Embracing Finitude at Every Stage of Life

From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life

Arthur C. Brooks

Published by Portfolio/Penguin in 2022

252pp / $27 / 9780593191484

You’re Only Human: How Your Limits Reflect God’s Design and Why That’s Good News

Kelly M. Kapic

Published by Brazos Press in 2022

272pp / $25 / 9781587435102

As I sat down to begin writing this review essay of these recently published books, the sun was rising on the first day of the forty-eighth year of my life. I did not plan to be writing a review essay on my birthday, but it seems fitting given the topics addressed in these books. Like many who are the target audience for these two books, I’ve entered the second half of life, and on days like today I find myself reflecting on the past and thinking about the future, wondering if my best days are behind me or before me.

I’m in relatively good shape physically. I eat a healthy diet and I’m disciplined in my daily strength training routines. But my pace and stamina are slowing down and my body aches in ways it never did when I was in my twenties and thirties. My mind is sharp and alert and I’m able to think clearly and creatively. But I’m not as quick as I used to be in thinking of solutions to problems I’m facing, and I sometimes have those so called “senior moments” when I go into a room and momentarily forget what it was that I was going in there to get or to do. My soul is at peace and I’m full of gratitude for all that God has done in and through my life over the past five decades. I’m actively engaged in my local church, and I have friends who are as committed to my spiritual growth as I am. But more often than I care to admit, I feel rather dry spiritually and I long for more of the Spirit of God to fill me and reveal to me how I can be a better image-bearer of God in the world. My heart is full when I think about the variety of ways in which I’ve been able to fulfill the vocational calling God has placed on my life. But I sometimes wonder if this is it or if there might be something more on the horizon that God is calling me to that I’m not hearing or seeing right now for whatever reason. And while I love my family and my friends dearly and am always willing to care for them and their needs, I often fall short when it comes to loving my neighbors who are different from me and who do not share my values.

Jesus taught that for us to be truly human, as we were designed by our Creator to be, we must love God with our whole being (heart, soul, mind, and strength), and we must love our neighbors as we would love ourselves. Jesus’ teachings were, of course, rooted in his Jewish cultural and theological heritage, so when he gave this instruction, he was simply quoting from texts that his audience would have easily recognized. But it’s not insignificant that Jesus added that this guiding instruction for our lives was summative of all the laws and prophetic teachings we read about in the Old Testament—as he put it, “all the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

I oftentimes think of these five quadrants of life—heart, soul, mind, strength, neighbor—as the dashboard indicators we humans must pay close attention to as we journey through life. If we regularly review them and make necessary adjustments accordingly, our life engines will run well. But if we ignore or neglect them, our lives will not function well, and we may eventually find ourselves broken down on the side of the road. As I read through these books, I could not help but read them through this paradigm, as well as through the lens of my cultural and theological heritage. As a follower of Jesus Christ, I pay close attention to the dashboard indicators of my life. And though the authors write from two different Christian theological perspectives, Brooks (Catholic) and Kapic (reformed) both have much to say to those of us who have entered the second half of our lives in search of purpose, happiness, and success, while at the same time being acutely aware of our limits as human beings, designed in the image and likeness of our Creator. Before examining the two books, though, a brief word about the authors may help readers better understand the context and theological perspectives from which they write.

Arthur C. Brooks is the William Henry Bloomberg Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School and professor of management practice at the Harvard Business School where his teaching portfolio includes courses on leadership, happiness, and social entrepreneurship. He is the author of thirteen books and several peer-reviewed journal articles, he holds seven honorary doctorates, and has been selected as one of the “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders” by Fortune Magazine. Brooks describes himself as a practicing Catholic, and this is apparent in his writing. But he is also very much influenced by the wisdom available in the teachings and practices of other religions, which is also very apparent in his writing. One example of this can be found in chapter four of this New York Times best-selling book in which he quotes and/or paraphrases the following ancient and contemporary figures: Lao Tzu (Chinese philosopher and author of Tao Te Ching, the foundational text in Taoism); Thomas Aquinas (Italian theologian and author of Summa Theologiae, the foundational text in roman Catholic theology); Siddhartha Gautama (Nepali ascetic and religious teacher who later became known simply as the Buddha); Ahad al-Rahman III (Spanish Muslim emir and caliph of Córdoba); the Dalai Lama (Tibetan Buddhist monk); Josemaría Escrivá (Spanish Catholic saint); Voltaire (French author and philosopher); Keith Richards and Mick Jagger (English singer-songwriters of the legendary rock band, the Rolling Stones). This pattern can be found throughout the book, which could be a potential deterrent to readers who are uncomfortable with Christian authors who borrow from multiple faith traditions when attempting to make a particular point in their writing.

