Men in their 60s – afflicted by hope

Anthony Bourdain’s suicide at age 61 has got me thinking.

I know suicide isn’t the exclusive domain of any particular age group, but recently I’ve been troubled by the number of well-known and highly successful men who have ended their own lives in their 60s. Maybe that’s because I just had a birthday and, well, frankly, I’m closing in on 60 myself.

The reasons for Bourdain’s suicide aren’t yet known. He was working on a new series of his television show when he died. He was in a new relationship, was exercising, and had given up his two-pack-a-day cigarette habit. All good signs. And yet…

I won’t speculate on a topic I know nothing about. But, as I said, Bourdain’s is just one of a long list of self-inflicted deaths of successful 60-something men.

In 2004, writer and actor Spalding Gray, 62, drowned himself after suffering from depression that resulted from the debilitating effects of a severe car accident some years earlier.

Legendary Chilean footballer Eduardo Bonvallet, 60, hanged himself in 2015 after struggling with stomach cancer for several years.

Likewise, Tony Scott, 68, the director of such films as Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop II, and Crimson Tide, jumped from a bridge in LA in 2012 after fighting a lengthy battle with cancer.

And comedian and actor, Robin Williams, 63, while also previously struggling with depression, alcoholism and drug addiction, ended his own life in 2014 as a result of the effects of Lewy body dementia, which had been incorrectly diagnosed as Parkinson’s Disease.

In all these cases, the decision to end their lives came as a result of feeling diminished by illness.

And then some men in their 60s choose to kill themselves because their careers have plateaued or their talent has begun to ebb away.

In 2005, journalist and writer Hunter S Thompson, 67, shot himself after feeling that the excitement of his early life and the energy he had for work wasn’t being sustained into old age. He left his wife a suicide note that said that life was “No More Fun”

Perhaps the most famous example of 60-something ennui is another American writer, Ernest Hemingway, who also died at age 61.

Battling depression, alcoholism, and bipolar mood disorder, the final straw for Hemingway occurred when he was asked to contribute a short piece to a book of collected essays for the inauguration of John F Kennedy. He couldn’t find the words to even write a single sentence. Believing his life was “in ruins” he shot himself in his home in Idaho.

What is it with men who, having achieved great success in their chosen careers, find themselves shrinking in their 60s? In all the cases I’ve mentioned, the men in question felt that life was ebbing away, reducing in scope, diminishing due to illness or circumstance. Instead of growing steadily larger, their lives increasing in scope and effect, they found themselves contracting, “shrivelling” as Hemingway put it.

Do we peak in our 40s or 50s and then fade slowly into old age? If so, that’s a dreadful thought for many men.

In his book Driven by Hope: Men and Meaning, James Dittes makes the claim that hope is the defining trait of masculinity. Indeed, as the title of his books says, men are driven by hope, and even the most annoying aspects of our behavior can be traced back to this single driver.

For example, Dittes suggests the refusal of many men to ask for directions when lost is not mere stubbornness, it’s hope. Hope in a kind of personal intuition to get him out of his ‘lostness’.

Likewise, unhelpful traits such as aloofness, or fear of commitment, or emotional withholding are redeemed by Dittes as expressions of an accurate intuition that life is a distorted imitation (and promise) of the real thing and cannot command unreserved devotion.

Dittes isn’t excusing the worst aspects of male behavior. He’s simply suggesting they derive from a basically good source. He asks us to see the traits of zealousness and drivenness, and the driving of others, as the accepting of a call, however clumsily, to take part in moving life along toward its intended destiny, instead of merely as performance anxiety or hunger for power.  Dittes writes,

“Men are expectant. Men live a life that feels chronically destined, ever on the verge – intended for something that is never quite arrived at, an unending not-yet, the perpetual pilgrimage of almost.”

 

It is this affliction of being chronically destined that explains so much of what we usually identify as masculine behaviour. Dittes continues,

“Something beckons and promises a man but also eludes and teases – something hinted at in the life he knows but something unmistakably beyond, just beyond naming, ever beyond grasping, intimate and sure yet elusive – that life which is truly his and yet never his.”

