The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk, and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50 by Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot
Release date: 2009 / 248 pages
Synopsis (from Preface): The Third Chapter explores the ways in which men and women between fifty and seventy-five — folks “neither young nor old” — have been finding new ways to adapt, explore, and channel their energies, skills, and passions.
First line: “Perhaps it is my age.”
Review: I am confronted with my very favorite challenge right now! I have a wonderful stack of review books waiting to be read that numbers fourteen. Lovely! And with the exception of a couple of memoirs, the rest tend to fall under the genre of “literary fiction.”
So, when I picked up this week’s review book, I was quite honestly surprised! I did not remember agreeing to read and review a work about life after 50 (I just turned 40 in October), but was certainly willing to give it a go!
Happily, I found The Third Chapter surprisingly relevant, even though I am still in my “Second Chapter.” A few years ago I left a teaching job that had defined my identity for fifteen years. I had taught students and siblings of students for so many years, I had become accustomed to identifying myself by my occupation, even though teaching was feeling less and less like my vocation. Leaving this job — which had been very, very good to me — was unnerving, exhilarating, and downright terrifying. Fortunately, I had a very supportive husband and family, the economic means, and a new dreams that guided me to my next endeavor.
The Third Chapter focuses on this very experience — an experience most, if not all, of us will experience at some point whether in the form of a career-change or retirement. Lawrence-Lightfoot explores a handful of specific, personal journeys that are fascinating, instructive and compelling. Now that our country is blessed with ever-growing longevity, the years after retirement are a sizable chunk of time that need to be as meaningful as any other time of life.
However, as I had experienced, leaving behind roles that have defined us can be downright terrifying:
“As we mourn the loss of the familiar, we are liberated to explore the exotic; as we seek ways of giving forward to the next generation, we travel home to revisit the anchoring values into which we were socialized; as we begin to chart our new learning and compose new life scenarios, we discover that we must confront ancient traumas and heal old wounds. As we cross boundaries of place and perspective that carry us a great distance, we discover that we have never left home.”
While reading this, I thought of many people who would find this work helpful. In fact, at first I wondered if Lawrence-Lightfoot had unnecessarily limited her audience by focusing on a specific age group in her title. However, I do think this period of time (from 50 to 75) is unique and different from other “life transitions” and believe the author honored this passage well.
I must share my two reservations, as well. First, there is an economic tension that quietly runs throughout this book. I was very fortunate to be able to walk away from a tenured position with great benefits. Many, many people are not able to leave jobs at age 50 to pursue singing, acting, or writing full-time. This economic reality is addressed very briefly in chapter two — but I wish it had been developed even more fully. The author remembers “puzzling over… microeconomics as a freshman in college, and that seemed to me, even then, to bear little relationship to the realities of human behavior.” For many, if not most, people, microeconomics must necessarily define the decisions and paths chosen.
My other complaint occured in the Epilogue when our educational system was blamed for not creating “lifelong learners.” As a veteran of public education, I am quite accustomed to education being blamed for, well, just about every ill in our society. Many criticisms are valid, but my personal experience has proven how invalid any sweeping generalization made about teachers and education in our country invariably becomes.
Do some teachers ignore Gardner’s theories of multiple intelligences? Sure — but not the ones I taught with at my first-ring suburb, predominately “working class” high school in St. Paul. Do some teachers only “teach to the test? I assume so, although I have yet to find this to be true in my 15 years experience. All of my English colleagues were focused on creating “life-long learners” — which really is the point of any humanities curriculum, isn’t it? So, passages such as the following seems short-sighted and, quite honestly, invalid:
“Curiosity, risk-taking, questioning, experimentation are largely written out of classroom conversation. Failure is feared, rather than learned from… rewards and incentives are dispensed to the lucky few whose minds match the medium, and whose biorhythms and priorities adapt smoothly to the school culture…”
Not in my experience! Of course, I do tend to be allergic to any sort of “victim” mentality and was shocked that a number of the folks in Third Chapter were still holding on to grudges against teachers or schools they believe had failed them.
I do understand Lawrence-Lightfoot’s frustration that the elders in our community are not integrated more fully into our school system, but I also think she may be a bit distanced from the modern adolescent. How many times did I hear my history colleagues bemoan the fact that “history” means “last week” to a 15 year old 😉 Adolescents as a rule do not embrace the long view — either to the future or past — however, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to integrate the generations in our schools.
So, with the exception of those reservations, I do recommend this work to anyone experiencing a transition and will happily pass it along! Just leave me a comment and I’ll choose a winner by Saturday!