February 1, 2024 • Article, Third Third, Third Third Journal
The third third of life is a perfect time for inner work. Or, to put it even more pointedly, inner work is essential for third third flourishing. If you want to live fully, fruitfully, and faithfully as you get older, then you must engage in thoughtful, honest, and searching inner work.
What is Inner Work?
If you do a Google search on “inner work,” you’ll find hundreds of different definitions of this phrase. That can be confusing, but the main idea is rather simple. Inner work is paying attention to what’s going on inside of you. It’s a deliberate and honest effort to examine your thoughts, feelings, hopes, fears, assumptions, biases, expectations, self-images, longings, and joys. Then, in light of this self-examination, inner work leads to doing what is necessary for personal growth and healing.
There are many ways to do inner work. One website observes:
Inner work is a multifaceted concept that takes on various names and embraces many different practices and purposes including deep listening, dialogue walks, journaling and other forms of personal reflection, nature retreats, breathwork, sensing journeys, walking in another’s shoes, and the arts.
To this list of practices, I would add prayer, daily devotions, silence, solitude, fasting, small groups, spiritual direction, Bible study, and worship.
The point of inner work is not only to know yourself better, but also to become a better self. As this happens, you will be a healthier person on the inside and will express this health in relationships with others.
The Inner Work of Age
Connie Zweig, in her recent book, The Inner Work of Age: Shifting from Role to Soul, draws from her “spiritual lineages, Vedanta and depth psychology,” to encourage older adults to do “the inner work of age.”
I found part of her book to be helpful. For one thing, Zweig’s main point—that inner work is essential to healthy aging—is surely correct and something those of us in the third third of life need to take seriously. She is also right on target when she recognizes that aging leads to an identity crisis not unlike what we experienced when we were younger. She explains, “People entering late life suffer another identity crisis, a return of the questions Who am I? What are my values? What do I believe? What matters most to me? How can I give back to the common good?”
Becoming Aware of the Shadow
Additionally, two aspects of The Inner Work of Age were especially illuminating.
First, Zwieg rightly encourages us to pay attention to what she calls the Shadow, borrowing that notion from the influential psychiatrist Carl Jung. A succinct definition of the Shadow appears in the Foreword to The Inner Work of Age written by Harry R. Moody: “The Shadow is that part of us that lies beneath or behind the light of awareness. It contains our rejected, unacceptable traits and feelings. It also contains our hidden gifts and talents that have remained unexpressed or unlived.”
In relationship to aging, our Shadow might be home to what Zweig calls our “inner ageist.” We may harbor negative feelings about getting older or older people, feelings that will inhibit our health and growth as we age. Wise inner work will enable us to face our own ageism so that we might flourish.
Shifting from Role to Soul
Second, I am struck by the subtitle of Zweig’s book: Shifting from Role to Soul. She’s not the first person to recognize that growing older requires such a shift. But I find it useful to be reminded of its importance. Zweig writes,
Aging from the inside out requires, instead, a shift from productivity to contemplation, from money to meaning, from role to soul. In effect, late life compels inner development and connecting to something larger than ourselves, not more empire building.
She’s not saying it was necessarily wrong to have a self-defining role earlier in life. But she’s right to recognize that as we get older our previous roles either change significantly or disappear completely.
To cite a common example, I define my identity primarily in terms of my role at work, then when I retire, I’ll be lost, perhaps purposeless or depressed. I won’t know who I am anymore. But it’s also true that retirement can be a “messenger” that calls us to a new way of being and living, one that reflects who we are deep inside, our soul, rather than our outward role(s).
Inner Work and God
God is an essential partner in our inner work. In fact, God is more than just a partner. As Paul Stevens writes in Aging Matters, “Spirituality is not about our attaining ‘human transcendence,’ something that is intrinsically oxymoronic, but spirituality is our responsiveness to the divine seeker in all of life.” God is the initiator of inner work.
In this regard I find The Inner Work of Age to be less helpful. Though Connie Zweig does value “spirituality,” she does not envision this as something in which a personal God is essential. For Zweig, inner work is something we do, not something God does in us and with us. As Christians, however, we believe that our inner work isn’t done alone, but in relationship with the living God who abides in us through the Spirit. The God who knows us through and through will help us to know ourselves more deeply and truly. The Spirit who dwells in us will enable us to see our Shadow, to use the language of Jung and Zweig. The Spirit will also help us to become more and more like Christ, both inside and out.
Questions for the Inner Work of Aging
Zweig’s book poses questions we need to consider in the third third of life. For this I am grateful. If you want to get started doing third third inner work, you might reflect on Zweig’s questions that I quoted above:
- Who am I?
- What are my values?
- What do I believe?
- What matters most to me?
- How can I give back to the common good?
Zweig would also encourage you to ask things like:
- What parts of me of which I am unaware are influencing my life?
- What things about me are true though I’d rather not admit it?
- What is holding me back in my shift from role to soul?
Another valuable set of challenging questions comes from Alice Fryling’s book, Aging Faithfully: The Holy Invitation of Growing Older. In the introduction to this book, Fryling asks these questions (which I’ve expressed in the first person):
- Who in the world am I now?
- Who do I want to be?
- Will aging change who I am?
- Will aging diminish me?
- How will aging change my relationships with family and friends?
- How will aging change my relationship with God?
- How will I respond to my aging body?
- What do I do about the things I do not like in this experience?
- Is there anything I do like about getting old?
In addition to asking good questions, Fryling helps us do the inner work of aging as people who are in a relationship with the triune God. Thus, I find her approach to “the inner work of age” to be more helpful than that of Zweig.
I’d like to conclude this article with an invitation. I’m inviting you to do the inner work of aging. If you’re already doing this, then my invitation is for you a word of encouragement: “Great! Keep doing it!”
But if you’re like many in the third third of life, you really haven’t invested much of your life in paying attention to what’s inside of you. Now is an opportune time to begin.
How can you start? You might begin to work on the questions I’ve listed above. But as you do, may I remind you that inner work is something you do in partnership with the God who knows everything about you and who loves you with a love that will never let you go. Ask God to help you as do the inner work of the third third of life.
You can find more resources for inner work in the third third of life here.
Banner image via Freepik.com.
Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.