How Eileen Flanagan Turned a Midlife Malaise into a Life with Purpose.

Eileen Flanagan

Eileen Flanagan

What do you do when you reach middle-age and realize you’re living a life that is far less fulfilling than you expected? When you become aware of the fact you’re not living the simple and idyllic life you once imagined, but something that more closely resembles the consumeristic, upward-striving lifestyle you were trying to avoid.

Well, if you’re Eileen Flanagan, you reexamine your life and you do something about it. In her new book Renewable: One Woman’s Search for Simplicity, Faithfulness, and Hope, Flanagan points out a common problem among those of us in our 40s and 50s, which she alternately refers to as “midlife despair” and “midlife angst”. She sums up her own uneasiness this way:

How the hell did I become a woman who has a big house, a chemical peel appointment, and stock in a fracking company? How did I become so sucked into the American mainstream, and what can I do to create the kind of life—the kind of world—I really want?

The funny thing is at this point in her life, Flanagan has all the external trappings of American success. A big house, two cars in the driveway, a family with all the latest electronic gadgets. Yet when she begins to talk to friends she discovers she’s not the only one wishing she had “less house and more freedom”. She comes to the realization that:

At the very least, everyone I knew had too much junk in the basement and too many e-mails. Those who were lucky enough to keep their jobs through the recession often worked longer hours than they liked to pay for stuff they were not sure they needed. Many of us yearned for a different way of living and a sense that our lives mattered.

For Flanagan, her angst comes from the nagging sense that she was not fulfilling her own life’s purpose and that her life was “out of sync”. She believed she was not doing the thing she was put on this earth to do. In her words:

When I confided to friends that I felt I wasn’t fully using my gifts—that I was meant to be more than I had become so far—many sighed in recognition. Their lives had not turned out as they had expected either.

So how did Flanagan find her raison d’être? She didn’t have to look far, for it came from a specific place and time that informed who she was today. In her young adult life, she was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Botswana, Africa, helping others in a poor community and learning to live simply. She compares that time of her life to where she found herself many years later:

(In Botswana) there was always time for a cup of tea, a song, or to spend time with a friend. Being able to watch the Southern Cross traverse the night sky was entertainment enough. At the end of my first year, I wrote in my journal, “I think I might be content being poor for the rest of my life.” 27 years later, when I reread my journals in the office of my new five-bedroom house in Philadelphia, that sentiment felt painfully naive.

So Flanagan retraces her roots, making a return trip to Africa to visit with old friends and find “something to infuse the next part of my life with meaning, some inspiration to carry me home to my family and a more committed life”.
She finds it, rediscovering a sense of purpose. And at the age of 49, she returns home and quits her job as a professor at a small university, becoming active in causes that are near to her heart.

She is helped along the way by her faith, which she sees as “not just something you trotted out on Sunday morning but a compass for how you lived every day”. As a young adult, she had become a Quaker and there is an interesting passage where you can see why the religion, where everyone has the power to directly access God, appeals to her.

The first Quakers believed that the religious institutions of seventeenth-century England had lost touch with their spiritual source, so they stripped away anything that distracted them from God—stained glass windows, gold candlesticks, bishops, fashion, and gambling, for starters. They waited in silence in “meeting for worship” to directly experience God without a priest or ordained minister. The “Inward Light” or “Inward Teacher” could be accessed by anyone, they proclaimed, regardless of gender, race, or even religion.

She had now come to believe that the core Quaker values of simplicity, equality and peace were all threatened by climate change and she makes it her mission to “keep the planet habitable”. So she becomes an environmental activist, helping to organize and lead a group called EQAT, the Earth Quaker Action Team.

She works to stop mountaintop removal coal mining, participates in marches against companies that are fracking, gets arrested in D.C. for civil disobedience while protesting climate change. By the end of her tale, she has again learned how to find the value and freedom of living a simple life.

I realized, you had to trust that if you only had one pair of jeans, you’d be okay if they got ripped, that if you didn’t stockpile onions, you’d be able to borrow one when you needed to. You had to trust that your worth wasn’t measured by what kind of car you drove or whether you owned the latest computer.

Flanagan finishes the book saying that she now believed she was “part of the many, connected to a spiritual force greater than ourselves”. She was “moving forward with hope”, her life and actions now connected with her core values and sense of spirituality, her midlife malaise a thing of the past.

This post originally appeared on my Patheos Wake Up Call column, June 5, 2015.

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