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Book Review: The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk, and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50 by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot

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This is a book for women and men in middle age and approaching their future years with a big “Now what?” feeling. The Third Chapter by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot finds that many people want life to mean more, and they begin to think beyond a retirement of leisure to re-engagement of activity.

Lawrence-Lightfoot identifies a paradox in the way people look backward into the future. “They look to their origins, to the lessons they learned at home – about service, charity, justice; about collective responsibility and citizenship – and feel, often for the first time, compelled to find a way to enact those values and principles.”

As we live longer, Lawrence-Lightfoot sees this third chapter not as a continuation of where we’ve been but moving in a different direction, crossing the border into new territories.

Between age 50 to 75, our penultimate period, we enter the stage of life when we want our lives to have meant something. “They want to turn the tables, rewrite their priorities, reinvest in their relationships, recalibrate the meaning of success, even re-envision their concept of work.”

It’s also a time of reflection and self-discovery, leading some to move toward the “sacred work of the spirit.” Qualities of patience, perspective, slowness and curiosity take center stage. People may be suddenly able to let go of fear, show a willingness to be vulnerable, and to show empathy.

Since middle-age is familiar terrain to many of us, The Third Chapter could use more of the author’s insights than stories of people who turned their midlife transition into an interesting journey. As an academic researcher, though, she includes a fair amount of these examples.

While many of the lessons in The Third Chapter affect a diverse population and a broad age spectrum, Lawrence-Lightfoot’s research was primarily with people who’ve had the education, security, affluence and now also time, to make this passage successful. The reality in America and around the world is not always as privileged.

Yet, clearly this penultimate chapter of life is enhanced with a rich stimulating life rather than a promise of decline from age 50 and beyond. The 21st century brings with it changes in life expectancy, so we may all have extended opportunities for healthy and productive living as we age, rather than just years added to the end of life.

A Reader’s Guide is included for book groups, and as a bonus, The Third Chapter includes the transcript from the author’s interview on Bill Moyers’ PBS program in May 2009. 

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