Midlife Reset (Part I)

I recently talked with a student I mentored years ago about some mid-life course corrections he was considering. This prompted me to think about my mid-life transition in 2011-2012 as I grappled with losing Libby to cancer. The follow is a remembrance of what changed then, and how I think about these issues ten years later.

TL;DR

  • Live in the now. Leave slack and hold your plans lightly.
  • Take care of your health. Life is more enjoyable and you are more able to care for others
  • Prioritize loving people. Initiation and be present
  • Simplify! Focus on the essential so you don’t waste your time on lessor things
  • Spend time in nature to have your perspective adjusted and experience awe.

Live Now, Hold Plans Lightly

In 2009 my wife was diagnosis with breast cancer. We knew she wasn’t going to beat the cancer, but we had hopes (plans) that she would be able to see our junior high aged child graduate high school and successfully launch into life. Unfortunately, Libby’s health declined  more quickly than we expected.  After a couple of years we knew that Libby wasn’t going to be able to see our child finish high school. In the spring of 2011 we thought we still had a few years.  We made a plan to proceed with a “normal life” for our child’s sake, and that when there was around a year left for me to stop work and doing whatever would be most meaningful to Libby.  We did decide that all our vacations would be to places on Libby’s “bucket list”. That summer we took the one and only such trip: Alaska. In September Libby’s health took a sudden turn for the worst and we realized we didn’t have a year left, likely just a few months. I took a short term leave of absence from work to care for Libby. It turned out we had just a few weeks before she died.  All my plans fell apart.

After a few months my short term leave was ending and returning to work was looming.  I wasn’t sure how to hold everything together when I returned to work. I shared my feelings with a  friend. He asked “Are you going back to work now because you need the income or just because that was your plan?” I indicated that finances didn’t force me to immediately return to work. He encouraged me to take a year away from work and not worry or plan for the future. I immediately I felt a huge relief. I contacted my boss who graciously accepted my resignation.  Over the next year I was free to attend to daily life. I enjoyed the time so much that I extended my break from work into a three year sabbatical.

I decided that during my break I wanted to step away from the “go go” Bay Area culture. When I moved to the Bay Area in 1992 I noticed that that people overfilled their calendars with a heavy bias toward succeeding in their career. A response to “Want to get a beer / ice cream / whatever this evening?” was “My daytimer shows a 60 minute slot open 3 Thursdays from now at 7:30, should I pencil you in?”. I tried to resist the drive to be consumed by activity and leave time to care for others. I set aside a couple of evening each week which I won’t pre-schedule, so I could have slack to response to unexpected needs or opportunities. Over the years I had allowed the slack time to be filled up, often by work that wasn’t completed during the day. I also noticed that I was so intent on “making a difference” that I experienced what Watchman Nee called “The Thing in Hand”: being over committed and unable to response to an opportunity which were infinitely better.

I decided that I wanted to be quick to respond to immediate needs and slow to make long term commitments. I was inspired by the story of the “good Samaritan”. I felt challenged to think about how to engage the world around me. In the story a number of people were too busy, or maybe too callus, to care for someone in need, while the hero of the story took the time to care for a stranger. During my sabbatical I committed myself to be  open to whatever opportunities that came up.

I was deeply moved by the book A Praying Life by Paul Miller and inspired to cultivating a more contemplative life rooted in prayer. This seemed like a great antidote to the over committed lifestyle. I signed up for a nine month  Ignatian Exercises program at the Mercy Center. As a result of these influences I found that I was more grateful and more accepting of others. My perspective had shifted from asking the  question “What do I want to happen?” to “What is God doing? How can I participate?”

In the following 10 years I got pulled back into the frenetic bay area lifestyle working for start-ups. I switched back to driving my life, filling my time with activities to increase my impact in the world. Alas, I stopped looking to see what God was doing. I am striving to move back to a more contemplative life that is committed to loving my neighbor without an agenda, being less planned and more open to what God is doing.

Take Care of Your Health

Early in my sabbatical by son was concerned about my health and said he didn’t want to become an orphan. This broke my heart! The issue that concerned him wasn’t major, but I was stressed, overweight and out of shape. I knew this would ultimately shorten my life and reduce what I would be able to do.  I decided I needed to take better care of myself.

The video 23.5 Hours produced by Reframe Healthlab motivated me to walk rather than drive whenever possible.  I walked for at least an hour each day. My walks often combine a bit of exercise, completing an errand, and maybe talking to a friend, listening to a podcast, praying, or just enjoying being outside. I found that besides  improve my fitness, walking encouraged me to slow down and be more connected. I found the time helped me be more mindful.

I joined a gym and started working out,  improved my diet, and worked to get more sleep.  I found that as  my strength increased and my body composition improved that I felt better, had more energy, was sick less, able to take on all sorts of challenges that might have seem “too much” in the past.   I also came to recognize that I function very poorly when in pain or sick. When I am healthy it is much easier for me to care for others. I have written up some details about having a healthy and fit life.