But James Dittes goes further, suggesting that all these traits that we often couch in negative terms are in fact expressions of the religious yearnings of all men:

“In religious terms, men are afflicted with hope. Hope means living a life that awaits, longingly, a fulfillment that must come from beyond the everyday domain, since it doesn’t seem to come from within that domain. Life is lived – and is meant to be lived – in a kind of in-betweenness. Life is not (yet) what it is meant to be; life is meant to be what it is not (yet). A man lives in the kingdom of God but also knows himself separated from that kingdom. Life is in between, on the way, not comfortably here, not yet there, destined.” 

Why should we be surprised when men, driven by hope, reach their 60s and finding no way to fulfill their yearning, decide to end it all? In this respect, hope is indeed an affliction. Or more specifically, unrealized hope. It is as if we have intuited the world as it is meant to be and we throw ourselves into building it. But when we do this in our own strength, and driven by self-interested motives, we necessarily fail. By our 60s there’s no escaping this fact. And as we see our strength fail or our talent recede, what point is there in having hope?

The only hope really is to learn how to live in the shadow of your own destiny. By that I mean we need to retain hope in a world-waiting-to-be-born, while coming to terms with our limited contribution to building such a world.

 

Hope might be a universal religious yearning, but it must be balanced by humility, a far more rare human trait. It takes humility to realise the world we’re working toward can only be achieved by a force greater than ourselves. Living in the shadow of your own destiny is bearable when you know that it’s God’s work to fulfil that destiny, to usher in the kingdom in the return of his son, Jesus Christ.

We shouldn’t condemn men for hoping for more, but as they age we need to teach them the power and beauty of humility. We need to help free them from endlessly rowing toward God and show them how to fall on their knees before that God.

When I’m in my 60s (and beyond) I know my strength will be abating, the speaking invitations might have dried up and the book contracts might stop arriving in the mail. What then will I do with all the blazing hope that has been driving me all my life? I trust I’ll be humble enough to open myself to God’s ongoing work in me – to embrace serenity, peace, gentleness, to see the work of my late years to be a blessing to others in their contribution to God’s kingdom.

So, aging men do well to see that growth can still occur, but the growing we undertake in our later years is the humble, expansive work of mentoring, coaching, championing, and celebrating others.

As Henri Nouwen once said, “At a certain point in our lives the question is no longer: ‘What can I still do so that my life makes a contribution?’ Instead we should ask: ‘How can I now live so that my death will be an optimal blessing to others in my world?’.”

 

At some point in life we should stop working on our agenda and begin to work on our obituary.

 

 

 

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39 thoughts on “Men in their 60s – afflicted by hope

  1. Truly great

  2. Incredible Mike. Such a helpful and sensitive piece. Thank you.

  3. Michael,
    Thanks so much for this. I’m 57 and it rings true. Just a few years ago, I resigned as a lead pastor feeling tired of chasing the “success” of a growing or larger church. A success I had barely tasted a few times in my over twenty years of ministry. I walked away with peace and let go of “my hope”. I worked common jobs, while coaching other pastors and churches on the side. I met with a small group of fellow Christians in our homes and enjoyed God’s blessing and the fellowship of others, while seeking nothing higher than loving our neighbors, and being obedient to Jesus.
    Then, the phone rang one day with an offer to join the staff of a friend’s church where he pastored in a town an hour or so away.
    I somewhat reluctantly said yes to the offer and began to work as an associate pastor there.
    I struggled with the return to the institution and actually felt sweat on my palms my first service back in “church”. I joked that I felt like Michael Corleone “just when I think I’m out they pull me back in…” I sometimes struggled with feelings of failure on Sunday mornings in those early days as I sat in the congregation listening to others minister in their upfront roles. I felt many of the emotions you describe in your article. .
    That was almost seven years ago, and gradually, I came to a place of peace and acceptance with my aging and changing ministry. I have served with three young pastors and staff and I love being part of the team. I feel freedom from the “affliction of hope” you mentioned and have instead embraced service and investing in others.
    I thank God for directing my paths in ways I may not have chosen for myself, but the good and pleasant ways I find myself in today. I need to pray for men of our age, and not forget that such feelings are present in those who call the church their business.
    Thanks again for helping me understand and name my experience.
    God bless you,
    Mark Copley

