Ready, Set, Go. A 64-year-old’s First Day of Grad School.

The author poses on the campus of Northeastern Illinois University.

It’s incredibly difficult to fathom, but I’m just seven months away from my 65th birthday. Holy shit! Some of my same-aged friends are at this very moment planning for imminent retirements. Others have already stepped away from their respective vocational rat races. But not me.

I guess I always have been my own person; different, contrary, obstinate. I’ve often taken a less-followed path than friends and colleagues. So, as I approach the time-honored age of Medicare, I’m staring through the weeds at a hazy, sun-kissed horizon. I’m about to launch a second career — and a very meaningful one at that.

Yep, call me crazy, but that’s what I’ve chosen to do with the rest of my life. I’ve decided to become a psychotherapist and am enrolled in the Clinical Mental Health Counseling master’s program at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago.

This is no joke. It’s important work. People need help. I needed help! Thankfully, I found a gifted, caring, irreverent, no-bullshit therapist who unexpectedly became my guru. Now I want to help others the way he helped me. And I genuinely believe I have a lot of offer people, based on my bountiful and diverse life experience, my empathy quotient, and my passion for the craft of counseling. Now it’s time to dig into the technical stuff and learn how to become the therapist I want to be.

It’s been forty years since I’ve been in college but I’ll be back in a classroom later today. Talk about a throwback! I might even ride my bike to campus. Hell, maybe I’ll get one of those plastic Batman lunch boxes and bring a snack. Anybody want to trade a peanut butter sandwich for cheese and crackers? After all, I did grow up in Wisconsin!

I guess I’ll be kind of like Billy Madison but my fellow students and I will all be older.

To prepare for this quest I’ve read lots of books, with many more to come. The authors who’ve shared their stories, discoveries, and their heart have provided me with a wealth of knowledge I now use in everyday life. One of these authors, Richard Rohr, revealed a deeply spiritual connection to my mission in his book, Falling Upward.

Rohr notes that pioneering psychiatrist Carl Jung long ago identified two halves of life that are available to each of us. The first half is spent searching for our identities by advancing our careers, raising children, and chasing so many other sometimes important but too often transactional pursuits. Check. However, to experience the second half of life, we must leave the comfort of our cocoon and endeavor to make sense of what has transpired in the first half of life.

Yung explains, “One cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning; for what was great in the morning will be of little importance in the evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie.”

Rohr offers a further explanation by writing, “my desire and effort — every day — is to pay back, to give back to the world a bit of what I have received. This is human life in its crowning, and all else has been preparation and prelude for creating such a human work of art. Now we aid and influence other people simply by being who we are… When we are lazy, we stay on the path we are already on, even if it is going nowhere. The supposed achievements of the first half of life have to fall apart and show themselves to be wanting in some way, or we will not move further.”

Well, that’s exactly what happened to me. I didn’t choose this path of my own accord. I was pushed — forcefully — to re-examine my life and the direction it was progressing, or regressing. But now I get it. I understand exactly what Rohr is saying.

Mythological researcher and writer Joseph Campbell would say the second half of life is “the hero’s journey,” which he described in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In essence, the hero hears a call to leave home for some sort of adventure. During this excursion, he or she discovers the life that was meant of them, often hidden beneath layers of distractions, excuses, and complacency.

I hear that loud and clear. Now here I am, without a heroic bone in my body, embarking on the very journey Jung, Rohr, Campbell, and others have laid out so wisely and beautifully.

Campbell wrote, “We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” And that’s not easy, as he acknowledged by adding, “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” But, enter we must if we choose to pursue the second half of our lives.

I guess my second half journey actually began in 2015. That’s when I entered into 3 ½ years of therapy and participation in an amazing men’s group at Sage Hill Counseling in Nashville. It served as the impetus to radically transform my life. If I was still sitting in that circle today, one of the guys would surely ask me to describe how I feel about my decision to pursue the second half of life. So, since you guys asked (or would have), here goes.

First and foremost, I feel glad. I’m grateful for the arduous expedition I’ve traveled. It brought me to this “calling.” I’m appreciative of the opportunity I’ve received at NEIU, and for the support and encouragement of friends and family. I’m also angry (passionate, in Sage Hill vernacular) to work hard, learn all I can, and become an effective therapist.

Secondly, I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t admit to at least some fear. Not only am I stepping outside of my comfort zone, I’m smashing it to smithereens. But, fortunately, the worst of my fears (self-doubt, age, finances, failure) have subsided… for the most part.

Sadness, hurt, and guilt are also in the mix. I’m sad about — and have been hurt by — the wounds that occurred in my life, which led me to the mental health profession. I’m also sad that I’ve moved away from my son and his family to walk this path. I felt guilty I wouldn’t be there to help take care of my granddaughters, and I’m sad I won’t see them every day. Thankfully, I’ve processed these feelings over the last few months and am no longer weighed down by them.

I also feel lonely. I’m going it alone. Nobody’s holding my hand or leading me by the nose. And that’s okay. It’s good and it’s healthy. I do have a strong support system and I’m optimistic that entourage will expand and strengthen as I progress along this journey.

So, how will I feel in a matter of hours when I walk through that classroom door and contort my not-so-svelte 6’3” frame into one of those horribly uncomfortable student desks? Self-conscious to be sure. And that’s just for starters.

But I’ll be comforted by the thought of a man named Irv Yalom, the celebrated 88-year old psychiatrist, teacher, and author who is still practicing his craft. I will hope that I can follow the trail he blazed, not only in terms of endurance, but also by way of his ethos, his intelligence, and his heartfulness.

Writer C.S. Lewis summed up my hopefulness many years ago when he wrote, “You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.” So, here I go headlong into the second half of life; willingly, enthusiastically, maybe with a hint of trepidation. Deep breath! One foot in front of the other. But first, I have to find that damned Batman lunch box! I’m definitely going to need a snack.

Published by Roger Cahak

I am a storyteller.

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