Can People Change After Middle Age?
I sometimes read that people don’t change much after middle age. But everyday experience contradicts this on a weekly basis.
For example, this week in Shreveport, La., I met two guys in their 60s named Bo Harris and Mike Leonard. Bo was a football star at Captain Shreve High School. During his junior year, the school was integrated, but in the worst possible way.
The black players, whose high school was closing, were told to watch the existing team practice through a chain-link fence. Words were exchanged and Bo went out and pinned one guy, who had a broken bottle in his hand, up against the wall before administrators intervened.
Racial tensions ripped through the school, and for his own safety Bo was told to come to school only for the classes he absolutely needed for graduation.
He went on to play linebacker at L.S.U. and wasn’t always a gentle soul. “Anger was a resource I called upon on the field” — and sometimes off it.
Mike joined Bo on the L.S.U. football team a few years later, though they didn’t get along. Mike’s father, who died when he was 14, had the bigoted attitudes of the time and place. Mike was raised in that tough guy culture. Once, an L.S.U. fan threw a whiskey bottle at Mike and hit him in the back. Mike charged the stands to take revenge.
Both went on to lead successful lives. Bo played for the Cincinnati Bengals for eight years before returning to Shreveport to work as a financial adviser. Mike created one of the city’s most successful dental practices.
And things went on that way for a few decades. Until they didn’t.
Bo joined a group of 14 guys who had breakfast together every week. The friendships opened his heart. Then in 2009 he was driving with his preteen son with a .45 automatic rattling around on the dashboard. Bo heard an explosion and felt a pain in his leg worse than anything he’d experienced in the N.F.L.
His son called 911 and drove the car to a place where they could be met by an ambulance. The E.M.T. looked at Bo and said, “In all my years of doing this, I’ve never seen a guy as lucky as you.” The emergency room doctor and nurse said the same thing. If the bullet had gone one way it would have hit an artery and killed him. If it had gone the other it would have meant amputation. Bo was left in his hospital room to think about life.
Meanwhile, Mike was prospering in the normal way, serving his patients, going to church and playing golf. But internally, he was troubled. He heard about Arnold Toynbee’s theory of civilizational decline and worried about America. Personally, he felt unfulfilled. When he went to the Pearly Gates would St. Peter really care how low his handicap was?
“In the dark recesses of my mind I didn’t trust people enough to let them know what was going on.” Then he was handed a book called “The Master Plan of Evangelism” and by Page 5 his life was altered.
Shreveport saw a lot of ugliness during the civil rights era. But it is fortunate today to have Community Renewal, one of the nation’s most impressive community-building groups. Community Renewal builds settlement houses for kids in crime-ridden communities. It sponsors over 1,500 Haven Houses in neighborhoods rich and poor where volunteers sponsor activities and build relationships. It’s one of the most successfully integrated organizations I’ve seen.
Mike pulled out of his dental practice at age 49 and works at Community Renewal, often without pay. Bo heard about the organization from a member of his breakfast group and is now a volunteer and donor. When I sat with Bo and Mike after the staff and volunteer meeting on Monday, three things struck me, which often strike me about people who have transformed their lives for the final lap.
First, they’ve gone through a sort of moral puberty, as if a switch turned. They’ve lost most of their interest in egoistic calculation and some sort of primal desire for generativity has kicked in.
Second, they have what Baylor’s Paul Froese calls existential urgency, and obsessive connection to a social problem. When Gallup asked people around the world in 2007 if they felt a sense of meaning in their lives, Liberia came out as the nation where most people felt they led meaningful lives and the Netherlands came out last. It’s not that life is always easy in Liberia, but people are gripped by an urgent and communal desire to address the problems around them.
Finally, they speak in the middle voice. Sometimes we speak in the passive voice, when things are happening to us. Sometimes we speak in the active voice, when we’re lecturing and taking charge. But mature activists speak in the middle voice, which is receiving and volleying, listening and responding, the voice of equal and intimate relationship.
Mike says his younger self would have looked at his current self as some sort of crazy person. “I was unused to crying all the time.” But leaving the practice “was the greatest decision I ever made.” People change all along the way.