Finding meaning in life’s intermissions
Between the 2nd and 3rd Act there is a period of time that is for many of us the most difficult of all. In Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot new book The Third Chapter she calls it “entr’actes” or intermission. While reading her book, my own in between time came flooding back to me. I had resigned my job earlier than expected, and all of my long range plans were thrown up in the air. They did not come down reshuffled as they eventually would.
It was for me an exquisitely difficult period which was brought home to me again by a recent participant in The 3rd Act workshop. She was struggling with a sense of identity and direction, saying, “shouldn’t I be doing something six months into my retirement?”
During my time between acts, which turned out to be about 18 months, I found that I had to let go of almost ever thing I thought I was before. Basically, I needed to reacquaint myself with my natural rhythms. I found, at first, I napped twice a day recalling how my toddlers had done the same as they were growing. My previous work in a health clinic had been literally filled with a crisis every 20 minutes, and I was just used up by the end of my 18 years there.
Along with naps, I found that I needed long stretches of alone time….days to be exact. With the help of an excellent career counselor/mentor/spiritual companion , we worked out a schedule of internally focused days and a few days, very few, to go out into the world for just the right amount of stimulation. In retrospect I was growing into a new sense of self and a renewed life. I also started reading books about time, including the excellent Unwinding the Clock by Bodil Jonsson and an “outside-the-box” perspective on the subject, At Day’s Close by A. Roger Ekirch. Ekirch’s book focuses on life at night as it was lived before the Industrial Revolution. I discovered that many people throughout the centuries used the late night hours as productive and reflective time. It wasn’t a health issue; it was a personal rhythm issue. I often found myself waking in the middle of the night to think and work. This book normalized my night wanderings
Eventually my naps decreased to one in the afternoon… and I began to notice that I felt less overwhelmed and more at ease, when I went out into the world. My counselor also helped me to explore large swathes of time. She asked me “What time of year was my favorite for playing?” “Playing? What’s that?” I thought. “What was my best time of year for work?” “Never.” “How much did I want to work?” “Not at all, at this point.” After awhile I began to be able to respond thoughtfully to these questions rather than just react.
I also became aware of a quietly growing time revolution in Europe called the “Slow Movement” which began in 1999 as a part of the Slow Food Movement in Italy. The idea is that we need to slow down and appreciate the moment, the uniqueness of our environment and our relationships to one another. This is in contrast to continuing to speed up to try to keep up with the demands of our cell phones, handhelds and computers. Maybe I wasn’t crazy after all. Getting in touch with my natural rhythms both daily and seasonally, helped me to reconnect to my true and present nature.
Things began to change and the five-year plan that had been floating in the air began to fall to earth. Not all of it. Some pieces just floated away because they didn’t fit with my renewed sense of self, but enough landed from their heavenly shuffle to begin to reveal the beginnings of a new direction for me. I had given myself time to rest and restore. Slowly I was able to focus and reflect on what was truly important to me. What was my calling now?
I had been charged for many years with growing a family and building a career. Were these new stirrings really a Calling? I used Parker Palmer’s Circles of Trust system with friends at my local church. We spent a year helping each other look at Work as Ministry using Palmer’s deep listening techniques. This process helped me to listen to my soul, my essential self and find direction.
What I have found is that this particular intermission time is challenging and dangerous. Many of us cannot tolerate the flux, the loss of identity, or the lack of focus. We turn towards meaningless “to do lists”; or mindless activities that make us feel we are accomplishing something when in actuality we are just floating on the surface of life; or we engage in addictive behaviors; or we fight with those closest to us.
My experience suggests that each intermission is different for each person. But all of them are fundamentally similar. You must take the time to restore yourself to your natural state as it is now. That may mean sitting on the beach wasting time watching the waves move in to shore and then out again. It may mean sleeping a few hours a night or many. It may mean less contact with people or more. You will find the right combination for yourself and this combination will change over the duration of this period.
Time for reflection is also critical. During our 2nd Act many of us did not have much time for reflection. In order to have a truly generative 3rd Act, space must be set aside to quietly connect with your core truths. This can be done by writing in a journal, prayer and spending time with those that help us respond to soul-filled questions. It is a time to be alone and a time to ask for help. As you begin to feel more at ease with the new identity that is forming you will find yourself healthier and more at ease in your life. You will become clearer about what no longer interests you and what does; what you want to leave to the 2nd Act and what you want to gather up and bring forward into your new life and your 3rd Act.