Twelve years ago, when I was 47, I went through a crisis. People joke about midlife crisis but it’s no joke when you are wading through misery.
Some people experience crisis around finances. They lose their job or their business goes bust. Many experience a life-threatening health crisis. Or for others the trauma revolves around relationships. The character flaws, mistakes and unresolved, buried issues of your life reach a volcanic head and erupt spewing forth a flood of pain that engulfs you and your loved ones. A crisis can be an opportunity for healing or the catalyst for a tragic unravelling.
I left my husband and family and ran way to New York. Ostensibly I was looking for career opportunities beyond my coastal hometown in Australia that I’d outgrown. However there were unconscious, destructive forces at play, which I later uncovered in therapy. But at the time I boarded that plane I was running on automatic, in a childlike fantasy state.
My escapade ended in tears. I was heartbroken. My heart was shattered into tiny pieces, as if smashed with a sledgehammer. My identity was devastated. I felt completely isolated and alienated; cut adrift, floating in space, ostracised from all ties of love, belonging and security.
I will always remember the precise point of being broken. Consumed by emotional pain, I dropped to my knees while walking in a frenzy, to ease the gut-gnawing anxiety, wrapped in a winter coat, around the frozen lake in Central Park.
And then something happened, in this state of vulnerable humility, my defences in ruins, my eyes streaming with tears. I was overwhelmed with empathy. Suddenly I felt empathy for my husband and children. I felt the pain I’d caused them, through my mistakes and failures. I saw my selfish actions from their perspective. I recalled everyone I had hurt and damaged throughout my life. The pain was overwhelming. But this was pain for others, not self-pity.
This is when I experienced remorse; a kind of living death; grief and sorrow for everyone I’d ever hurt. I’d arrived at the moment of truth, kneeling before my Maker.
Something else happened; a spiritual awakening. I knew in my broken heart that I needed a saviour. I cried out to God to forgive my sins. I’d heard about this kind of confession and praying for forgiveness in Sunday school but it was just a story then. This experience was real.
I found my way to a Baptist Church in Harlem and collapsed into the loving arms of my black soul sisters and brothers, conspicuously the only white person in the congregation. After a few weeks of sobbing through hymns, I answered the alter call and accepted Christ as my saviour and guiding light and I was baptised in that beautiful, comforting church before hopping on the plane at JFK and heading home to save my marriage and family.
I started my walk of Repentance; an intensive process of soul searching. I attended church and workshops, read copious psychology and theology books, journalled, did counselling sessions and group therapy and delved deep into my psyche, my childhood and my entire past. I regressed, regretted, reproached myself, grieved, cried, made connections, gained insights and emerged a wiser woman. This I believe is called the Ashes stage of life.
I came to understand myself and heal old wounds. I learned positive new core values to replace distorted beliefs formed from early traumas. I developed new qualities of forgiveness, grace, devotion, gratitude, joy, kindness, understanding, empathy and compassion.
That harrowing introspective passage, the Dark Night of the Soul, lasted three years from 2004. It was 2007, when I turned 50 that I began to feel normal again, strong and whole inside and enriched with deeper qualities of a mended heart.
Through this process of Repentance, which means to “re-think” your whole life, I was rewarded with the seven R’s: Resurrection, Redemption, Renewal, Restoration, Reclamation, Reconciliation and Recovery.
We did rebuild our marriage and close, loving family on a new foundation of solid values and in 2009 moved countries to pursue shared dreams of expanded horizons.
If Repentance is an inner process of reviewing and transforming your emotional and mental state there has to be something beyond the wallowing that imbues this agonising process with a higher purpose.
I’ve come to believe that on the other side of the soul searching journey is a wide-open, glorious vista of New Life.
While Repentance focuses on Thinking and Feeling, the exciting stage of New Life focuses on Doing – at last it’s time to put into action those endless hours of introspection.
Christianity calls this next stage of the journey Atonement, where we get to make amends for the mistakes and sins of our life; to do good instead of harm. I have arrived at a place of courage and empowerment with a desire to help those in need. This genuine desire goes beyond childish self-centredness to mature altruism.
I’m fascinated by two scriptures, which are blatant calls to action. In Matthew 25, Jesus tells his disciples:
“I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.
Then those sheep are going to say, ‘Master what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?”
Then the King will say, ‘I’m telling you the truth: Whenever you did one of these things for someone overlooked or ignored, this was me – you did it to me.”
Since reading this scripture years ago, I’ve had a smouldering desire to devote myself to humanitarian work to feed the hungry, give water to those deprived of this basic need, provide education for children and jobs for men and women, medical centres for communities and freedom from the imprisonment of abject poverty. The time has arrived in 2016 to start my work in Africa. It’s taken all these years but that’s okay. There is a perfect season for everything in the unforced rhythms of grace.
And Jesus gives a parable about investment. A man goes on a trip and gives his three servants a sum of money each to invest while he’s away. He gives one $5000, the second $2000 and the third $1000. The first and second servant went ahead and doubled their money and the master was pleased with their efforts when he returned. But the third servant hid his money in a safe place and refunded the exact amount to his master who was furious that he wasted the opportunity.
I don’t think this lesson is about investing money; it’s about investing your God-given talents to do the most good. I don’t want to get to the end of my life with my little bundle of talents wrapped up nice and neat under a bush!
I want to invest my talents to get the best Return On Investment!
I believe we reach a mature stage of life where we have an accumulation of experience, talents, skills, abilities and qualities to use in the best way possible for the benefit of others.
I have modest talents. I can research and understand issues and disseminate information through writing in the media. I can inform, influence and inspire.
I have qualifications and skills in psychology and can offer counselling and workshops to educate and empower girls and women about preventing the trauma and dangers of FGM and claiming their human rights.
I’m an organiser and can manage all kinds of projects. I know about plant-based nutrition and can cook healthy basic food and nurture, love and support subsistence communities in Africa.
My accumulated skillset isn’t really extraordinary however if I invest it wisely I can give the world maximum value. At nearly 60, although I’ve enjoyed a colourful career, I have not yet achieved my potential! I have so much more to give. Some people achieve their potential early and lead full lives and die young. Other,s like me, need a whole lifetime to reach our potential!
Everyone’s altruistic calling is different. We must all find the cause that fits our skillset and personality. Some grandparents devote their mature years to supporting their families and local communities. Others have a global vision.
Over 50 we often go in search of the Lost Self of our youth. I know of mature-aged people who actively track down and re-connect with teenage sweethearts in pursuit of the thrilling vitality of those heady days.
However I want to reclaim the passionate campaigner of my youth. I want to re-activate the fiery, outspoken young girl who was determined to change the world.
Altruistic humanitarian work will be challenging and fraught with hardships but also fulfilling, bringing pure joy and deep satisfaction.
To truly Make A Difference in this troubled world will be to gain a sense of empowerment rather than helplessness in the face of social injustice.
To be useful, effective and achieve results – even small ones – will be the source of immense fulfilment and sense of Purpose.
I want to join with like-minded people to reduce suffering and increase joy.
To find comrades in a worthy cause will be to forge the deepest friendships.
As we get older we have heartfelt emotional needs to be wanted and needed and valued, appreciated and respected for our lifetime of experience. We have loads of love to give and there’s a world out there desperate to be loved capable of returning the love in abundance. I’m ready for that new life.