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Jennifer Wright

Midlife Courage:
Transitioning Uncertainty with a Spirit of Adventure
By Jennifer Wright

In our fast-paced, multitasking lifestyles, where most of us over-40s struggle to get from one task to the next, a concept like courage seems a bit out of place.  Courage in today’s society might be an attribute best left to our growing passive experiences of movies, DVD rentals, reality TV, or an exciting novel.  What need is there for courage in us Baby Boomers who have been dubbed “the privileged generation”?  What are the costs of keeping courage as a strictly passive activity?  What are ways to activate courage?

What is courage?

First of all, what is courage?  Courage is the ability to confront fear, pain, danger and uncertainty.  Courage is defined differently for everyone.  Some might see courage as lacking fear in a situation that normally would trigger it.  Some might even consider a courageous act to be reckless.  At the heart of courage is the ability to confront.  Confrontation is something most of us shy away from, and yet fear, pain and uncertainty are a part of life for people over 40.

“At midlife, the part of ourselves that we have known, the caterpillar, is in essence disintegrating.  We are stepping into the abyss without a clue as to where we will emerge from it.  We are leaving behind what we have known ourselves to be and all the safe and predictable containers of that reality,” writes Kathleen Brehony in Awakening at Midlife.  How frightening, uncertain, and painful is that?

My own story is an example of stepping into the abyss.  At the age of 47, I was a long-time single woman with my children off creating their own lives.  I had a middle-class life with a nice house, a great but stressful job, and a 401K.  I did not, however, know the woman who looked back at me in the mirror.

I could have made several choices.  The first would have been to keep working hard and ignore the inner rumbling, and for a while, I did just that.  I kept doing what I was doing.  Then a friend of mine was diagnosed with terminal cancer and I was overcome with emotion that was very personal.  I was concerned for her; but I was equally concerned with ME.  What if that were me? What about my unlived life?

I was scared.  I was in pain.  I did not like the place where I was, feeling uncertain.  I call this “walking through the valley.”  I needed to go deep within myself for the courage to confront the fear, uncertainty and pain.  I found my courage through discovering my own spirit of adventure.

The spirit of adventure

Jeff Saltz in The Way of Adventure says, “Adventure is any intentional experience that substantially alters our perspective long enough to see things we have never seen before—to see familiar things in ways we have never seen them.  The most exotic destination of all is the one that fulfills all your yearnings—found within your own adventurous spirit—after you’ve put yourself to the test and found hidden reserves of creativity, resourcefulness, and perseverance.”

Sounds exciting, eh?  Perhaps in theory…but how do we really do this?

Take a leap of faith.  If you always do what you’ve always done, you get the same outcomes.  Deep within you, you know what you want to do.  It’s the action that makes the difference.  Joseph Campbell writes in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, “A hero ventures from the world of the common day into a region of supernatural wonder.”

Connie was a 51-year-old divorced mother of two grown children.  She had worked for years teaching elementary school because it was a good income and gave her summers and school holidays off.  She had to admit, however, that her heart had gone from teaching for the previous few years.  Bureaucracy and changes in the education culture had driven Connie to dread weekdays and long for weekends.  She worked harder at trying to “love her work,” doing gratitude journaling and starting a teacher’s support group.  The problem was, she felt worse, not better, from her efforts.

That winter, Connie got a cold that turned to pneumonia and required bed rest for several days.  During that time, she started journaling her thoughts, and came to a realization that her job was making her sick.  She recognized that she no longer “needed” the things teaching once brought to her.  She began to focus instead on what she did need.

Connie wanted to write and express herself.  At the end of school term, she put in her notice and spent the summer in a writing course.  She then went to work as a librarian four days a week and began to do freelance writing on a part-time basis.  Today, four short years later, Nancy has ongoing jobs as a freelance writer, and has co-written and published a book on helping children to read through common parent-child activities.

Where is your leap of faith?  What needs to change to allow barriers to lift?

Appreciate Adversity.  Buddhists say that we learn our life lessons by way of our life changes.  Life events cause us to change in order to deal with them.  By midlife, we can look back at our journey and get an appreciation for just how we have had to adapt.

