05/04/2012 11:20 am ET | Updated Jul 04, 2012

The Serenity Myth

When you are in the turbulent middle years of life, the promise of serenity fills you with hope. Somewhere down the road, there will be peace and quiet. Your life will be orderly and things will make sense.

Now that I've lived long enough to get beyond the epicenter of turbulence, I have finally gotten a taste of the serenity after which I lusted so hard and long. Here's what I have to say about that: It's overrated.

Gail Sheehy helped set the expectation years ago in her bestseller Passages. In her seminal book, each decade of life received an adjective. After turbulent, flourishing and flaming stages came "The Serene Sixties." But Sheehy didn't invent the notion of equating age with serenity.

That questionable honor can be traced back to the years following World War II. With the young men returning from the front, something had to be done with the women and older people who had taken up running the machinery of everyday life. Somewhere between Madison Avenue and Washington D.C., the marketing folks went into high gear. It was now a patriotic duty to step aside and make room for the returning heroes.

If you were a woman who resisted, you were labeled eccentric. Older folks were likewise delegated to the margins, a life sentence of golf courses and rocking chairs.

This was a version of marginalization lauded as serenity but looking a lot more like complacency and detachment. Of course, it was easier for women to throw aside the stereotypes of eccentricity and bitchiness to fight for the right to continue to play a role in mainstream society than it was for individuals on the wild side of fifty or sixty to cast off something that virtually glowed with spirituality.

I'm not in any way against true serenity, by the way. Who doesn't want hope, peace, quiet, orderly lives, the ability to make sense of things, acceptance and the like? But serenity is but one end of the spectrum of possibilities for us as we age. What about the flourishing and flaming Sheehy had previously ascribed to younger decades? And what about exploring the full range of the human potential? Righteous indignation, for instance, or bittersweet sadness?

Can we be 50 or 60 and trouble-makers and upset the apple-carters? Can we be risk-takers who are equally excited and worried about the outcome? Can we care passionately for others, our hearts breaking in the face of injustice?

Gloria Steinem said it perfectly in an essay titled "Doing 60": "The older I get, the more intensely I feel about the world around me..." She, too, questions the myth of serenity, preferring instead the "edge-of-the-world sensation of entering new territory with the wind whistling past my ears."


Nobody I respect argues that there isn't a place for peace and quiet as part of the bigger picture. I sometimes even thoroughly enjoy a good rock on the front porch. But there's something I believe most of us want even more: to be fully, passionately, sensationally alive, whatever our age or stage. This is definitely something worth fighting for.