to do with time and energy, most of which is focused on my family. But as my children grow older and more independent, this book reminds me that it’s important to look for opportunities to develop friendships. This isn’t what I’d call an area of natural strength for me; I’m definitely an introvert, which doesn’t mean I’m antisocial, but does mean I’m comfortable alone. Yet interestingly, Hagerty’s discussion reminds us that cultivating friendships is a major factor in physical and mental well-being — one worth the risk and effort necessary.

Finally, the book inspires me to “reimagine” a professional direction for my own life. Hagerty focuses on the professional class: those who climb the ladder of success in their careers and then change course in mid-life. I’ve been outside of any professional structure for some time now; I didn’t get very far up the ladder before changing course 15 years ago, leaving a tenure track teaching position at the beginning of my academic life to marry, then become a parent, then home educate my kids. I reach mid-life with education, experience and skills, yet when it comes to any clout in my professional sphere, well… I’m not sure how to make it translate. I was just starting out in academia when family rose to prominence. I have loved the transitions:

  • from academic publication to blogging;
  • from college level instruction to  educational jack-of-all-trades with pre-college-aged students;
  • from a teacher:student ratio of 1:25 or 1:50 to 1:1;
  • from uncovering themes in American and British lit to reading all kinds of books together with my kids, noticing and thinking about literary elements together in the process;
  • from an “expertise” to omnivorous reading.

But none of this has occurred in a professional sphere with LinkedIn contacts and professional evaluations or promotions. As the end of my homeschooling era comes into view a few years down the road, I find myself mulling how to identify and channel the strengths I’ve developed in new directions.

If you’re somewhere on the long road of midlife, I recommend Life Reimagined. It’s a source of enjoyment, information, and enlarged perspective that I savored. It provides its target audience with some useful materials to think about quality of life, goals, and dreams, and Barbara Bradley Hagerty makes a great guide along the way.

The Listening Life

There are several great reviews of this book around, including this one that convinced me I wanted to read it. Ironically, I believe it was the idea of a listening God that interested me. Finishing the book, it’s the idea of a listening Janet that inspires me.

How many of us listen well? Recently I commended someone for being a good listener, mainly because the person keeps quiet while others talk. This is one attribute of a good listener, but not the only one. It’s even possible to keep quiet while others talk and not be a good listener at all. You may be judging them, or internally rephrasing everything they say in terms of your own personal grid of meaning, or simply waiting for them to finish so you can wrench the conversation down a completely different path, or — perhaps — not even listening to them at all.

The Listening Life helps to guide its readers into a fuller imagining of what it means to listen well. The first five chapters explore the way God listens, and how we can listen in return — for instance, through prayer, scripture, and creation. These chapters are illuminating, but the ones I liked best came when author Adam McHugh turned to how we listen to others, to people in pain, to our own lives, and to our culture. I had two favorite chapters. The first, “Listening to Others,” offers some fine insight into the ways we might be listening less well than we think we are, and what we may be missing. “Character building is always expensive to the ego,” writes McHugh, just before offering some questions to help us evaluate our motivations in conversation. He points out, “The opposite of a listening heart is not a talking heart but a selfish heart.” I have grown stingy about book purchases, relying on the library whenever possible, and often reselling books I am forced to buy. In this chapter, I gave up and started underlining and bracketing passages I wanted to remember. This book is a keeper.

My other favorite chapter is “A Society of Reverse Listening.” To give you a whiff of what it’s about, it begins this way:

Our church signs lay out the usual pattern. Come this Sunday for our message: “Where Is God When It Hurts?” This week’s sermon: “Abraham and Isaac: The Untold Story.” Sunday morning at 9 and 11: “Your One True Love.” The expectation is clear: if you come to church, you are going to listen. The church’s job is to preach, to teach the Bible and to share God’s opinions on the issues of the day, and your job is to listen to our message. We have a pulpit, and you have ears.

Imagine if the pattern was reversed. What if, instead of coming to church to be preached to, people came to church to be heard? What if the body of believers was known less as a preaching community and more as a listening community?

This struck a chord with me. No matter how good the preaching, the Sunday service is largely an exercise in being a passive audience. Of course, McHugh is talking not just about worship services, but about Christian culture at large, which is often perceived to have much to say, but not much time or interest in listening. It’s not built into our structures because, perhaps, it’s not built into our values. But this last chapter offers an inspiring vision of how we could become better at listening instead of talking.

I recommend The Listening Life. Reading is, after all, an experience of extended listening, and this book offers any number of insights that are both deep and useful, related with gentleness and wit. It has already had an impact on my responses to the small circle of people who share my life, and it is inspiring despite McHugh’s acknowledgement that

The honest truth is that there is no glory in listening. There is more glory in talking about listening than there is in actually doing it. It is the New Year’s resolution of relationship disciplines. It is not glamorous, charismatic or dynamic. People who have been heard well aren’t even aware of it half the time.

Yet when you commit to go deep into listening, you will find that listening “speaks” in ways far more powerful than talking ever could.

Rogue One (with spoilers)

It’s a little known fact in this corner of the blogosphere, but I’ve seen all the Star Wars movies. So even though I hardly ever review movies, I’m going to attempt to now, because in what may be becoming a tradition, we went to see Rogue One this week. But in contrast to last year’s experience with The Force Awakens, which left me unequivocally approving, this movie left me ambivalent.