    1. Thank you for sharing your story with us, Mark. I’m so glad you’ve found that sense of peace and freedom.

    2. Thank you for your sharing Mark. We women have similar struggles. It is also strange to think that even as Christians, we inevitably find ourselves still measuring onself against worldly standards of success and prosperity. I have struggled against illness that cut short my career since my forties, so I know well the sense of hopelessness and impotence from fading health rather early in life. Sometimes I have experienced the joy and peace you described because of God’s blessing in unexpected ways. At other times, however, I fall back into the trap of wanting to prove my value. I guess it’s a never ending spiritual struggle- to rest in His love and grow in His ways, or to fight for ‘hope’.

      1. God bless you, Stella. Yes, there can be blessed release in embracing our helplessness and dependence on God. His ways are not our ways, but they are always better in the long run.

  4. So much good content to digest here Michael. I love your last line. When we consider our obituary, it causes us to consider how we want to be remembered. For me, I want to be remembered as one who “Loved intensely!”. Simple as that.

  5. Yep – HOPE! we need hope that does not depend on this ageing body.

    2Co 4:16-18 NLT …… Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. (17) For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! (18) So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever.

  6. Why do you think this is a “men” issue?

    1. I don’t think it is exclusively a men’s issue, but I am a man approaching his 60s and was troubled by the number of men in my age group who are taking their own lives so I did some reading in the area. I think it’s legitimate to discuss the issues that affect a particular demographic without implying those issues don’t affect others also.

  7. “Unrealized hope”- I think a better word is privilege. When their sense of entitlement ebbs away…

  8. In a week, I turn 65. At the time that turned 59, my consulting practice was dying, I was a month away from being fired from the non-profit organization that I led, and my marriage of 30 years had just ended. As I drove out of the driveway the day I moved out of the house, I heard a voice within me say, “Everything is ending.” The only response I could make to this thought was “Well, something must be beginning.” I went through my season of loss deciding that if I was going to make something of the rest of my life, that I had to start over. For me, that meant starting over in every way. I moved across country and began a new life and a new business. What I learned is that we are all in transition. And the great challenge in that transition is in our self-perception. Why did I not think that my life was over? I think because I have had a sense of calling that transcends the whole of my life. I will pursue that call until my life is done, regardless of how hard it gets. I don’t see this as a kind of hope. Instead, it is rather discipline of faith and determination to be a person of Impact each day. I am glad to talk with anyone who is around my age, who finds themselves in a kind of alienated state. You can reach me at ed@edbrenegar.com. Thanks.

    1. Thank you for sharing your story, and thank you also for generously making yourself available to anyone who might need to talk about these issues. Peace to you.

  9. Mike, you threw in one little sentence when thinking about reasons for Anthony Bourdain’s suicide, “he was in a new relationship”, and call this a “good sign” for his future. I’m afraid I could not disagree more. What makes sense of our lives are our relationships. Whatever lay behind the need for a “new” one, would be worth pondering. I’m only guessing, but surely there is grief in the ending of his previous one. We need people who are witnesses to our lives, and the longer the relationship the more this can work for us.

    1. Good point.

  10. Many years ago I read William Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (or sections of it anyway). At one point Law recommends five set times of prayer a day with a different focus in each one. I can’t recall the first four, but I remember very clearly the final one. Before going to sleep each night, he said, we should pray about the hour of our death. I’ve done that ever since – not nightly, but frequently – and it has been salutary, stabilising and strangely life-giving. I’ve prayed that however my death comes it will bring glory to God; that whatever its manner, my faith will not fail; that I will go to it with an overwhelming sense of expectation, a forward gaze into eternity, a longing to be in Jesus’ arms, to be finally Home; and many other things. This discipline has constantly reminded me of both my mortality and the immortality that transcends it, and that in turn has helped me press in to know more fully now the God I want to guide my final hours then. If I want his strength to be made perfect at the very weakest point if my life, as I die, then I need to be resting in his strength to be made perfect in my weakness now – including the weakness of my ebbing strength and abilities. There is a Hope that doesn’t fail us.

  11. So helpful Mike. And a timely reminder of how the virtues need to be in balance/creative tension to be truly fruitful.

