Photo by Khoa Võ:
According to Richard N. Bolles, author of the What Color Is Your Parachute? series, the traditional view is that life falls into three boxes that we might think of as the world of education, the world of work, and the world of retirement, with people spending most of their time working, and less time being educated and retired. The problem with these boxes, of course, is that they make us feel as if we are boxed in, that we can’t behave during one part of our life the way that people expect us to behave during another part of our life. Thankfully, this traditional view of life has been changing over time. People over the age of 50 frequently return to school, sometimes formally, sometimes not. At the Senior College of Des Moines, for example, test-paper-and-grade-free courses for students age 50 and up are taught by college-level professors. One of the classes taught at Senior College led to the development of the Final Act Ensemble, a senior group that performs classic and original radio plays, including commercials, at the Des Moines Playhouse, the Iowa State Fair, and other venues around the state of Iowa. On a more global level, adults of any age can pursue life-long learning through TED, a small non-profit organization devoted to “ideas worth spreading,” bringing together the worlds of technology, entertainment and design by inviting speakers from around the world to present their ideas at twice-annual conferences. These speaker events, dubbed TedTalks, are available online as podcasts and videos. In a TedTalk given by Sir Ted Robinson, he asks his audience to consider whether schools kill creativity. Pope John Paul II eliminated one of the traditional “three boxes of life” by never entering retirement. When he was still a parish priest and auxiliary bishop of Kraków, when he might have been expected to spend his time working, not pursuing leisurely interests, he wrote poems under the pseudonym of Andrzej Jawien. The economy, of course, contributes to delayed entrance into the work force, often prolonging formal education for students who cannot find employment. The same economic conditions encourage shorter careers through involuntary retirement, but there are also those who choose early retirement in order to pursue creative efforts and/or philanthropic causes. The factor that seems to play the biggest role in determining how much control anybody has over any role he or she desires, however, is not age, but health. In Aging in the Lord, the late Sister Mary Hester Valentine, S.S.N.D., writes, “All of us know people younger than we who are much frailer, and an equal number of older people who seem endowed with limitless energy that we no longer have.” Health issues notwithstanding, it seems that there are not really three boxes of life, but perhaps four, which historian Peter Laslett describes as the Four Ages of Life:
  • First Age, characterized by dependence, immaturity and socialization
  • Second Age, characterized by independence, maturity and responsibility
  • Third Age, characterized by flexibility, freedom and fulfillment
  • Fourth Age, characterized by dependence, decrepitude and death
As I ponder these discussions that attempt to frame who we are at various stages of our life, it seems to me that many of us go back and forth between stages. A 20-something adult who finishes college and finds work often relocates to an apartment, but then returns home to live with parents if the job is lost. A parent may work full-time—in the traditional workforce (i.e., work for an employer) for a while, and then pull back to stay home, either to parent children, or to pursue alternatives. In my own case, I feel as if I am dwelling in a No Man’s Land between Laslett’s Second and Third Ages. We recently shed some responsibilities (Second Age) when our only son and child got married (see slide show HERE), but at the same time we are still seated deeply in the Second Age through our involvement with my elderly father’s care. But . . . both my husband and I also dwell in the Third Age of our lives, chronologically and in spirit. During the first quarter of my life I did as most of my peers did: secured an education, formed friendships that came and went, and gradually cut the apron strings that bound me to my parents. The second quarter of my life was spent with my husband far away from our parents and most of our relatives as we learned how to survive on our own, started a family, and pursued careers—my husband as an employee, and myself as both a traditional employee and a business owner. But now, in the third quarter of our lives, we have a certain degree of freedom that we did not have even a couple of years ago. We both feel strongly about giving back to society, so we volunteer as state Board members of Students for a Creative Iowa, a non-profit organization whose mission is to promote creativity, teamwork, and problem solving abilities in Iowa students. To achieve that end, this organization has selected and administrates the Destination ImagiNation program. We are also involved in Iowa’s National History Day program as volunteer judges. On a personal level, however, John and I agree about the importance of identifying one’s interests and talents, and combining them in a productive way. For me that means writing and beginning to publish my work in different venues; I published my first poem at age 45, developed and taught an after-school enrichment program for gifted students for about five years, and am now blogging regularly. For most of my life, I have enjoyed producing a wide variety of handmade items, which I began entering in Iowa State Fair competitions some years ago and finally began selling in the handmade goods marketplace called Etsy, beginning in January of 2008. Finally—and for me this is perhaps most important—I have vowed to be open to change and new learning always. Those of you who have followed me from my first Blogger efforts to this Web site, for example, have seen me grow in my Web publishing skills. I imagine that John E. Nelson and Richard N. Bolles, who wrote What Color Is Your Parachute? for Retirement, would identify my core values as self-direction, achievement, and benevolence, but I would call it developing my talents, applying my creativity and volunteering. In the end, I cannot agree more with Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, who writes in The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk, and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50 about the joy of experiencing what she calls confessional moments. “These are moments when our faces light up,” she says, “when there is a palpable surge of energy and we begin to reveal stories about learning something new.” When you learn something new, when you can create something new, when you can share with others your passion, it’s a good day. © 2010 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.

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5 thoughts on “The Boxes of Life”

  1. Very interesting post! I’ve never heard about the boxes analogy before. I like to think of life as seasons and they do indeed overlap and blend together before the next one takes over. I love your last sentence!

  2. The 4 ages of life that Laslett writes about seems to make sense to me. Even though I don’t feel like I have a lot of freedom with a job and unemployed husband, I see that there is a lot of flexibility to what I do. Fourth phase doesn’t look too pleasant… {:-D

  3. Splendid Little Stars

    very thought provoking post! Thanks for sharing so much. No matter the stage, age, or “box” we may be in, the ultimate hope is to enjoy our life overall and revel in the process.

  4. What an interesting and thoughtfully written article! I’d never read any of the books you mention, so now I’m sitting here trying to think which age I’m living in…hmmm. You know, I have a feeling a lot of us go straight from 2nd Age to 4th. I know that at age 61 I am still waiting for that “freedom and flexibility” bit, lol.

    And I hope my “decrepitude and death” stage lasts about ten minutes! (And doesn’t happen for a long, long time! Thankfully, I have some wonderful genes to help with that one. =oD )

  5. Very interesting post. And what a beautiful wedding day photo and slide-show! My favorite photo was of the first-dance dip.

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