It is currently said that hope goes with youth, and lends to youth its wings of a butterfly; but I fancy that hope is the last gift given to man, and the only gift not given to youth. Youth is preeminently the period in which a man can be lyric, fanatical, poetic; but youth is the period in which a man can be hopeless. The end of every episode is the end of the world. But the power of hoping through everything, the knowledge that the soul survives its adventures, that great inspiration comes to the middle-aged; God has kept that good wine until now. It is from the backs of the elderly gentlemen that the wings of the butterfly should burst. There is nothing that so much mystifies the young as the consistent frivolity of the old. They have discovered their indestructibility. They are in their second and clearer childhood, and there is a meaning in the merriment of their eyes. They have seen the end of the End of the World.
—G.K. Chesterton from Charles Dickens: The Last of the Great Men
The one thing that clearly distinguishes the third third of life on this earth from the first two thirds is that it is The Last Third.
Yes, yes, I’m sure that the transition that follows is, and as Chesterton beautifully illustrates, far more wondrous than the major events of the first third such as—let me think—puberty, teenage angst, and all-night cramming. And there’s little question the world beyond it is more marvellous than notable second third processes such as thinning hair, aching joints, worsening eyesight, prostate exams, and, well, I could go on. But the topic of this discussion is the third third and as far as this world is concerned, it ends in a box. No matter the strength of your faith or the poetry of Chesterton, that takes some getting used to.
By the terms laid down in The Third Third of Life: Preparing for Your Future by Walter C. Wright, the three thirds consist of birth to age thirty, thirty to sixty, and sixty to ninety. But I am fifty-seven, which means if I live as long as my father—to eighty-five (divided by 3 = 28.33 x 2 = 56.66)—I have crossed over. There are optimists out there who say silly things like “sixty is the new fifty” and “seventy is the new sixty,” and Wright’s book is filled with happy stories about people finding not just second but third winds in retirement, mentoring like there’s no tomorrow (pun unintended), growing in faith, relishing the joyful company of grandchildren and, in other words, finding wonder in what others call the contemplative phase of life. These are all good and inspirational things.
I hope that is what awaits me. But there are days when pastoral peace and enrichment seem far away. I don’t mean to go all Woody Allen on you, but what I want help with is this: What if I don’t get to have a third third? Two years ago, a fellow golfer and I were catching our breath after a steep climb and speaking sadly about a fit, fifty-year-old soccer ref and runner we knew who, the previous week, had walked onto the driving range, took a swing, paused, gasped, and was dead before he hit the ground. As we climbed the hill to the thirteenth green, we noticed that even further up at the fourteenth tee box there was an EMS truck and a police cruiser. When we got to “Heartbreaker,” as the hole is called, there was a yellow tarp with a pair of golf shoes sticking out like the wicked witch’s red shoes from beneath Dorothy’s house. We asked the Mountie if there was anything we could do and he said “hit from the ladies tee,” and so we did. Then, oh so deliberately, we walked up the hill in an intimate silence that looked like respect and felt like fear. For a moment, I thought we might hold hands. There but for the grace and all that.
Months later, my wife and I decided to update our will. When our lawyer, aged fifty-six, didn’t get back to us in a couple of weeks, I looked up the firm’s website and saw notice of his funeral. Last year, a friend of mine was diagnosed with leukemia, had three weeks to put his affairs in order, and was gone at sixty-two. This past summer, a friend of my wife’s took herself to hospital on Saturday and died on Monday of a blood disorder. She’d been on a waiting list. She was fifty-nine.
This is happening all around me now and it is unsettling. I think about it all the time. Well, not all the time but way too much; more than I want to or is good for me, for sure. This is the thing about the third third.
Wright’s book, which I read to inspire this cheery stream of consciousness, is helpful enough in its way, but there is still enough of a contrarian in me to resist the homework it contains regarding priorities, objectives, goal-setting, and so on. That doesn’t mean these things are a bad idea; they are just not my cup of tea. More so, it’s written in that blissful sort of “Evangelical Lite” that only works for those whose faith is so oblivious to doubt it can’t even contemplate Jesus asking God for certainty.
That’s not where I am. I am, as best I know, healthy, despite that a couple of my joints are made of metal and my hair is falling out. So are some teeth. But I never really liked them anyhow, and I’m not worried about building a life and a career anymore because I’ve already done that. I don’t fuss about who I am. I know. There’s plenty I’m not pleased with and wish to improve about that guy, but I am where I am and who I am. I don’t worry about raising children because I have raised adults. I worry about finances and pensions because I’m getting old man nerves, markets are unstable and as a third thirder I am convinced that what is going on now is pretty much what happened to the Romans. Perhaps I’ll have that put on my tombstone: “Here lies Peter. This is what happened to the Romans.” But before that, even though I sort of wish I didn’t, I still want to change a world. So far, it has stubbornly refused to bend to my will.
I miss the innocent intimacy of friendships made in the first third and lost in the second third, but am more at ease with emotions now in the way older men are. Beauty moves me more deeply all the time, perhaps because it inspires that which is neither seen nor heard.
I attended Broadway Rocks at the Calgary Philharmonic smack dab in the middle of reading The Third Third of Life. In my seat, I had been trying to calculate from Christiane Noll‘s performance of “Seasons of Love” just how much five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred times 28.33 years made the third third in minutes, when Darius de Haas took the stage to sing his favourite from a show I first saw in London in during the first third: Jesus Christ Superstar. By the time he had finished “Gethsemane,” my throat was choked and a tear spilled onto my cheek. This third won’t be that hard.