The Stages of Life: Part Two
“If I was going to experience the third and fourth chapters as the crowning glory of my life my desires would need to come into alignment with what I had learned.”
Without my consent, life shifted from an emphasis on “Building a Career, Wealth, and Family” to the next stage. According to my culture the next stage is the final stage, the chapter called, “Retirement.” All of this had happened much too quickly for me. My heart continued to desire more success, even though I was no longer in the position to make progress in my career as I once had been. As I shared in a previous post, my distress turned to excitement when I read about a view of life that suggested four chapters of life rather than three. But, it quickly became apparent that it wasn’t enough to read and understand this new way of thinking. If I was going to experience the third and fourth chapters as the crowning glory of my life my desires would need to come into alignment with what I had learned.
Life in Three Chapters:
Chapter One: (0-25) “Learning and Growing”
Chapter Two: (26-67) “Building Career, Wealth and (if you so choose) a Family”
Chapter Three: (68-death) “Retirement”
Life in Four Chapters:
Chapter One: (0-25) “Learning”
Chapter Two: (26-50) “Building a Career, Family and Wealth”
Chapter Three: (51-75) “Preparing for the Greatest Adventure of Life”
Chapter Four: (76 and Beyond) “The Greatest Adventure”
I wasn’t sure how this would happen. But a situation arose that brought all of that tension between my situation and my heart to a head. On a whim, I had signed up for a gathering of pastors to be addressed by a new seminary president. I’ve sought success in both of these professions over the past thirty years. I learned from early experience, when I started the second chapter of life, that I wasn’t a missionary. I comforted myself by training to be a pastor, telling myself that I would work up to a senior pastor position in a multi-staff church with more than 1,000 members. That would be the pinnacle of my career. But that didn’t happen. So I turned my energy toward earning a PhD with the goal of becoming a respected scholar and seminary professor. I had found a deep love of theology and philosophy while studying in seminary and I had learned that I enjoyed teaching while working as a pastor. I felt strongly that I could succeed in such a position. But that didn’t happen either. Neither desire turned out as I had hoped. Those desires had become a source of frustration and even anger for me. The thought of going to this meeting I’d signed up for brought all of these emotions to the surface that morning, to the point that I was feeling physically ill. “What on earth were you thinking?” I chastised myself. I considered skipping the event altogether. But my wife, whose opinion I have found to be clear and true over the years, told me to go. I went and I’m glad that I did.
I arrived in the church parking lot where the event was being held. Intentionally a few minutes late, I found a side window I could look through without being noticed. There weren’t many people. Many of those who were there were graying. So few were young. It dawned on me that I was now part of that older demographic which, in my younger days, had made me worry about the future of the church.
Still anxious, I pushed through my emotions and entered the room searching for the sign-in table. A former colleague of mine greeted me. I hadn’t had any interaction with my co-workers since I stepped down from a middle-management position more than a year ago. But I had met for coffee with this friend and appreciated his having made time for me. The next person to greet me was the senior pastor of this multi-staff church. He’s my age and has both the PhD and a senior church position that I had been seeking. He walked up to me with participant name tags in hand. “Randy,” he said, “I didn’t know you were coming. There is a Lovejoy on our list but the first name says “Paul” (my official first name) and the organization reads… “Substack?” He wasn’t familiar with Substack and certainly wasn’t up to date with the work I’ve been publishing on the channel. Another acquaintance, the organizer of the meeting and a successful pastor of a large congregation for more than 20 years, came up to me and saw that my name tag read “Paul.” Almost apologetically, he said, “Why did you write ‘Paul’ on the application?” “I didn’t,” I responded because I didn’t remember doing so. “You must have,” he said. “No,” I said, knowing that I easily could have written down “Paul” but wanted to continue our interaction by turning it into a joke. “Okay,” he said and turned to talk to someone else. I don’t think he got my joke.
The meeting was about to begin and the friend who had first greeted me told me to have a good time at the conference. My heart sank. I told myself that my fears were confirmed. I was no longer respected by these people. My friend didn’t even want to sit with me. But just as I had decided I was no longer respected, he turned back to me, pointed to a table and suggested we sit there together. I felt better immediately. Another past colleague was already sitting at the table. He stood up and commented on my weight loss. I have lost some weight and built up some muscle tone since we last met. It is one of the ways I’m coping with aging. I refuse to become the balding, fat man in the third and fourth chapters of life. I decided to respond to my follicle challenge by getting in better shape than I ever have been in before. By the time we all sat down my fear and sickness were gone. I had been remembered. I had been warmly received.
It was time to hear from the main speaker. He was an accomplished academic. Though he was amiable, I was bored after the first few minutes of his talk. It wasn’t his fault. It is just that these days I’m spending hours with the likes of TS Eliot, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Dostoevsky, Orwell, and Muggeridge. Their ideas are written with a beautiful polish and flair. Who can compete with them? It dawned on me that I was incredibly blessed in my new chapter of life. I don’t have to sit through hit-or-miss events like this anymore. I’m free to choose who I interact with. I can interact with them around their very best work. I can read as much of their work as I want to and process their ideas in my own writing. I never have to deal with question-and-answer sessions. The only questions that are asked are questions I find interesting. The speaker continued his lecture but in the distance, I could hear my Substack platform calling out to me.
By the lunch break, I felt empty. It wasn’t an emptiness that needed to be filled. There was no anger. There was no frustration. It was simply the truth. My emptiness was telling me that there wasn’t anything for me at gatherings like this anymore. Though I enjoyed the side conversations with old co-workers during lunch, I realized that this gathering can’t support me in my new chapter of life; not in the way that my substack subscribers and my new author friends can. I’m not an academic. I am no longer the pastor of a local church. I am, now, a writer.
Returning to the main gathering, my feelings were only confirmed. I sat through the conversation to be polite. But when there were about 15 minutes left we began the q and a session. One person who apparently had a question spent the first few minutes in a mini-sermon and never quite got to the question itself. I got up to use the restroom, planning to return. “It is only a few more minutes,” I told myself. “Yes,” I countered, “but is this really the best use of the next 15 minutes of my life?”
I didn’t return to the meeting. I texted my friend who was still in the meeting to apologize for the abrupt departure. I felt guilty as I returned to my car, but I knew it was the right thing to do. The professions that I had so deeply desired in chapter two of my life no longer held the same appeal. They continue to be a valued part of my past life. But I now felt a newfound freedom to move forward in my life, unchained by those past desires.
I sat for a moment in my car, before starting the engine and driving home. I realized that something had changed without my consent and without my control. Over the last couple of hours, my desires had packed up, moved from chapter two of my life and were on their way to joining me in chapters three and four. “I am now free,” I thought to myself, “to spend the next twenty years of my life learning from writers like TS Eliot, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Dorothy Parker.” “I can learn from the wisdom and insight of thinkers like Rene Girard, Charles Taylor, and John Milbank.” “I can focus my energies on creating the depth of character of Andrew Walls and Kwame Bediako. Perhaps most exciting of all, I’m free to develop a new community of friends and co-workers, like you, through my writing on Substack. As I put the key into the ignition of my car, my anxiety was gone. My desires were now in aligned with my life. I started my car, drove out of the parking lot, and into the next chapter of my life. I am so excited about the future!
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