Living a Passionate Life: Finding Fulfillment
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Living a Passionate Life: Finding Fulfillment

Go ahead, have an affair -- with life, that is! Here's how to reconnect to the passions that make you feel most alive.

Realizing Your Passion

Passion is the central motivation of all human activity. And the pursuit of a passionate life is a conscious choice -- one that is never too late to make.

What do I mean by the pursuit of a passionate life? Let's start with what I don't mean: It is not merely a search for a new hobby or a new romance, as rewarding as those may be. Rather, it is a new concept of self in the world, one that generates exhilaration and commitment to the future. As women approach midlife, even those who are basically content, who enjoy an exciting professional life and an enviable marriage, may start feeling an indefinable itch, a sense that something is missing. That something is a new dream.

Coming to a new dream will draw upon a dimension of yourself that either has fallen dormant or was never allowed expression in the first place. You may have to reach way back into adolescence to touch it. Think of an activity you loved so much that hours would slip by unnoticed while it occupied you. Imagine the person you used to dream of becoming. From your current vantage point, these reveries may seem impractical or irrelevant. But they may set off a spark that will bring color and vitality into your everyday existence, preventing it from becoming a long trudge down the same old road.

I bumped, quit literally, into an embodiment of this principle on a New York City sidewalk one evening when I heard my neighbor Madeline singing "On the Street Where You Live." She wasn't just humming; she was swinging her arms and warbling at full volume. Madeline is an attractive woman in her 50s, someone who usually projects a confident, cosmopolitan attitude befitting her seemingly glamorous existence, living half her time in Europe with a successful husband.

What I didn't know, until I talked to her in depth, was that Madeline had been depressed and in limbo for at least five years. It had taken her that long to extract herself from a marriage that had lost sexual and emotional intimacy. After surviving an affair with a younger man, the departure of her son for college, and a bout with breast cancer, she had tried living by herself. Valiant attempts to immerse herself in the singles scene had only deepened her loneliness. At that point she realized that, for her, the path out of darkness would not be through sex or romance. "I've just come from a voice lesson," she whispered that night on the street, sounding as excited as a child. "I keep singing this song! It's like not being able to eat enough chocolate."

She explained that singing was something she'd always loved, but whenever she sang, her husband and son would shush her, saying her voice was drowning out the radio or stereo. It was only now, at 57, that she was finally indulging her passion by taking voice lessons. No, she'd never achieve her girlhood dream of singing backup for Stevie Wonder, but that was hardly the point. She said that singing gave her physical pleasure and had revived her hunger for intimacy, physical touch, someone to dance with. "It gives me a passionate thrill," she confided with unguarded delight. "I can only liken it to that feeling of having just met someone you really like. It feels as if I have a crush on singing."

Reaching Second Adulthood

After hearing all this, I wasn't surprised when Madeline told me she'd started dating again. There is a vital link between following a dream and reopening the pathway to sexual pleasure, intimacy, and companionship. The object of both pursuits is the wish to achieve mature love and sense of meaning and purpose.

Madeline had reached a stage I call Second Adulthood, which stands in vivid contrast to First Adulthood. In our First Adulthood, we survive by figuring out how to please and perform for the powerful people who protect and reward us: parents, teachers, mates, and bosses. The great transition in the passage to Second Adulthood for women is to move from pleasing to mastery. It is then that a woman is fully ready to speak with her own voice.

Second Adulthood is an ideal time to follow yet another path to a passionate life -- spiritual exploration. In most Western cultures, we are led to believe that the spirit is separate from the mind and body. As a result, many of us confine our spiritual searching to a single day of worship. Or we find ourselves half hoping for some life-altering spiritual awakening or "religious experience" that will lift us out of our ordinary consciousness.

In fact, we can build spirituality into our daily routines by meditating, praying, practicing yoga, or even taking a brisk walk to clear the mind and release those wonderful feel-good hormones called endorphins. (Any of those options beats having a cigarette, another drink, or a blowup with a loved one.) Taking a spiritual path requires no specific orthodoxy. It does not expect clear answers. What it does demand is reading, thinking, and contemplation of the great questions of life and death, faith and doubt. The pilgrimage is the point.

Once you commit to pursuing a passionate life, any one of these paths may start you off. A sexual resurgence may be the stimulus for a personal renaissance that is also spiritual. A spiritual awakening may trigger a renewed commitment of following a dream. Any or all of these paths can gradually transform a two-dimensional young woman into an immensely more alluring "seasoned" woman. Sex, passion, and soul go together. Do what you love and love will likely find you.