  12. Great article. Personally very poignant even though 60 is 9 years away. Aside from your spot on analysis of some of the greatest creatives of era I also reflect that Paul Hester…Robyn William et al are the same personality types as my Dad …myself and my daughter. Compelling and frightning stuff. Thanks….I think.
    Peace.

  13. You nailed it. At age 55 I can feel the shadow of my exit spreading over each day. The question is no longer “what can I build?” but “what can I leave behind?”. My life is no longer for me – it’s for other people, many of whom I will never meet. The tide has shifted. For a long time it flowed toward me, now it flows away. Hopefully seeing this change and getting into the flow will make these last years sweet.

  14. Richard Rohr’s reflection on the trajectory of a man’s life in “journey of transformation” posits that in our culture men around 50-60 face a crisis of limitation – the awareness that they cannot have it all – a bit like reality mugging hope, as Frost describes – the ones prepared by life, or by familiarity with the way of the cross, know that it is a time of letting go of, a time of descent; of letting go of control/ power to manage or determine outcomes. that embrace of letting go of control, in the spirit of Jesus, in the way of the cross, in faith, can lead to one being in Rohr’s terms, a holy fool – one who has embraced the wisdom of the cross. the other alternative is in Rohr’s terms to be an old fool – angry and embittered at oneself or the world, or both, for not having “succeeded”, or “achieved”. being an old fool leads to destruction. I appreciate Frost’s perspective of the drive of hope i think that’s a helpful perspective. men want an heroic journey; the mainstream protestant churches in my country just don’t get that

  15. Thank you Mike for such a thought-provoking post. It strikes me that for men in particular you emphasise the focus is on ‘doing/achieving/building’ rather than on ‘being/who I am’. May I suggest a book by writer Jeff Goins called ‘The Art of Work’. As a woman in my early 60s (single and career-oriented throughout my life) I recently found this extremely useful in getting to grips with the essence of who I am and have been throughout my varied life – and going with the flow of this into the last phase of my contribution to the world. I would love all Millennials to read it to gain perspective earlier on in life – perhaps millennial men most of all as a preventative after reading your post. So I would like to suggest an amendment to your last sentence : “At some point in life we should stop working on our agenda and begin to work on our life in the shadow of our obituary.”

  16. Mike,

    I am 64 and remember quite well the change I felt when I turned 60. Initially, I felt the impending end of my work life and the desire to mentor my juniors in order to pass on my learnings and experience. I celebrated my departure last year from the secular work environment as a beginning rather than an end.

    You see, I had been actively involved in mentoring in my church and discovered the joy and fulfilment of that spiritual pursuit. I had also been active in other para-church ministry areas as well during my secular work life. But that secular work kept my from fully pursuing the spiritual work of my life. Retirement gives me a new beginning to dive headlong into this new life I have.

    I find your article dark and depressing with a lack of emphasis on encouragement and hope for the senior years. I take particular umbrage in your suggested activities for seniors. Retirement is not solely a time to become like the Bedouin and pitch our elders tent and dispense wisdom, but, it is also a time for us to take those secular gifts we have been using and the spiritual gifts we have not been fully utilizing and translate them into more active work for God thru our church and community.

    What is very much needed is the how to training for people who want to be mentors and the encouragement of the ‘spiritually young’ to seek out a ‘spiritually mature’ mentor.

    Just try and hold me back you young wippersnapper! 😉

    1. I’m not sure why you found the article dark and depressing since I ended up in the same place you’re suggested we be – mentors, wise counselors and hero makers.

      1. Mike, I think you need to read my 2nd last Para a little closer. My son, who you know, said I was being tooo easy on you.
        I am upset that you think that once you retire from the secular world your worth is not in being a leader and go getter in God’s kingdom. Though I have wisdom and will share it, I will also start new ministry work and actively lead others. I am so happy to be out of the work environment and be able to challenge my efforts giving it for God. I have a lot of years of high energy effort that does not limit me to “being a consultant”.
        I hear your comments regarding writing and speaking opportunities drying up and I will say to you that from my experience it probably has nothing to do with your age and may be more related to the topic you write and speak about. Maybe it is tired and needs refreshing.

