Exploring Life's Third Chapter: A Conversation with Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot

By Cohen, Gene D. | Aging Today, September/October 2009 | Go to article overview

Exploring Life's Third Chapter: A Conversation with Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot


Cohen, Gene D., Aging Today


I recently had a wonderful conversation with sociologist Sara LawrenceLightfoot, the Emily Hargroves Fisher Professor of Education at Harvard University, about her important new book, The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk, and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50 (New York, N. Y.: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009).

Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot truly desired to know what motivated people who were in their "third chapter" of life to want to learn. And in her two-year travels across America, interviewing people in their 50s, 60s and 70s, she brought her rich, interdisciplinary perspective to bear on this question - to great effect.

An articulate teacher and writer, Lawrence-Lightfoot's book transported me on an unusual, imagined journey - one in which I envisioned myself on a spacecraft at some distance from the earth. As I gazed out from the spacecraft, I saw the earth as an undifferentiated globe. As the book's narrative unfolded, the undifferentiated globe began to reveal its mountains and valleys and bodies of water.

Further along, the narration incised even more detail: towns and cities appeared; then city streets; then people. I imagined that I could hear the people talking. And in a flash, I was able to be inside their heads, taking in what they were thinking. What a journey!

I have always been influenced bypsychiatrist George L. Engel's reminder that humans are biopsychosocial individuals. Lawrence-Lightfoot's narrative took me on a journey toward an expanded horizon that encompassed that biopsychosocial view, blended with a cultural-historical one.

Gene D. Cohen (GDC): Did your interviews with the people you feature in your book hold any surprises for you?

Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot (SLL): I was surprised by the combination and magnitude of passion, excitement and vulnerability in how these men and women were moving forward with new learning. Despite their depths of experience and knowledge, many of these people felt like total novices on their novel journey - yet they continued on toward new goals.

GDC: When you began your study, did any of your views change about what you expected to find out about the "third chapter"?

SLL: I was struck by how much retirement and retreat were not on people's minds; instead I saw how much energy they were devoting to a new form of learning and how many wanted to become reengaged to achieve this. One person I interviewed described this quest for learning by saying, "I am an anthropologist." This declaration reflected the exploratory [and courageous] nature of the group; they were willing to cross boundaries they had not crossed before - boundaries of race, class, discipline. A bureaucrat was turning to art, and a neuroscientist was becoming political.... And yet, in the process of crossing boundaries, these individuals did not separate themselves from their past or their family history. They drew upon these parts of their lives and, in doing so, these men and women looked backward into the future to give forward in the "third chapter".

GDC: Did you view yourself differently after you conducted your study of the people in The Third Chapter?

SLL: I felt even more fortunate to be in a profession focused on exploration - in this case, being able to satisfy a curiosity about the incredible opportunities and possibilities for exploring new learning and new frontiers, and making major shifts in one's life in the years after age 50.

GDC: Regarding your background research on what other investigators have looked at and found in studying aging: Are there any fundamental differences that distinguish what you have found and written about in The Third Chapter?

SLL: I focus extensively on contextual issues and their impact on development - how cultural, historical and political contexts influence the course of people's lives across the lifespan. …

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