Janine, a 47-year-old gay woman, had battled juvenile arthritis since the age of 15.  She prided herself on embracing yoga into daily life, practicing good nutrition, and having a good attitude.  However, with the discovery of a lump in her breast and diagnosis of breast cancer, she became angry.  “Why me?” she ranted on to Jill, her partner of 15 years.  This “why me?” brought up a flood of angry emotions unresolved from childhood.  Janine began to focus on how “different” she had always been because of the arthritis, and how unfair her life seemed to be.

After some months of chemotherapy, Janine started to process her anger and, through a coaching relationship, began to focus on the gifts of being “different.”  She realized that the resilience she developed as a child to deal with being different, e.g., not being able to partake in some sports and having to take rest breaks after school, allowed her the courage to “come out” as a gay women in her early 20s.  Janine began to see how she could have made other choices that might not have been so favorable to her now.  She began to see the power of her current situation.  With renewed energy, she volunteered at the Arthritis Foundation, focusing on Youth Support.

What have been the adversities in your life?  How can they be reframed for your benefit?  Can you see the choices you have made on your journey that have allowed you to arrive where you are right now?  How can this new self-knowledge help you to take your next step?

Change Your Environment.  As an occupational therapist I look at a person’s experience as being powerfully affected by both inner and outer environments.  Same person plus different environment equals different outcomes.  We often forget this powerful variable and get into a “rut” due to years of doing the same thing.  Midlife is a time to shake ourselves up a bit.

Sarah was a 60-year-old married woman living in upstate New York, with four grown daughters and ten grandchildren.  Sarah was the family matriarch in this strong Jewish family, and had worked for years as a social worker in an agency that supported women who were victims of domestic violence.  After her mother’s death ten years ago, Sarah had looked after a very demanding father who lived in Florida, as well as her husband’s mother, a widow, aged 85 and still living on her own.

Sarah, after years of wanting to travel to New Zealand and being able to afford it, but denying herself the pleasure due to guilt for all the starving children in the world, finally came to do a women-only inner/outer six-day adventure on New Zealand’s South Island.  She had not had a vacation in 10 years, instead taking her vacation times to babysit grandchildren, or visit her father, or catch up on home management tasks. 

This adventure took Sarah away from the demanding voices of her children, grandchildren, in-laws, father and others.  Her adventure dictated that she had no computer, clock, schedule, or television.  Hiking for 4-6 hours a day with six other women, Sarah was strongly affected by the outer environment of nature.

Daily journaling, group ceremony and facilitation gave her insights to share with other women, and Sarah started to question her beliefs.  For the first time in her life, she began to see herself as a woman without attachments, a woman with a mission of her own.  Sarah began to see how she was “controlling” her own life by not letting her daughters be independent of her ongoing guidance.  She also saw that there were many areas in her father’s and mother-in-law’s lives where she could set boundaries.  Most significantly, the achievement of backpacking the journey on her own and facing her thoughts and beliefs gave her the courage to “face anything!”

Sarah went home to re-create relationships with her entire family.  While some of them welcomed her changes, others were scared and slower to adapt.  Sarah was ready for this.  She had gained courage to ride out any familial storm through having changed her inner/outer environment.  Walks on the weekend and daily journaling kept her courage well-fueled.

How long has it been since you purposefully changed your environment for any length of time?  What strengths would you discover if you challenged yourself to do things you’ve never done before?

Midlife is a time of transformation.  To deny this is to deny ourselves an opportunity for growth and discovery.  As with any transition, a middle ground exists, a valley that we all must walk through.  Discovering our own spirit of adventure affords us the courage that allows us to cross the valley with more certainty, less pain, and the ability to look back over our shoulder and say, “If I can do that, what else can I do?”

©Copyright 2006 Jennifer Wright, MidlifeAdventure.com. All Rights Reserved.

Jennifer Wright
Jennifer Wright, “Mid-Life Spirit of Adventure Guide for Women” coaches women globally in over-40 transitions of mid-crisis, pre-retirement, empty nest, career change, and workplace adaptations. Her company, www.midlifeadventure.com was profiled in the May 16 TIME cover story, Female Mid-Life Crisis.  Visit her and sign up for free newsletter and teleclasses. 




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