I was terrified when I hit fifty, believing the myth that life from now on would be downhill. During my first act, I had received accolades for several impressive career accomplishments that I figured would no longer be considered extraordinary but rather expected of someone over fifty. However, later that year I spent a delightful afternoon with a dear friend who was just a year older than me, comparing our notes on aging. Leaning forward, knees touching, we giggled and cried as we talked about the dumb things we’d done in the past, and the difficult, even tragic, events in our younger days. Our conversation became a celebration of all the ways we’d grown and how our brains seemed to work differently, leading us to become more patient, more tolerant, and more eager to learn from others. I was in my second act and it was liberating.
Just a year later, my fifty-three-year-old husband died suddenly. I was set adrift and my new-found wisdom and reliance on past experiences seemed to vanish overnight. “How was I to continue living without the love of my life?” Grief is a painful process for anyone and I felt it all. While still processing and grieving, I began to give thought to creating a new vision for my future without him. As a child and into adulthood, I longed to be a Lutheran pastor. However, my commitment to my husband (who didn’t see himself as the spouse of a pastor) and sensitivity to my parents’ feelings (who were convinced women should not be pastors), led me to put my dream aside for more than thirty years.
My third act began when I retired from my career in social work administration and entered the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Everything in my life was different. I left my family, my support system, a leadership team I loved, my home, and everything that had provided me with security as I was dealing with life as a widow. I was fifty-eight years old, living in a third-floor walk-up in the third largest city in the United States and was learning Greek and Hebrew for the first time in my life. Nearly all of my classmates were at least thirty years younger than me and our professors had the same expectations for me as they did for my young friends. I viewed the entire experience as an adventure, filled with opportunities for learning, developing new perspectives, and gaining unique experiences amidst a diverse community.
I loved my first and second acts. I loved my husband and family. I loved my work and my colleagues. I didn’t love the struggles, the figuring out how relationships work, how to be a mom and care for a family, how to support others in their difficult times, and trying to file it all away for future use. I don’t miss the frustration of failing, falling and getting up again.
I love my third act. After living in Wisconsin for my entire life, I moved to Illinois for seminary, Minnesota for an internship, and Michigan to lead a congregation. Today, I serve a congregation in central Iowa, filled with people I love and respect and from whom I am learning. So often, when writing a sermon, teaching a class of teenagers, or visiting someone who is dying, I find myself being so grateful for every experience I’ve ever had, as they not only made me who I am but are so helpful in understanding and caring for others. Okay, I still make mistakes, but I recover so much faster than I did in my youth.
I’m not wearing a purple hat, I’m able to get up when I fall, I’m not going skinny dipping or skydiving, but as Helen Kellar is quoted as saying, “Life can be a daring adventure or nothing.” My third act is an amazing adventure.
There is something very freeing and exhilarating about facing each new day with sixty-eight years of life-long learning experience.