The Third Chapter
by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot

Sarah Crichton Books, 2009. ISBN 978-0-374-27549-5.
Reviewed by Judith Helburn
Posted on 11/09/2009

Nonfiction: Life Lessons; Nonfiction: Elders

Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, a professor of sociology at Harvard, has written about how we can reinvent ourselves after 50. Working on the premise that the years between 50 and 75 are "neither young, nor old," she interviewed men and women across the United States who were willing to risk significant change in the Third Chapter of their lives. I like the concept of the third chapter because it is not an end point. We might go on to a fourth chapter and beyond. Those interviewed often retrieved what they had abandoned earlier in their adult lives or began to live their discarded dreams. The author says, "...we are beginning to redefine our views about the casualties and opportunities of aging; we are challenging cultural definitions of strength, maturity, power and sexiness."

The Third Chapter is made easier because of the life experience and the wisdom gleaned from past failures, which we bring to our new endeavors. Those who take this step want to be recognized for who they are, not just what they do. Lawrence-Lightfoot reminds us that often the leap into a new being is precipitated by a challenging event in our lives. Some of those interviewed became playwrights, some cultivated their singing voices; some became painters. Some chose service such as working with non-profit organizations. Rarely was it an easy transition. It always took work, reflection and integration. Often, this challenge requires one to work on life review and life repair, along with continuing to grow and learn, to make a difference. Their ideals become goals towards which to strive. The joy of reconciling with the past and bringing what is valuable forward, leads to one becoming more compassionate: "The new learning does not mean losing touch with life on the other side of the border."

Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot writes eloquently, integrating stories from numerous interviews and drawing pithy conclusions. The Third Chapter is full of graceful phrases and finely tuned passages. Reading it is a learning experience.

Harvard sociology professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot is the author of nine books. She has received many awards and is the first African American woman in Haravard's history to have an endowed professorship named in her honor.

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