The Journey

If the pursuit of a passionate life were set to music as a symphony, I believe it would have five movements, each flowing organically into the next. Every woman can set her own tempo when it comes to taking the steps I've identified, but each step, I believe, is a crucial one along the journey.

1. Reawaken to romance. If your heart and mind are open to the idea of a personal renaissance, something or somebody will surely ignite your imagination and you will once again feel the romance of the new. This could be the amorous rush a long-married couple feels on a first holiday together after dropping their youngest child at college or it could be, as with my neighbor Madeline, the undeniable thrill of daring to chase a dream long deferred.

Whatever the source of the electricity, it's a surge that reminds a woman she's still a woman. Whether she finds an outlet for this energy in a new relationship, a new dream or a new spiritual focus, she is pursuing a passionate life.

2. Learn to be alone with your new self. After the initial rush of rediscovered romance subsides, a woman needs to carve out time to seek her new identity. A woman I know in Phoenix has just begun this process. "I'm reexamining everything," this 51-year-old mother of three told me. "Who am I? Who was I? I don't know how much of me is even present in my life at this point." She hasn't gotten to the thorniest question of all: "Who do I want to be?" To answer that, she will need to shed outgrown roles and old "shoulds" that are now superfluous, and uncover what she loves about herself and what more she might be.

This is the perfect opportunity for a woman to launch an affair -- with herself. For example, do you know how to go out to dinner alone and genuinely enjoy it? Have you taken a trip by yourself? Leaning to love your own company allows for growth of the mind and a widening of your future possibilities.

3. Stop deferring your dreams. It's interesting that when I talk to women in midlife, the most common phrase of defiance I hear is "I don't want to defer anymore." There is usually a double meaning. First, they are usually saying that they no longer want to defer to a husband's wishes just because he's a man. And second, they no longer want to put off exploring their own dream. Of course, that dream can be fulfilled within an existing marriage; indeed, a great reward of pursuing a passionate life within a committed relationship is the joy of sharing that project with a partner.

But whether single or attached, you must be bold enough to think outside the box. If you can dream it, you can do it.

"Yes, My Life Had Worth"

4. Make a "soul connection." As a pilgrim on the journey to Second Adulthood, you will discover the need to connect deeply with someone who loves and respects the pilgrim soul in you. The soul, of course, is a tricky concept to define. I think of it as a person's essence -- the core that remains when circumstances strip away the edifice of our well-defended lives. The person who most appreciates your essence may very well be your spouse (though it need not be). Some of the most satisfied people I've met are those in lengthy marriages who know and value each other on their deepest levels. These couples are, in the truest sense, soul mates.

Yet another phrase that is too often tossed around in a superficial way, as if "soul mate" were a qualification for choosing your favorite hunk on American Idol. "A lot of my patients tell me, 'I have this nice relationship, but I'm not sure he's my soul mate,'" agrees San Francisco psychologist Melanie Horn, PhD. "They don't realize that the way you have a soul mate is to share your soul with another person, over time." This process usually takes years of giving and receiving love, testing trust and coming to believe that we are loved just for what we are. We do not meet a soul mate; we forge one.

5. Graduate to "grandlove." This is my word for the payoff stage in the arc of pursuing a passionate life. Grandlove, whether forged with a spouse or discovered with a new soul mate, is a trusted affection. If you have managed to integrate your dream into the design of your life, you are more likely to be confident of your own uniqueness.

These are not just random personality changes. Aging experts now appreciate that psychological growth and development neurochemistry also changes as we get older, and a shift occurs in the proportion of male and female sex hormones. The ration of testosterone to estrogen in a postmenopausal woman may be up to 20 times higher than in a woman who is still ovulating. This dominance in testosterone sparks a resurgence in women of adventurousness, independence, and assertiveness. The shift in men is in the opposite direction, which may explain why many men uncover more of their "feminine" side in Second Adulthood.

If women take full advantage of their potential to develop greater strength as they get older, they graduate into wise women. If they don't do it right, they can turn into foolish women -- the ones getting face-lifts that turn their countenances into marble, clinging to their adult children because they have no other sources of affirmation or talking constantly about what they accomplished at 35 because they stopped there.

As we advance to Second Adulthood, most of us are looking for depth, for meaning, for value -- within our sexual lives, our companionable lives and our lives in the community. A shorter time to live favors growth on the communal heart. In the grandlove stage, we embrace a passion or a cause or a meaning that we hope might even transcend our own mortality. That way, when we do reach the final stage of adulthood, we can say, "yes, my life had worth."

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, February 2006.