Two Halves Becoming Whole
A Story of Hope
Here is a fragment of a story shared by storyteller, Michael Meade:
Once upon a time in a village in Borneo, a half-boy is born, a boy with only the right half of his body. He becomes a source of irritation, embarrassment, and confusion to himself, his family, and the entire village. Nonetheless, he grows and eventually reaches the age of adolescence. His halfness and incompleteness become unbearable to him and all around him. One day he leaves the village dragging himself along until he reaches a place where the road crosses a river. At that
crossroad, he meets another youth who exists as only the left side, the other half of a person. They move towards each other as if destined to join. Surprisingly, when they meet, they begin to fight and roll in the dust. Then they fall into the river. After a time, from the river there arises an entire youth with sides put together. The new youth walks to the nearest village. Seeing an old man, he asks, “Can you tell me where I am? I have been struggling and don’t know my place.” The old man says: “You have arrived home. You are back in the village where you were born. Now that you have returned whole, everyone can begin to dance and celebrate.” And so it was and so it is.
Perhaps today, two groups find themselves as Half-people. Springtime youth are entering the Arc of Ascent, seeking passage into the stage of adult Householder. Those facing retirement are entering the Arc of Descent, seeking passage into elderhood (Autumn Forest Dweller and Winter Sage).
As in the story, these two half-people—youth and elder—seem destined for one another. How can youth be initiated if there are no elders to instruct them, if there are no elders to welcome their gifts for the wider tribe? How can the young be seen and appreciated if there are no elders to dance with them and celebrate them? And what of those entering the second half of their lives (or final third)? How are they to develop and give their gifts if they are set apart and exiled from the next generation? Is it any wonder that the uninitiated old fight with the uninitiated young?
Perhaps there is even more. Think of one of the half persons as “First-Half-of-Life Person” (Youth–Householder). Think of the other half person as “Second-Half-of-Life Person” (Forest Dweller–Sage). First and second half of life meet and engage in a struggle. They fall into a river and emerge whole. Now there is healing of four stages and a new image emerges from the water: an integral person, not fixed in any age but having access to all ages, access to all four capacities of life:
The creative learning of the Spring Student, attraction awakened;
The love and work that mark the care of the Summer Householder;
The reintegration into the natural world of the Autumn Forest Dweller; and
The surrender to the Great Mystery that marks the Winter Sage, winter forgiveness accepting all that makes us unique reflections of all that is.
When we have access to this fourfold, we are whole, we are home in an integral way.
All the ages and seasons of our life are in us, simultaneously. Sometimes a prompt comes from within us, perhaps something belonging to features in our life “showing up as missing.”
- An angry moment appears and we sense springtime energy thwarted.
- An ache for summer warmth arrives and we sense our partnership / family as empty or incomplete.
- A touch of autumn arrives and, with it, a mood of grief and loss.
- A winter fear emerges, a fear of surrendering who we think we are into the unknown mystery.
Sometimes the prompt comes from outside us. We see a young student and remember we are that too. We encounter a family at some stage in its unfolding. We are that too. We see an elder in the autumn years finding delight in the earth community and in earthiness, in humus, humor, humility. We are that, too. We encounter a sagely moment of kindness, compassion, joy, or peace. We smile. We are that, too.
As each stage awakens, we have first contact. Yet our lifetime remains ever incomplete, ever unfinished until death. So long as we live, we revisit each age and stage over and over. Each turn of the spiral of the seasons reminds us we are learning and havesting still.
Always we are turning and returning. Always we can revisit. We can recast our stories and shift our likes and dislikes. It is never too late to have a happy childhood or adolescence or householder phase. It is never too late to embrace autumn anew, never too late to find the gifts of winter wonder, the vastness that appears everywhere in every particular, ever vast, ever near. First encounters, yes, and revisiting often—in creative ways. More and more, we see ourselves in the other and the other in us. More and more we are invited to grow in compassion.
So take the plunge. Bring the capacities of all stages to bear in each present moment. Join the upward striving of spring and summer with the letting go and letting be of autumn and winter. Surely then we will come to live more fully, prizing every gift that life offers.
The gentle Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh points to a balance of doing and being in his Happiness song:
Happiness is here and now
I have dropped my worries
Nowhere to go, nothing to do
No longer in a hurry.
Happiness is here and now
I have dropped my worries
Somewhere to go, something to do
But I don’t need to hurry.
The fourteenth-century English mystic, Lady Julian of Norwich, harmonizes the two halves of life in this lovely advice:
Our souls must perform two duties.
The one is we must reverently wonder
and be surprised;
The other is we must gently let go and let be
always taking pleasure in God.
May it be so for all of us in each moment.
Michael Meade tells this story in his introduction to Crossroads: The Quest for Contemporary Rites of Passage, Louise Carus Mahdi, Nancy Geyer Christopher, and Michael Meade, eds. (Chicago: Open Court Publishing, 1996), p. xxi. I have invoked the storyteller’s license to tell the story in my own way.
For certain purposes, it is useful to see life in two halves. And yet where the arc of descent is most easily felt is upon retirement, upon entering what the British call The Third Age, roughly the last 20 or so years of life. Here we might think of the Student stage lasting some 20 years, the Householder stage lasting perhaps some 40 years or more, and the stage of Elderhood (Autumn Forest Dweller and Winter Sage) lasting some 20 years or more.
I take this lovely phrase from one of my teaching colleagues, Dianne Connelly. She would say that the quality is not truly missing. It remains in us at a deep level, yet it is “showing up as missing.”
I have been approached after presentations by people who have never married nor had children of their own. How can they find all the ages and stages in themselves? I suggest that in a real sense all the children are our children and that we can bring
the caring of a householder and the grandparently gifts to all the “youngers.” Surely, this is a fuller framework where all are called to honor the ancestors and to serve the children – all the children, the human ones and the other creatures who are part of the Great Family of all beings.
I learned this song at one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s retreats. The monastics passed out 13 Songs of Practice. This song titled “Happiness” is number 7 on the list we received.
Brendan Doyle, “Introductions and Versions,” Meditations with Julian of Norwich (Santa Fe, NM : Bear & Company Publishing,1983), p. 78.