Tools and Tasks of the Second Half of Life

What is the second half of life?

Around the late forties or fifty we begin to experience a radical shift in our inner state. It demands attention because it is an immense change in perspective. This is the beginning of the “second half of life.” The more consciousness we bring to this time and this process, the more we reap the harvest of our life.

The first of half of life is about striving to make one’s way in the world, to get established. The second half of life is a time for reflection, digestion, and distillation of our experiences and impressions. There is the potential for a new level of clarity about how our life has come to this point, the present. We can weave this period together with threads of understanding from the stories of our past.

A time for reflection

When I was 49 I had some startling realizations that caused major upheaval in my life. It was painful. My world turned upside down. I was a mother of a healthy eight year old daughter. My marriage was coming apart at the seams, and I had a creeping restlessness. I had to steady myself to get through my days. At one point I got down on my knees and said, “Please help me. I don’t know what to do.” This happened not once but several times over a few years. I had to sit with questions and pain even as I carried on with my life. I reached out for support and found some. It was sobering and scary. In this rich, nuanced and difficult entry into the second half of life, I got curious. When I pulled out of the emotional overwhelm long enough, I said to myself, “What is happening?”

Dr. Carl Jung and the Seven Tasks of the Second Half of Life

Dr. Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist, identified seven tasks of the second half of life. As I studied and applied them, I found that I got traction in my day to day life. I discovered that this time of life is rich with potential for transformation. It was no wonder that I felt turned upside down. That is what happens when radical changes are under way.

I read Jung’s autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections when I was in my twenties. I was coming of age as an adult. It had a profound effect on me. Jung looked back on his life while in his eighties and shared his stories. I marveled at how many details he remembered and how honest and insightful he was. Since then, I read about him, explored dreams, read his work and applied it to my life. He integrated wisdom from different traditions. He also made astute observations about people he worked with over many years. In my tradition as a practitioner of acupuncture we engage with the person on all levels of body, mind and spirit. Like physicians from many years ago, we emphasize the senses as tools of diagnosis. In this way we learn about patients in a comprehensive way. In my work as an acupuncturist, I noticed interesting changes in people over the years as they moved from thirties, to forties and fifties. Patterns and phenomena I experienced in myself appeared in people I treated.

Two psychiatrists, Drs. Jane Wheelwright and Bruce Baker, write movingly about Jung’s seven tasks. The book is Jungian Analysis published in 1982. The Chapter is “Analysis with the Aged,” and I reference it below.

The seven tasks gave my life structure and direction. I recalled the value I gained from Jung’s work earlier in my life. Jung wrote the forward to the first English edition of the I-Ching, or Book of Changes. As a practitioner of acupuncture I studied this ancient body of wisdom. It was almost lost to modern culture and Jung played a part in bringing it to English speaking audiences.

Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) – a tool based on Jung’s typology

Jung opened doors to make what he observed understandable and accessible to modern people. In the 1920’s Katherine Briggs developed what became the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. It is a tool designed to affirm psychological type in positive terms and to help people understand themselves and each other. Based on Jung’s typology, it grew to be a respected instrument in many settings. It has a special relevance for people over fifty that complements its application in younger people.

The Seven Tasks

Drs. Wheelwright and Baker say, “To live fully as we age, we must meet and acknowledge if not master at least seven specific tasks. These tasks are more evident, more urgent and perhaps more possible in the autumn of life. But it must be remembered that these tasks of aging are also tasks of living, for old age is not separate from life. Old age is rather, the time for finding one’s essence.” This is material for life and we will work with these tasks until our last breath.

Task One: Face the certainty of death.

To watch autumn leaves flutter to the ground illuminates how death is woven into life. To sit with someone who is dying can make the certainty of death quite real. Most of us can recall an experience related to death that was moving in some way. Perhaps it was a memorial service where we felt touched or the story of someone’s final words. Death is the ultimate boundary we all will experience. In nature, when things die, they provide nourishment for the next cycle. The grief that accompanies loss is an important part of the cycle. The other side of grief is depth of meaning. We can explore death in service to life to face the certainty of death with curiosity and courage.

Task Two: Review, reflect upon and sum up your life.

To recall specific memories in detail is a way to enliven our exploration. We gain perspective that comes with time. We see our life full of challenges and mystery and the reality that we have navigated our way to this moment. We link vivid early experiences with the present. This opens doors to insight, and helps us realize that we know more than we think we do. We wake up to our wisdom and embrace our life.

Task Three: Let go of roads not taken.

[2 on the flats 1424] This task is like cleaning out the attic or basement. There are things we did not pursue in our lives for which we may feel regret or sadness. There may be painful issues in relationships or other things that may remain unresolved. With this task we bring them to consciousness for reflection to clear the psyche of the downward pull. Grief may arise and we can be with the emotion in recognition that it is a chance to let things go. This review and clearing makes it possible to focus on what is our truest concern in the present moment.