Today I am over 60, and am still gaining strength and continue to have small improvements in my body composition. I am a fan of Dr. Peter Attia‘s take on optimizing for healthspan and training for the  centenarian olympics. I believe It’s well worth spending 1-2 hours per day in physical activities that promote health. This might seem like a lot of time, but the benefits are well worth the time, even for people who are “very busy”. I have let busyness impact my sleep, not been as careful to avoid foods I am allergic to, and allows stress to build which has resulted in me experiencing migraines. I am developing some new habits that will ensure better sleep and avoiding health issues brought on by my food allergies.

Prioritize Loving People: Initiation and Presence

Jesus said that the greatest commandment was to love God and to love others. If this is the greatest commandment, then we won’t go wrong centering our lives around building loving relationships. Articles about regrets people had at the end of their lives highlighted that most people work too much, and love too little. I have so much I would like to share about the nature of love, but that will have to wait for another day. For now let me provide a basic definition. Love is  willing  good toward someone else, independent of what you get in return. Love doesn’t have room for “keeping score” or taking revenge. Love is about caring for another person.

Libby’s and my relationship was far from perfect, there was genuine love in both directions. Losing Libby was a huge blow. On top of this, many of Libby and my  friends pulled away after Libby died. I guess they weren’t sure how to relate to a young widower. Very few people initiated time with me. I wondered if this was because they saw me as too needy.

I discovered that the lack of initiation had nothing to do with me, it’s a common experience in the Bay area.  I asked 47 people how many times someone (besides me or a family member) had initiated personal time with them in the past month outside of a work context. Only 2 people could identify this happening more than once! Several people then said “I haven’t initiate time either.  I want to change that.” This led me to conclude that initiating time with others is vital to building loving relationships.  I made a goal to initiate time with at least one person each day: share a meal, take a walk, work out at the gym, or just connect over the phone.

I found that  presence is the greatest gift we can offer people. When we are with someone  they are our focus. We aren’t thinking about what opportunities we are missing. We are attentive to the person we are with without any second thoughts. Recently a friend noted that being present with others in the midst of difficult situations was often the path to finding “Hidden Gold”, where we discover something amazing that we won’t have seen unless we were with people in the midst of difficulties.

Over the last ten years my initiating with others had wained and really dropped during COVID. There are a number people that I call at least once / week to catch up and a few people I regularly get together with in the area. In the last several years my amazing wife Jackie has kept me engaged with other by initiating gatherings, reminding me to initiate with others, and her engaging spirit whenever we are out. Jackie and I try to have others over at least once a week, mixing old friends and new acquaintances. We have found that having 6 people together is a really great dynamic. More than 6  always end up with multiple conversations happening at the same time. During COVID we set up our back patio so it was possible to have people over for a meal, talk, and maybe watch a movie while maintaining physical distance with good air flow. Of course I try to spend time with my family. My favorite time during the week is Saturday morning when Jackie and I hike together for a few hours and have an uninterrupted time to share our hearts with each other. I still recognize the value of being presence and strive to deeply listen. I am working to break my tendency to lookup information on Phone related to the conversation. 

Simplify

My dad taught me to appreciate simplicity in all things. During my mid-life reset I decided to simplicity my life. To focus on what was important and strive to remove what wasn’t adding value. I tried to apply this in all areas of life. I started by adopting a minimalist approach to my possessions. Holding on to what added value and getting rid of what wasn’t useful or life giving. I then tried to apply this same approach to many areas of life along the lines discussed in the book Essentialism. I worked to simplify my theology, or more exactly, I focused my thinking on key truths and chose not to be so sensitive to the things of lessor weight. No exactly compromise, but to be less insistent. I have regularly seen the benefits of subtraction and also seen how hard it is.

Today I see many advantages which have come from embracing simplicity as a value. I see the freedom and ease of life that having less stuff has provided. We have watched several friends spending a number of painful months figuring out of what to purge and downside in preparation for moving. We have seen other friends whose weekends are often filled with chores to care for their home, cars, and stuff. Largely due to embracing a more minimalist life, Jackie and I were able to easily move our entire household over a weekend with just one day of preparation, and later to do experiments as a digital nomad with just a couple of days preparation (packing and prepping our home to be used by someone else via AirBnB). A focus on what is most essential and looking for simple answers has brought more peace into my life, and I think has enabled me to work well with a larger group of people.

Spend time in Nature

I have written a page about how it’s extremely beneficial to spend time in “nature”.  I have little to add here. My mid-life reset included make time each day to walk, run or ride my bicycle among trees and nature. To be refreshed daily, rather than only making time on the weekends for outdoor activities. I have continued to keep this practice and am incredability thankful that I live in area that natural beauty is so easily accessed. When I feel stuck, frustration, when I am facing what seems to be intractable problems, I found walking among the trees in a local park helps me reset my perspective and gives me hope. When feeling completely overwhelms, seeing the powerful and untamed waves on the coast settles my heart. I often experience a sense of awe and wonder.

1 Comment

  1. Really appreciate all you share here, Mark. You have such good insights. Life stage, loss, faith – your similarities to my life make your thoughts quite helpful to me.
    Thank you for posting this –
    Sarah Reilly

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