Early one morning, Robert awoke, made his wife of 41 years some banana bread, took out the garbage and called to cancel a doctors appointment scheduled for the next day. He wrote a note to remind his wife to pick up the dry cleaning. All things considered, it seemed like a normal day.
Robert had “retired” four years earlier after nearly 40 years doing what he loved in the banking industry. After retirement, his life took a challenging turn.
While he remained friendly and encouraging to others on the outside, on the inside he was suffering a deepening depression. After retirement, Robert couldn’t find anything to replace the meaning and fulfillment that work provided him. And this void was slowly killing him.
So on that “normal” morning, Robert cleaned up the kitchen after finishing baking his wife the banana bread. Then he drove himself to the parking lot of the bank where he had worked all those years. After carefully parking and locking his car, he walked into a local store and handed a note to the clerk behind the counter. Then he walked outside and shot himself in the head. He ended his life with one bullet at 1pm on a blazing sunny day.
Robert was my dad.
Your happiness is your responsibility
A few years back, when I decided to leave corporate America after 25 years, I thought I had learned enough about mid-life and work.
After all, I was in the middle of my Ph.D research on what happens to mid-life adults when they leave the security of the nest to follow their hearts and their life’s calling. I had coined a new term, ‘’Vocational Passion,’’ to describe this alignment of passions, abilities and interests. I had started a new on-line community, and I wrote a book, ‘’P Is For Perfect: Your Perfect Vocational Day’’ in an attempt to boil down this research in a practical 10 step model.
Yes, I had thought, with my corporate background, various degrees, new clients, new office, workshops, public speaking gigs and a burning desire to make a difference in the world, I had learned enough.
I was wrong. The biggest challenges were still ahead.
So as I struggle to make sense of his death, I also am finding new strength in my own work, helping others to find meaning and fulfillment in their vocational lives. This is especially so in mid-life, which can be the most threatening period of all.
When my dad lost his purpose for living, he also lost the will to live.
Fortunately, most people don’t take this action to end their own life but many people shoot themselves in the head emotionally, continuing to work at jobs which no longer provide meaning or passion or fulfillment.
It doesn’t have to be this way. With this article, I am hopeful, maybe one life can be saved as a result of acknowledging that depression may be a symptom of not living a life filled with purpose, meaning and fulfillment. As a result, a call to action is a must.
As the psychologist Carl Jung said, mid-life is a time to listen deeply to your heart. Whether we plan for this or not, midlife can be a period of transition and reappraisal. More inner questioning can occur. Career plateaus can be reached during this period, which drives a need for internal insight and reflection.
Those who don’t invest in time for self-reflection in mid-life may experience increased stress and other distress signals. The sense of crisis may vary from one person to the next. For those who do experience stress, making changes in mid-life is never easy or without challenges.
Can you make the difficult choices?
Making work-related change in mid-life to pursue a dream or passion generates a lot of issues. I have observed in working with my own clients that these issues generally fall into three categories: emotional, relationship and financial.
Am I good enough? Can I can give myself permission to follow my heart?
What will my loved one’s say? If they don’t agree, do I dare test a relationship or rock the boat at this point in my life?
Despite all the “sound” financial advice to save for retirement, do I instead invest in myself now, thus perhaps turning my financial world upside down.
Are my loved one’s willing to make this sacrifice? What if they are not?
These questions will all come up. One will feel selfish and may well be accused of being self-indulgent of self-absorbed. Well, mid-life is a time to be selfish. This isn’t about change for its own sake, but to position oneself for the second half of life, to be authentic and to shred external views and norms.
During this time, it doesn’t help that society’s view is the general belief that work continues to be something not necessarily to be enjoyed. As a result, most career theory and research has supported this notion by largely ignoring the enjoyment factor. Even counseling psychology has largely followed the same path. The focus has been on matching skills and available types of work. While this can be helpful for younger adults, in mid-life internal needs, desires and passions beg for attention.
While society expects those in mid-life to simply roll over and prepare to die or retire (I am not sure which is worse) many in mid-life actually begin to wonder how they can start living. For many, it is a re-birth with new wisdom and self permission to follow your heart.
Economic conditions can force people to ignore their inner needs and take jobs they don’t like to pay the bills. This only helps to further ignore your inner needs. Jung believed that ego was important for development in the first half of life but in the second half, ego should step aside for humility.
Achieving vocational passion requires looking inward to understand what brings you the most enjoyment in your work. As a result, you can begin to understand the relationship between achieving greater meaning and the way you choose to conduct your life.
It takes action to follow your vocational passion. I am not convinced that money can buy happiness at mid-life, but I am convinced that happiness can increase the richness in your life. We each get to define what that means.
It all starts with a simple re-examination of what you have done, are doing and might do vocationally in the second half of life. In mid-life and later, it’s critical not to ignore your heart. In mid-life, it may be the most consistent thing in your life when everything else seems in flux. Sadly, Robert wasn’t able to do this.
My wonderful grandmother who lived well into her mid-90’s used to always say to me, “Bagel (that’s what she called me) just do what makes you happy.”
I think now, I finally understand what she meant.