        1. I have no idea why you feel the need to attack me. I didn’t say my writing or speaking opportunities HAD dried up. I said I was ready, if they did, to see the next chapter of my life more as a father and less as a hero. I seem to have gotten under your skin somehow and I’m not sure how I did that or why you’re reacting so strongly to me about this. I wish you well storming the castle in your retirement.

  17. Having lived across seven decades, over sixties men have witnessed the gradual shift from a Judeo-Christian [Christocentric] society to a more Humanistic [Radical Feminist] culture. The paradigm shift has been achieved through stealth and informed by a package of truths along with popular feminist myths.
    To understand the process and its effects on society [and individuals], it is important to isolate and define the inputting truths and popular feminist myths. Not only is it necessary to consider the possible beneficiaries of the shift, but also the victims thereof.
    1) Some Truths
    a) Some men are abusive towards their female partners
    b) Women sought equality [whatever that meant/means?]
    c) Feminism has morphed [over time] into an overt attack on gender and [stereo-typical] gender roles
    d) Arguably, the catalyst for the introduction of the paradigm shift may be linked to the second decade for our over sixties group. Here we saw the entrance of a more nurturing view of life. Love, peace and eastern religiosity [enhanced by the apparent enlightenment associated with hallucinogenic and psychotropic drugs].
    e) The meaning of equality became fluid and related to an evolving power shift linked with ‘women’s having a voice’ and the [apparent] tyranny of gender roles as evidenced by their [exclusive] male dominance
    f) Suddenly we see language changing and terms such as social justice, social inclusion confirming a shift had occurred.
    g) The introduction of Women’s Advisors to the government saw an entrance into [and confirmation of] the myth of inequality leading to legislation that vilified the position whilst restraining any challenge as discrimination.
    h) The media, language and legislation alliance has seen the paradigm shift reinforced and programed into the wider society as ‘normal’.
    2) Some Myths
    a) Abuse emanates from an attitude of entitlement
    b) A pervasive acceptance of gender [male] being the origin of all that is oppressive and harmful, underpins the desire to eliminate gender from lived experience
    c) A [Judeo-Christian] God is the construct of neurotic humans and irrelevant to the enlightened.
    d) Science is more reliable than acceptance of that which is unseen and thus unable to be measured/known.
    e) Appearance is reality as long as you are okay with it.
    3) Some Beneficiaries
    a) Satan – With Gods design [gender & gender roles] for His creation being questioned [and subsequently usurped] the way was prepared to cause much [inner] havoc to the created beings.
    b) The Self – Since the fall, man has sought [with the unrestrained assistance of a more than willing Devil] to become [as God] the controller of his/her destiny.
    4) Some Victims
    a) Gender – God created man & woman as an acknowledgement of the specific needs of His creation. He created man to work and woman to nurture for which He instilled in them the psycho-physiological equipment [giftings] they would require to fulfil those roles.
    b) Gender Roles – We have arrived at the point where both gender and [stereo-typical] gender roles are denied or blurred.
    o Men are feminised
    o Women are masculinised
    o Refer Item 1) h).
    o Children confused as to who they are and so detached from primary supports and role models that they gravitate to whatever is the current and popular social focal point [fluid gender or androgyny] because it at least offers a [corrupted] sense of belonging
    5) Evidence of The shift
    a. An essentially God denying society
    b. Pervasive gender confusion
    c. Pervasive gender role confusion
    d. Absent primary attachment figures [mothers]
    e. Reversal of gender roles
    o Career [absent] mothers
    o Stay at home dads
    o Lawless children
    Summary
    • The demand for equality has morphed over time to manifest as anti-masculinity
    • Whilst it has sought to eliminate the threat [masculinity] from society it has introduced an intentional focus on corrupted nurture to replace it.
    • The way for the change was prepared by the entrance of thinking and belief systems [Hippy & Buddhist] that mirrored the [current] feminist bias
    • Language has changed to reflect the shift
    o Partner not husband or wife
    o Career woman rather than mother
    o Stay at home dad rather than provider
    o Person rather than boy or girl
    Conclusion/s
    • Men of that age group have become increasingly more marginalised
    • With the absence of God the options are determined by the permitted ideologies which are feminist creations
    • Full time employment is nigh on impossible to obtain
    • Men are increasingly more marginalised by dominant ideology [political correctness] and legislation that supports it
    • A sense of utter helplessness/confusion emerges as a reversal [opposite swing of the pendulum] of what the feminist myth proposes was the case before hand occurs
    The above deconstruction may have some part to play in the increase of self-harm by older men.
    Read Erikson & Bowlby to gain more insight into possible factors that support the above deconstruction

