The Trimesters of Life – Part 2: Experience

The second trimester, from age thirty to sixty, is the season of experience. This is when we log our “10,000 hours” and achieve some measure of competency at life. Most of us make journeyman; a few become masters. Experience happens one hour at a time. We make mistakes, sometimes big and costly ones. We take risks. We succeed, and we fail. Mostly, we survive. We get thrown from our horse, dust ourselves off, pull up our britches and get back on again. Experience is a tough tutor. Those who master anything – piano, woodworking, karate – will tell you that you learn more from your failures than you do from your successes. The masters, whether at sport or music or craft, practice to failure not to success. They know what they already know and can do; they are looking for what they don’t know and can’t do.

The second trimester is where we make our mark in the world. Nobel prizes and lifetime achievement awards are given for achievements made in this period of life. Most of the great discoveries are made by scientists in their 30s and 40s when knowledge, energy, and ambition abound, aided by the carrot of tenure. Recognition comes later, if at all, but the groundwork is laid here, in the season of experience, in the arduous 10,000 hours of trial and error, success and failure.

Consider all the greats of history and how old they were when they made their mark. Martin Luther was thirty-four when he challenged the Roman papacy with his Ninety-Five Theses that set off the Reformation. Albert Einstein developed his theory of general relativity at the age of thirty-six. Thomas Aquinas was forty-five when he wrote his Summa Theologica. Christopher Columbus was forty-one when he sailed to the new world. William Shakespeare was thirty-six when he wrote Hamlet. Michaelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel at the age of thirty-five. These are but a few examples second trimester achievement. The second trimester is where the potential becomes the actual, where those voted “most likely to succeed” actually succeed. Or don’t.

This trimester is both rich and frustrating. We get promotions, we get published, the business takes off, we find our place in the community, we hit our stride. But there are some nagging frustrations too. The marriage isn’t quite as happy or satisfying as when we first said “I do…until death us do part.” The children are far from perfect; some of them are deeply flawed. Careers are not what they seemed to be when we signed up for the job. What began with great hope, expectation, and potential has become a mind-numbing routine. Hard lessons are learned. The race doesn’t always go to the swift, and sometimes the winners turn out to be cheaters. Hard work is not always rewarded; sometimes it isn’t even recognized. No one is handing out grades and diplomas anymore. There are no trophy ceremonies or awards for participation. Much of life is simply showing up and taking care of things.

This leads to the anxiety some term a “mid-life crisis,” the sudden urge to hit the factory default button and reset adulthood back to age twenty-one. We dye our hair, nip this, tuck that, suck out the fat or work it off at the gym, and try desperately to fit into the clothes we wore in the last trimester. We trade-in and trade-up – cars, houses, spouses, and careers – in the hope of finding some measure of satisfaction, but the words of Mick Jagger ring prophetically true: “I can’t get no satisfaction. But I try, yes I try.”

Somewhere near the late-middle of the second trimester, a strange thing begins to happen – second puberty. Everyone in your world wanted to talk to you about the first puberty, even if you didn’t really want to hear about it. Crazy things were about to happen to your body, and Mom and Dad wanted you to be informed even if you just wanted to hide in your room and turn out the lights. But no one told you about second puberty, that great hormonal seismic shift called menopause and manopause (Yes, there is one, men.) You need to hear this.

This is when your body literally goes haywire. Your brain, your emotions, your hormones, your internal thermostat all suddenly go dysfunctional, like an aging car breaking down one part at a time. You used to kick off the covers even as she piled them on. Now you can’t get warm enough, and she has the thermostat set to temperatures normally associated with a meat locker. What was once flexible is now painfully rigid, and what was once firm is now pathetically limp. Muscles sag along with stamina, and fat accumulates faster than credit card debt. Spouse 1.0 suddenly transforms into Spouse 2.0, who may or may not bear any resemblance to the one whose signature appears on the marriage license next to yours. This is probably why many couples renew their wedding vows around this time. They need to renegotiate the terms of the contract.

The undertow of Death shows up late second trimester. We likely will bury one or both parents during our fifties, if not before. Friends will fall to cancer or a heart attack. We go to more funerals and fewer weddings, but at least the same suit works for both occasions, if we fit into it. Some of the potentially fatal Jokers in our genetic deck begin to rear their ugly heads – blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, and that nagging forgetfulness. Why do I look in the refrigerator for a screwdriver? It’s one thing to know that you will die someday; quite another thing to shake hands with your personal angel of death. The deadly riptide with its accompanying anxieties can lead to even more flamboyant acts of protest than the crises of mid-life and meno/manopause. We face Death all day long, and we don’t like it a bit.

Life is a relay race of the generations. Your parents and those who formed you have run their lap, and now they are placing the baton into your hands. You’ve been running side by side for a while, but now it’s your turn to be the lead runner. Dad is no longer there to consult when the water heater explodes at midnight; Mom is not there to comfort when the little one is in the emergency room. There is no one in front of you now. It’s your lap to run. You’re on your way to wisdom.

Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. – Psalm 90:12

©2019 William M. Cwirla