Finding Focus at 50

What do I desire for my 50th birthday, which I’m celebrating on August 25th as I start a sabbatical in Oxford? Simplicity. Beauty. Integrity.

How does that differ from when I celebrated my 25th birthday as I started graduate school at Princeton? I longed for achievements that would make my life significant. Yet I feared my own intellectual and spiritual inadequacies would stymie me.

What has happened in the last quarter-century of my life is a mix of achievements and failures. What’s changed is that greater knowledge of my weaknesses has led me to place my trust in God, not my own power. 

In his recent book From Strength to Strength, Arthur Brooks, the former director of the American Enterprise Institute who now writes and speaks about what it means to be happy, warns overachievers like me—people whose focus on work is so intense that rest seems impossible— that it’s better to accept the transition into middle age than pretend that we are still 25.

His words echo my own sentiments that I’m not only grateful for my achievements, I’m also grateful for my failures. Why?

Because it’s hard to live a life of simplicity, beauty, and integrity when you rely on your own power. When you need to achieve to feel good about your life, you can never be at rest. 

All our lives need a sabbatical—a rest. But does resting mean nothing is happening? The best things in life take time to go from a seed to a tree. Cement takes time to settle into a foundation. 

One of the hardest lessons I’ve learned in the past quarter-century is that resting doesn’t mean entertaining myself. Resting means choosing to put aside—temporarily—my need to achieve so that the seeds of the right reasons for acting can germinate.

As a tenured professor, I get to enjoy a sabbatical in a beautiful place. But do only professors like me get time to find rest? No—quite often it’s the opposite. In my 40s, I began to feel the restlessness of an overachiever. I had a life-long position as a tenured professor at Princeton Theological Seminary. I had launched the Scala Foundation, an initiative to renew culture through liberal arts education, beauty, and worship. I used my last sabbatical to pursue book projects, give lectures across the country, and run intensive summer programs for students. 

I was so mentally and spiritually tired that the simple, beautiful things weren’t penetrating my being. I feared fragmentation. Slowly, with help from friends, family, spiritual directors, and time in prayer, I tried to live an integrated life of seeking truth, enjoying beauty, and praising God.

At age 25, entering a prestigious graduate program, anything seemed possible, yet I feared the future would let me down. At the half-century point of life, the knowledge of my bodily, intellectual, and spiritual limitations is clear, but my fear of the future has subsided.

I have learned that anyone who is willing to sacrifice the desire for approval, achievement, and power will find rest. Those sacrifices are a daily struggle for a striver like me. But the reward of rest is focus. The next quarter-century of my life is about watering the garden I’ve planted, letting the seeds grow in ways I set in motion but can’t control.

Perhaps that patience of middle-age is what CS Lewis was sharing in his oration published as “The Weight of Glory.” In my first few weeks of sabbatical in Oxford, I have walked by St. Mary the Virgin—where Lewis gave many famous orations to Oxford students—nearly every day. In The Weight of Glory, he reminds us that only the child-like can enter heaven. 

In a similar vein, speaking to students who perhaps felt like I did at that age, that to please God was to achieve endlessly, Lewis reminded the Oxford students that vanity is the opposite of the Christian virtue of humility. 

Among Lewis’s many words of wisdom in this brilliant oration are reminders like that if we follow Christ, then the cross comes before the crown, but then also there are no ordinary people, and there are no merely mundane moments in life. With faith, all of life—our tears, our neighbors, every action, and every stirring of our hearts—bears the weight of glory. With that conviction that God’s only son is with us in everything, we have nothing to fear, not even death. With God as our strength, we have nothing to boast of, as St. Paul says, other than our weaknesses, knowing that God works through jars of clay.

When I was born 50 years ago today, my parents certainly rejoiced in the gift of my life. Today, I know that what I most desire—for my life to have significance, to be beautiful, to be coherent—is not an achievement but a gift. 

One of Arthur Brooks’ recommendations for middle-aged overachievers like me is to ponder our ultimate rest, our death. Knowing we are mortal, moving towards eternal life, is crucial to finding focus in this life. For the next quarter-century, or however long I have until I meet my creator, I will struggle daily against my vanity and humbly ask God to give me a child-like humility, joy, and simplicity.