Taking stock at midlife: Time for reading assignments?


In Modern Man in Search of a Soul (1933), psychiatrist Carl Jung asked, “Or are there perhaps colleges for forty-year-olds which prepare them for their coming life and its demands as the ordinary colleges introduce our young people to a knowledge of the world and of life?” He answered:

No, there are none. Thoroughly unprepared we take the step into the afternoon of life; worse still, we take this step with the false presupposition that our truths and ideals will serve us hitherto. But we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the programme of life’s morning – for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie. I have given psychological treatment to too many people of advancing years, and have looked too often into the secret chambers of their souls, not to be moved by this fundamental truth.

During the ensuing decades, plenty of degree programs designed for adult learners have appeared on the scene. However, the overwhelming share of these offerings emphasize professional education for career enhancement, rather than deeper looks into the truths, ideals, and “secret chambers of [our] souls” to which Jung referred. Consequently, whether we call them life changes or midlife crises, we’re often on our own to navigate and sort them out.

So, in the absence of these colleges for 40-year-olds (and beyond), how can we think and reflect upon our lives to date, our lives right now, and our lives to come?

For those who, like me, sometimes turn to good books for guidance, let me introduce a thick anthology, Leading Lives That Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be (2006), co-edited by Mark R. Schwehn & Dorothy C. Bass, both of Valparaiso University, my undergraduate alma mater.


Leading Lives That Matter examines topics such as authenticity, virtue, vocational identity and selection, living significantly, work-life balance, authority, individual choice, personal stories, and death. It’s a bit too weighted toward American and “Western Civ” authors to be called a multicultural reader, but it’s an eclectic group of writers nonetheless. Along with Aristotle and Homer, you’ll find writings by William James, C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, Annie Dillard, Amy Tan, Malcolm X, and Robert Frost, among several dozen others. Even Ben Affleck and Matt Damon make appearances.

Schwehn & Bass include many selections on work and vocation. In fact, in their Introduction they write:

Today many young people experience a . . . yearning for work that is meaningful and significant. So do millions of somewhat older people who feel that their current employment is not satisfying in this regard. Moreover, many of these find, as [Albert] Schweitzer did, that their search to discover the work that is right for them stretches over an extended period of struggle and uncertainty.

My guess is that more undergraduate seminars have used this book than have adult education classes or reading groups. Nevertheless, I think it’s an excellent choice for those in midlife and beyond who are thinking in big picture terms about their lives.

Indeed, when I think back to how intellectually and emotionally callow I could be as a collegian, it seems such a waste to have introduced me to some of these authors back then! Today, however, a novella like Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych (reprinted in full as the Epilogue) is especially powerful and wise to me.

In sum, if you believe that serious reading can help us to sort through important life questions, then Leading Lives That Matter may prove to be a treasure trove of thoughts and ideas.


Related post

Wisdom at fifty-something (2014)

One response

  1. Thanks David!! I’m reading through a few related links you added to a recent post and finding great book suggestions! I love these posts about finding meaningful work. Thanks for sharing your ideas!

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