Task Four: Let go of the dominance of the ego.

There is much more going on than we see or know. This task is a letting go of the anxiety that life is in our control. When the first half of life has been fulfilling and we have made our way in the world, it is natural to have a strong ego. To be humble at what we don’t know even as we recognize our skills is a mysterious paradox. To let go of the dominance of the ego is to allow the possibility of integration into larger cycles and to be receptive to unseen promptings.

Task Five: Encounter and honor the Self.

We may have a strong intuition about some aspect of life or relationships. This task refers to a kind of tuning in which we need to listen. It may seem a like a “still, small voice.” The Self with capital “S” refers to the divine within us and affirms our own wisdom. This is a place where the Myers Briggs Type Indicator is helpful. It is a tool of self-knowing and identifies our dominant function in personality. From that information comes a way to understand how each function works within us. To know type and then apply this information is to have a context to discover the divine or the Self within and to gain perspective on implications for action.

Task Six: Articulate our own raison d’etre.

As we drill down into all the previous material we arrive at what may seem obvious. To articulate what is our purpose in life is to affirm what is meaningful. To take purpose and extend it to “raison d’etre” or reason to be, is to stand up for why I am here. Jung once said, “Lack of meaning in life is a soul-sickness whose full extent and full import our age has not as yet begun to comprehend….Finding meaning involves an honest attempt to examine and experience one’s inner being, as well as the person one presents to the world.” As a task of the second half of life, it builds on other tasks because it requires us to let go of roads not taken and recognize the certainty of death. It asks us to be courageous.

Task Seven: Engage creativity.

[group event laugh, pivot point website] This task has to do with the “engagement of unused potentials.” We do well to take on this task before death is imminent. It is the opportunity to bring it all together in a creative way. Again the MBTI in its specificity is helpful, based on Jung’s theory of typology. Who would think that we might engage unused potentials as we grow older and slow down more and more? Yet this is the key to completion. As we integrate that less developed aspect of self, we activate creativity. We come to the reality of this task that “Living itself becomes the point and the unexpected becomes the raw material of its exploration….” (Wheelwright and Baker)

Four Essential Tools or Practices

To roll up our sleeves and get to work on tasks, we need good tools. You may naturally already draw on these tools or practices. It is helpful to highlight them as particularly useful in the second half of life and in working with the tasks. Think of them as always there at the ready. When confused or troubled, angry or lost, or even inspired and happy, these tools provide a focus and can shift the energy of the moment.

Cultivate a still mind:

The need for rest and stillness between activities is vital. The mind needs rest. The still mind gives a place inside for us to regroup and gain perspective. It makes it possible for us to absorb the insights and observations that arise. Regular practice of a still mind bears the fruit of expanded consciousness. It is foundational to the second half of life.

Apply Tools of Self Knowing:

By the time we are in the second half of life, we know ourselves well in some ways. Tools of self-knowing give us a perspective on who we are becoming as we grow into the years of ripeness. The Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is a tool with particular relevance to the second half of life. The insights into the dynamic alchemy of type help to unlock potential in our inner and outer life.

Seek Out Arts and Music:

The arts have the capacity to touch the soul, stir emotion, and open us to our own wisdom. The arts are tools or practices to explore unknown regions of our selves. To partake of them creates fertile space. It is never too late to begin. The arts enrich daily life and serve as a reminder of our interconnectedness.

Learn Through Service:

To be of service, to contribute, is a fundamental human urge. When we offer service of any kind we weave ourselves into life in a meaningful way. To emphasize learning through service deepens our experience. At some point it is not even about service, it is about belonging. Service learning is an avenue to understand life purpose.

Wake up to your wisdom. Embrace your life.

The tools and tasks of the second half add direction and clarity to what might have been a meaningless journey. They help us to discover wisdom within and to link action with our evolving purpose. This process is for the long haul. It starts with inklings often around fifty, and the urges continue to grow and evolve over many years. The tools or practices are there for us at any time. We may draw on one or two at particular times and then discover another as circumstances change.

The tasks provide clear ways to address the change that is happening. They provide support as we traverse our way from the late forties into the fifties, sixties and beyond. The second half of life is a time for engagement and exploration on a whole new level. It is not about the outer circumstances of our lives. It is how we perceive and respond to what is happening.

Looking back on that time when I fell to my knees, I feel grateful that my mind had to let go. It is a good thing to fall to our knees from time to time. As I got clearer about my situation and felt both sad and free, I saw aspects of myself long hidden. Challenges and difficulty will not disappear. This is life. In the exploration of the tasks we have the possibility of doing a dynamic dance with what comes our way in this life. As we embrace a myriad of feelings and scenarios, we can engage with the meaning of it all. As we focus on being in the present moment we receive the grace of the whole of our lives.