    1. The world is complex and in a rapid and continuous state of change. It’s easy to sheet the blame home to a single source – in your case feminism – but despite the yearning for simple reasons and therefore simple solutions, life’s not like that. We need older men to help us traverse this new landscape and welcome the equal and important voices of women.

  18. My dear uncle, a gentle Godly man, is now 95, very frail and in a nursing home. When I ring up and ask to speak to him, it is amazing how often the nursing staff tell me how much he means to them…that he is just like a father to them…a real gentleman. My uncle wanted to be a teacher but he had to leave school at 15 to support the family. He never realised his dreams, but faithfully and humbly served God and his family all his life.
    Humility is so important. Sometimes having to settle for less can be a richer, deeper experience of God.

  19. I’m reminded too of the movie, Mr Holland’s Opus, about a man who wanted to write a great symphony but had to take a teaching job to support his family. He kept chipping away at the symphony over the years, often frustrated by all the demands of life, but in the end his ‘Opus’ wasn’t the symphony, it was the many lives he touched in the daily round of teaching and family life.
    We all want to do great things, I guess, but God defined things differently. Whoever would be greatest among you must be a servant.

  20. […] afflicted by hope is a term Baptist Minister, theologian, author and social commentator, Reverend Michael Frost used […]

  21. […] afflicted by hope is a term Baptist Minister, theologian, author and social commentator, Reverend Michael Frost used […]

  22. […] afflicted by hope is a term Baptist Minister, theologian, author and social commentator, Reverend Michael Frost used […]

  23. […] afflicted by hope is a term Baptist Minister, theologian, author and social commentator, Reverend Michael Frost used […]

  24. […] afflicted by hope is a term Baptist Minister, theologian, author and social commentator, Reverend Michael Frost used […]

  25. I think this is an issue for both men and women. I’m a pretty active and still attractive woman in my 60’s. I’ve accomplished a lot and so has my husband. (we’re both artists) Perhaps it’s hormonal changes-or friendships we’re losing more(to health issues or life issues) but you have to keep re-evaluating what is important. I think if you still have a loving partner(or a good handful of friends) that makes a huge difference in how you deal with aging and NOT being so obsessed by it.
    I have “youthful,active” friends in their 80s and fuddy duddies in their 30s so to me it’s how you
    deal with life issues. You can’t deny aging(that’s just sad and stupid) but you shouldn’t obsess about it …..As a daughter of a 91 year old mom,she’s taught me 1)have a purpose 2)care about yourself as well as others,Friends and loved ones are everything! Be thankful for the small stuff.In the end that’s what really matters

  26. Accepting failure is never an option. Defeat is not an option. Jesus teaches us that overcoming the world and evil results in a victors crown. We have the victory in Jesus. As an elder you are due the respect and duty of leadership. Get off your pew and lead. This article is a dangerous seduction to failure.

    1. You didn’t read it all the way to the end, did you? Otherwise you would have seen this part: “So, aging men do well to see that growth can still occur, but the growing we undertake in our later years is the humble, expansive work of mentoring, coaching, championing, and celebrating others.” No one is celebrating failure here. I’m simply recognising the different roles we play at different life stages.

  27. Again, so your telling us that this stage in life is not one where we are active dynamic leaders but humble mentors ……. kinda like the Bedouin elders that sit in their tent and dispense wisdom when asked.
    I agree with the mandate of getting off our pew and lead. Retirement from the secular world only gives me more time to lead others in God’s work.

  28. Hmmm. Disagree. Living my best life and approaching 62, it took me this long to move from living more for others than to love myself and put myself first. Physically, emotionally, spiritually, i regret not being this engaged and aware years ago. I am on to new chapters, not my epilogue.

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