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Time to Embrace Your Unlived Life: Design a Second Journey

by Joan Anderson

In this essay, motivational speaker and best-selling author Joan Anderson highlights the possibilities and rewards of big change—the chance to consciously design and live out a new journey, a second chance at creating a thriving, fulfilling life. Drawing on her most recent memoir, The Second Journey: The Road Back to Yourself, she reminds us all that our lives are brilliantly “unfinished” and encourages us to embark upon our own second journeys.

The call to a second journey usually commences when unexpected change is thrust upon you, causing a crisis of feeling so great that you are stopped in your tracks. Surely the economic downturn has stopped many of us in this way. But the truth is that most of us in midlife, halfway to 100, have had to face monumental change—a betrayal, a diagnosis of serious illness, the death of a loved one, loss of self-esteem, a fall from power, to name just a few. Midlife seems to be the time such crises present themselves, and if we are able to face our various dilemmas, we might just be rewarded with a new and necessary reality. It makes sense that finally—when the power of youth is gone, the possibility of failure begins to appear, and dreams of earlier times seem shallow and pointless—an authentic awakening can occur.

But what also accompanies such a potentially great moment is the dreaded need to address tough questions that many of us have, until then, been able to avoid: What am I meant to do now? What truly matters? Who am I and who could I become?

Personally, I was at just such a juncture some years ago—a woman trapped inside a person she no longer knew. Having lived my life mostly for others, I had gradually become restless and unhappy. I was standing at a crossroads with an indefinable ache and no clear direction. Subsequently, I did the unthinkable. I jumped ship, took a leap of faith, walked away from the mainstream, and dove headlong into the unknown. The wisdom I carried into the vast wasteland was three quotes:

The unexamined life is the wasted life.
—St. Augustine

The first half of life is learning to be an adult—the second half is learning to be a child.
—Pablo Picasso

Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed with the things you didn’t do rather than the things you did.
—Mark Twain

I spent a year alone in a cottage by the sea and was gifted with my long-lost consciousness. After a few weeks of feeling guilty about those I had left behind, I came to see that I had taken a natural step—a second journey—during which I began to redesign my life in my own image. It was an accidental journey, nourished by nature, in which I was obliged to call on my instincts and intuitions—two sensitivities that had, for too long, gone untapped. I began to see myself as a very “unfinished” person who possessed numerous hard-earned strengths that were very much intact.

Even so, critics and reviewers of the book I wrote describing my year somewhat mocked my isolated interlude, labeling me the woman who got away, the runaway wife, the one who took a vacation from marriage, and my favorite (and perhaps most accurate), the woman who granted herself a sabbatical. Although my actions were considered “feminist,” I saw myself as simply needing to be in touch with my feminine energies, which over the course of the years had been sucked dry. That side of my being needed refueling. For, as Anne Morrow Lindbergh pointed out, “If it is in a woman’s nature to nurture then she must nourish herself.”

It seems to me that one of the goals in life is to come of age in the middle of life rather than live out our days lacking purpose or energy. No matter the cards each of us has been dealt, the challenge is to embrace each new stage, being both creative and clever as we do so. Many unfinished people awaken their childhood wonder; others gravitate to a cause they deeply believe in; still others awaken long-felt passions. Taking any step, however small, leads to another step and then another until eventually, without really knowing it, you have carved out an entirely new itinerary for yourself.

Surely happenstance played a role in my second journey, which was buoyed by my mentor, Joan Erikson, wife and collaborator of famed psychotherapist Erik Erikson. Caught in an “identity crisis,” who should I have the good fortune to run into on a foggy Cape Cod beach but the very woman who, along with her husband, coined the term! In time Joan helped me understand that by working through various adversities and conflicts an individual gains particular strengths. Week after week we wove our life cycles on a loom, all the while discussing the pulls and tugs we experienced as we shifted and grew up. During this time, I was able to identify various innate strengths, which in turn catapulted me into a new-found sense of selfhood.

During my odyssey I also began to realize that a woman’s individual meaning comes from the changing powers of her body—that her physical, spiritual, emotional, and creative life work together to form a wise woman at maturity. Although once an innocent maiden, I gained particular strengths through mothering and over time began to build a personal philosophy based on the myriad phases through which I’d grown. My husband informs me that the same is true for men. Although their bodies don’t send as many blatantly obvious messages, the cycles of a man’s work life, his sexual prowess (or lack thereof), as well as waning physical endurance alerts him to the fact that some things are outlived and change is afoot. Life is, after all, not just about progressing through the world but moving through stages of understanding. Only if we come to terms with the inevitable can we justify our various quests. The good news is that the first half of life is prescribed, whereas in the second half we get to write our own prescriptions.

I’m beginning to think that a human being is not unlike the proverbial cat with nine lives. Indeed, most of us live a lifetime in a decade. Who we are, what we look like, and who we live with may be entirely different 10 years from now. Each decade brings with it a new certainty—a passage through a portal to the other side. Wouldn’t it be revealing if there were an actual ritual at the end of each decade that marked a person’s achievements—crises managed, lessons mastered, attitudes and ideals changed—so we weren’t merely aging but rather honoring and affirming life’s journey? We are all in need of pondering and then appreciating what is outlived so we can make room for all that is unlived.

Growing up and “growing on” are inevitable. The great loneliness is that people don’t know who they are—they tend to resist their changes and then miss the rewards of the second journey in the process. Now is the time to first look back and then befriend—not berate—the person you are becoming. “Toss off the bowlines, pull up the anchor,” as Mark Twain states, for it is high time to embark on that second journey. I guarantee it will be the adventure of your life.


Joan Anderson is a sought-after motivational speaker, workshop leader, retreat facilitator, and author of A Year by the Sea, An Unfinished Marriage, A Walk on the Beach, A Weekend to Change Your Life, and The Second Journey. She has appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show, the Today Show, and Good Morning America. www.joanandersononline.com

© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. Originally published in the May 2009 issue of Kripalu Online. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail editor@kripalu.org.