I have written before about the active adherence of a religious person to a faith, but I had done this in relation to church attendance specifically. Briefly, as I identified them, they are childhood, teen years, the early 20s, career and family, empty nest, retirement, and old age. Each of these identifies a possible coming, going, and returning to church. I don’t think it’s a terribly earth-shattering observation, but as I was reading the first few chapters of My Bright Abyss by Christian Wiman, it opened to me a glimpse to maybe another, much larger pattern related to a person’s spiritual journey.
This not only has to do with religious faith but also general human experience. As we grow from childhood to adolescence and into our late teens/early 20s, we slowly awaken to a world not as we understood it in our childhood, as I explored in the previous post The Ego, the Tribe, and the World: How Our Development Changes Over Time. As we grow, we realize there are other realities outside our direct experience and provided worldview, which comes through family and culture. We slowly encounter different theories about how one should live and relate to one another, philosophies of life, different isms, and stories that help explain why life and its complexities are as they are.
This usually occurs through education, first in secondary school and then for some further in college. It also happens simply through a life lived, that great fount of education. And so for the person going through this, they have a number of profound experiences, whether acknowledged or not, wrestling with the implications of what these other worldviews might mean for them personally. Do they embrace them, reject them, or something in between? And where does the justification for these worldviews originate? Where does the justification for the worldviews they grew up with originate from for that matter?
So as a person goes through their late teens, 20s, and perhaps early 30s, they test and poke and prod the theories, like a chipped tooth you can’t stop feeling with your tongue, until finally resting on a point of relative comfort (even if that point is no point at all). This is when, for the majority of people, life takes over in its busyness, where career and family dominates a person’s bandwidth, and they just go with it as they are left with no other option because career and family take up every ounce of energy and there’s not much time or desire to contemplate much of anything. It is a constant jumping from one thing to the next, for that is what career and family demand. This is of course until this person hits mid-life as the kids start to grow up and leave, and the parents of the person become advanced in age. Slowly (but perhaps it may seem quite sudden) the person enters into the next phase, the second half of life, crossing this next threshold.
In this next phase, a person has now lived some life, experienced some hard truths, maybe even the death of friends or family members. Maybe they have seen the capricious nature of the universe, realized that the rain really does fall on the just and unjust alike, that all is vanity (meaningless) and there is nothing new under the sun, a chasing after the wind (I’m quoting Matthew and Ecclesiastes). These are the realities a person in this phase has lived through and probably wrestling with on and off.
Like the first great shift in outlook on life for people in their late teens/early 20s, the mid-life person awakens to new realities of a more personal nature; rather than outward ego, it’s inward contemplation. In the first phase, it’s discovering there are different religions, cultures, ways of living life, and different truths; in other words, how the outside world impacts the individual.
But in this second phase, it’s more about discovering deeper truths and trying to answer the question of what it means to live a good life; It’s not only about how these new deeper truths impact the individual, but also about how these new deeper truths can impact others. Or, as Carl Jung puts it,
“The first half of life is devoted to forming a healthy ego, the second half is going inward and letting go of it.”
Whereas before the shift was about the world around us and how it related to us; this later shift is about the world within us, and what that can mean for others.
Because of this, I think for some, religion takes on a new form. It’s no longer about being saved and following a designated path per se; that’s about identity which has been done and lived. It’s now about a more considered relationship, about making room for paradox, for the absurdities of life to use a more 20th-century word, because that is what life has given us at this point. There are now much greater, more difficult questions to answer, or perhaps it is we who have become more complex, but either way, they are there. Because of a certain amount of life lived, questions can now be, and really must be, approached from a different perspective; not one of “me” but one of “me and others”.”
And when I say “religion” what I mean are the many established religions around the world, but also other philosophies such as existentialism or even nihilism, science or capitalism – whatever philosophies people use to help explain the world around them and their relationship to it. All of these come into starker relief in the second half of life.
Sadly, there are those who are quite young in their lives and have lived through some of the great difficulties. When we use the phrase “Wiser than their years” these are the people to which this phrase applies. There are also those who go throughout their entire lives and never really emerge from the ego-driven first half of life. All this to say that this generalized timeline I’ve discussed of course does not fit all people; that is why it is generalized. But I hope it might provide some insight into behavior and development as a person on a religious walk through life.