To its credit, Rogue One depicts war with some degree of realism. The characters suffer and sacrifice to achieve the gain realized in the movie’s closing scene. Characters in the midst of battle experience fear and confusion, and with good reason.

Similarly, the Rebel Alliance is not the unified, unanimous force it appears to be in other movies. It betrays some of the characteristics of political groups in the present day, in a galaxy close at hand: opposing viewpoints, double-speak, and willingness to use an ordinary person like Jyn Erso without telling her the truth.

But though I have a certain appreciation for these realistic elements, mostly the film left me unmoved. For one thing, the Star Wars world is unremittingly bleak and colorless. I was delighted when the closing scenes, which take place in Imperial territory, were going to take place in daylight; all the rest of the movie is dark and claustrophobic. Even the opening scenes, in which a young Jyn watches her parents trying fruitlessly to resist the Empire, take place in a gray industrial landscape. I was surprised to hear that her father was a farmer, as his land bears more resemblance to a modern dump with its tube-like smokestacks protruding from barren earth. It’s an unappealing world that inspires little sympathy or understanding.

The script was equally colorless. In last year’s Force Awakens, the repartee between characters lightened the mood and demonstrated the chemistry among them. But the dialogue in this film was, as critic Robert Mondello notes, “flatfooted.” He writes, “With Stormtroopers lurking ’round every intergalactic corner, director Gareth Edwards hasn’t much time for such other Star Warsian charms as character, grace, whimsy and, most of all, fun.” I agree.

While the Force in previous movies was left vague enough for different faiths to see parallels, in this movie it seemed to me to be linked closely to Tibetan Buddhism through its chief spokesperson, a blind monk at the kyber temple (kyber crystals, used in Jedi lightsabers, are a new preoccupation in this movie). In this sense its depiction was less universal.

Finally, the ending left me wondering how futile the actors felt their roles to be. We won’t see any of them again. What does it matter that we may like some of them? This movie is on the one hand participating in the Star Wars community of characters and conflicts, and on the other hand a totally stand-alone enterprise. Ultimately it leaves me with a sense that it was just okay. I liked The Force Awakens. It left me wanting to see what would happen to the characters, and wanting to know more about them. It revived the nostalgia of the original episodes, made when I was a teen. Rogue One left me neutral.

On silence

Although we are tempted in times of agonizing silence to think of God with an icy stare on his face, refusing to make eye contact, I have found it comforting to think of God simply sitting with us in our pain, quietly listening. Maybe what feels like awkward and anxious silences to us are actually full and gentle silences. We are reminded that listening is not inaction. When God is listening to us, even if we do not experience the results we hope for, he is actively disposed toward us… (Adam S. McHugh)

At first when I came upon these sentences in The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a World Of Distraction, I liked them. I don’t picture an “icy stare” so much as an unsmiling countenance and hands folded across God’s chest — as if he’s saying, “You work it out.” The idea of companionable and compassionate silence is much better.

Yet… sooner or later, we need a response, don’t we? Even the best of friends do not fail to respond eventually with a word. Silence is great for a time, but not for too long.

Maybe the problem is that an eternal God’s concept of “too long” differs radically from mine.

Nevertheless, I have grown skeptical, almost cynical, of what sound like rationalizations of what McHugh later calls “the dark night of the senses. The ‘sense’ of God’s presence has all but disappeared… What was once a raging love affair becomes a lukewarm marriage, a couple sitting at a nice restaurant on their anniversary with nothing to say.”

If the married couple never do find anything to say — if the silence goes on for too long — it stops being a marriage. Conversation is one strong thread tying two people together. Same with God.

This is not doubt speaking. Not anymore. I have noticed that no matter how difficult life may be, or how “hopeless” the outlook may seem, I wake in the morning with hope. I believe that God is at work. I trust him to provide and care for us. I recognize this perspective as a fruit of my Christian faith.

The question is not, for me, whether God is there. The question is why we so often speculate and explain away his quietness. Wouldn’t it be something closer to wisdom to fall silent ourselves when we are tempted to offer such explanations of a phenomena we really do not understand?

We are exhorted to “pray without ceasing” because God wants to hear from us. And we want to hear from God. It goes both ways.

Incarnation

I’ve been using a One-Year Bible in my daily reading. I don’t see anything spiritually essential in completing the Bible in a year, but I like the idea of reading from cover to cover — however long it takes. I started in the spring or summer, and as Christmas approaches I find myself in Ezekiel.

Ezekiel’s vision of the glory of God departing from the temple in chapters 8-11 is incredibly powerful and haunting. The spirit of God, all whirling wheels and cherubim and fire and eyes and thundering wings, rises from the Holy of Holies, drifts over to the entrance to the temple, then travels up to the eastern hillside before the vision ceases. It comes on the heels of God’s revelation of several kinds of idolatry being practiced in secret and public ways. The pictures God gives Ezekiel leave the prophet aghast at the level of corruption eating at the heart of God’s chosen people.

Just before God moves from the temple doorway to the eastern hillside, he issues a promise to reassure Ezekiel: he will bring the exiles back, and they will remove all the idols. “I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh.”

And that’s it. God departs and does not return until Jesus enters the temple.

What greater heart of flesh could there be? The Incarnation represents the heart of God himself made flesh. All those wheels and eyes and coals and wings reduce to a tiny, vulnerable infant who will offer salvation to all people.