From Your Peak Life Now: How to Face Career Decline with Grace and Faith, by Michele Van Loon, posted July 24, 2019, at: http://www.christianitytoday.com . Van Loon is an author and speaker. Her book Becoming Sage: Cultivating Meaning, Purpose, and Spirituality at Midlife releases next spring from Moody Publishers.
I visited my hometown about a decade after I graduated high school and stopped at the local greasy spoon joint for a nostalgic junk food meal. I was surprised to see one of the most popular guys in school, star gymnast Tim, behind the counter taking orders. I asked him how long he’d been working there and he shrugged. “Guess I never left high school.”
When I used to bemoan the fact that I wasn’t one of the popular kids, my grandmother would shake her head and tell me, “You don’t want to peak too early in life.” Running into Tim seemed to affirm her words. But as Arthur Brooks reminds us in a recent Atlantic essay titled “Your Professional Decline Is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think,” holding onto our peak achievements isn’t just for aging high school gymnasts. Many of us anchor our identity in accomplishments, but when our careers fade—which they inevitably do—our sense of self-worth fades with it and leaves us floundering.
Brooks, a social scientist and former president of the American Enterprise Institute, notes that many of us will have the most productive years of our work lives between ages 30 and 50. After that, we begin a long, slow slide into professional irrelevance. Certainly there are exceptions to the rule. However, while we can expect to make meaningful contributions in the workplace after age 50, we likely won’t be climbing the success ladder at the same rate we once did. And how we navigate that decline can make or break our retirement years.
The more your identity is linked to achievement, says Brooks, the greater the sense of loss when your career downshifts or ends. “Abundant evidence suggests that the waning of ability in people of high accomplishment is especially brutal psychologically. … I strongly suspect that the memory of remarkable ability, if that is the source of one’s self-worth, might, for some, provide an invidious contrast to a later, less remarkable life,” he writes.
Roughly a third of the US population is over age 50, which means a whole lot of us are facing this kind of professional decline, and most of us will eventually find ourselves frustrated and disoriented by a world that’s no longer interested in what we have to offer. For all of human history, people have been trying to make sense of this existential dark space—the downward arc that comes at the beginning of the end. Popular culture often brands it a “midlife crisis,” and indeed, coming to terms with mortality can first occur during the vicissitudes of our 40s and 50s. However, questions of purpose, identity, and meaning persist well into our final decades.
From a biblical perspective, there are two main antidotes: meditating on death and meditating on God.
First, it behooves us to think about our own mortality. This insight wouldn’t be news to Qohelet, the Preacher-King who penned the book of Ecclesiastes. He writes from the vantage point of someone who’s tasted an entire orchard of worldly fruits, including work, pleasure, power, wealth, and wisdom. His assessment in the end: Those successes were as permanent as the smoke from a fire and as meaningful as an unsolvable riddle. The Hebrew word hebel, which is translated as “meaningless” in the NIV and as “vanity” in the KJV, is used 33 times throughout the book. The word carries connotations of futility and delusion, but in context of the whole Book of Ecclesiastes, it also gestures toward the strange and subtle liberation that comes with embracing our own death.
In his book Living Life Backward: How Ecclesiastes Teaches Us to Live in Light of the End, David Gibson suggests that the author of Ecclesiastes understands the cure to the despair of a declining career:
The Preacher will argue that wisdom, pleasure, work, and possessions are very often the bubbles we live in to insulate ourselves from reality. And his needle, the sharp point he uses to burst the bubbles, is death. It is the great reality facing all human beings as they go about their business on earth. Death is the one ultimate certainty that we erase from our minds and busy ourselves to avoid facing.
Gibson concludes that contemplating death frees us to truly enjoy life by uncoupling us from a fascination with worldly success and affirmation. He writes, “This is the main message of Ecclesiastes in a nutshell: Life in God’s world is gift, not gain.” (continued…)
Psalm 39:4 — Show me, Lord, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is.
Ecclesiastes 1:2 — “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”
Ecclesiastes 12:13 — Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.
Teach us to number our days, O Lord, that we may gain heart of wisdom.