Kelly Kapic is professor of theological studies at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia. His PhD is from King’s College, University of London where he studied systematic and historical theology. He is the author of twenty books and several peer-reviewed journal articles, and he writes from a distinctively reformed theological perspective. It’s not surprising, then, that in 2022 You’re Only Human was awarded Book of the Year by Christianity Today in the category of theology. In stark contrast to Brooks, the chapters in Kapic’s book contain virtually no references or quotations from any non-Christian author. While some readers may perceive this to be a strength of Kapic when compared to Brooks, others may consider this to be a weakness because it inevitably limits the reach of his book to a much narrower audience. The irony of this approach is that one of the early church fathers Kapic quotes most often is Augustine, who is attributed with the saying “all truth is God’s truth.” This saying is a paraphrase of Augustine’s words in On Christian Teaching, where he writes, “A person who is a good and true Christian should realize that Truth belongs to his Lord, wherever it is found, gathering and acknowledging it even in pagan literature, but rejecting superstitious vanities and deploring and avoiding those who ‘though they knew God did not glorify him as God . . . ’”

Clearly, Kapic is writing for a Christian audience while Brooks’s intended audience is much wider and more diverse. regardless, both authors have written award-winning books that seem to have touched a nerve among readers. Kapic reminds us that we are finite human beings with limits and dependencies upon others, and we should embrace this reality because this is how God designed us. And Brooks reminds us that physical and professional decline is inevitable, but it does not have to define us; rather, if cultivated well, our weaknesses can become our strengths.

Brooks outlines his book with an introduction, nine chapters, and a conclusion. In the introduction, he describes the impetus for a nine-year personal quest that culminated in the publication of the book. This quest led to a shift in mindset from seeing his future decline as a human being no longer as dreadful but more so as an opportunity for progress. What precipitated this mindset shift was the “man on the plane who changed my life” as he describes it in the book’s introduction. He was on a flight and overheard a conversation between a man and a woman seated behind him. The man was talking about how he was getting older and did not feel like he was needed any more and that it would be better if he were dead. The woman was attempting to console him, but the man was really struggling with the realities of his decline during the season of life he was in. When the plane landed and Brooks finally got a look at the man, he realized that the man was a very well-known celebrity; so to hear those words coming from someone who, for all intents and purposes, had led a very successful life was shocking. Brooks describes this phenomenon as the “striver’s curse” which he found in his research to be quite common among people who experience very successful careers in the first half of their lives but who are terrified by the realities of their declining years (xiv). Brooks himself was in his late forties when this event on the plane occurred and it shook him so much that for the next nine years, he began developing what he describes as a strategic plan for the rest of his life—this plan forms the outline of his book.

Admittedly, chapter one was quite depressing to read as a forty-eight-year-old man. Brooks paints a very vivid picture of what personal and professional decline looks like in the second half of a person’s life. No matter how successful we are in our twenties and thirties, by our forties the steady decline begins: physically, mentally, emotionally, and even spiritually. He ends the chapter by challenging readers to consider three options in response to this reality: (1) we can deny it, (2) we can give in to it, or (3) we can embrace it by cultivating a new mindset and intentionally developing new skills that will help us thrive into our inevitable decline.

If chapter one was depressing to read, chapter two was quite enlightening as Brooks borrows from the work of twentieth-century British-American psychologist, Raymond Cattel, who describes two intelligences that we need to develop in order to thrive during the second half of life. The first is what’s called “fluid intelligence,” which is the ability a person has to use reason and flexible thinking to solve problems—what Brooks describes as a person’s “raw smarts” (26). The second is what’s called “crystalized intelligence,” which is the ability to draw on knowledge gained over time to make more informed decisions—what Brooks describes as “wisdom” (27). What he discovered in his research of this phenomenon is that while a person’s fluid intelligence tends to decline with age, crystalized intelligence can actually increase as a person gets older. But this is not automatic; it requires intentionality to cultivate a new mindset and to commit ourselves to developing new skills that will serve us well during the second half of life.

In the next three chapters, Brooks describes three forces that tend to hold us back: workaholism and our addiction to success (chapter three); our attachment to worldly rewards (chapter four); and fear of our inevitable decline (chapter five). In the subsequent chapters, Brooks offers three practical things a person can start doing to counteract these powerful forces. The first is to cultivate what he calls an “aspen grove lifestyle,” meaning that just like aspen trees grow well together because of a strong interconnected root system, we too must develop a strong relational root system with the people we do life with (chapter six). The second counteraction is to develop what’s called “Vanaprashta” in Hinduism: the third of four stages in life during which a person does less personally and professionally in order to spend more time pursuing wisdom and spirituality (chapter seven). The third thing a person can do to counteract the forces holding them back seems at first to be counterintuitive in that he suggests we should shift our mindset to think of our weaknesses as strengths. Borrowing from the wisdom of the Apostle Paul who writes of his struggle with what he describes as a “thorn in my flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7), Brooks encourages readers to embrace the biblical concept of recognizing that our weaknesses—when surrendered to God—can actually become our strengths and can even serve us well in the second half of life (chapter eight). In other words, what we oftentimes think of as a limiting factor in our life that we repeatedly ask God to remove, sometimes is meant to remain with us as a constant reminder of our fragility as human beings and our need to be fully dependent upon God’s grace.

In the final chapter, Brooks describes what psychologists call the “liminality” stages of life when we find ourselves in the uncomfortable transitions from one season of life to another. What is oftentimes described as a midlife crisis does not have to be traumatic, like it was for the man on the plane that Brooks encountered. Conversely, transitioning from the first half of life to the second can actually be quite exhilarating and life-giving if we embrace the changes and intentionally cultivate practices that help us develop our crystalized intelligence. One of the distinctives of Brooks’s book is that each chapter includes practical exercises readers can do to resist and counteract the forces that are inevitable in the progression of life. A few examples from chapter nine include: practicing delayed gratification, treating work as a reward in and of itself and not a means to an end, and pursing work that is interesting, enjoyable, and meaningful. In the conclusion, Brooks provides practical advice that he lives by and encourages his readers to consider: “Use things. Love people. Worship the divine” (215).

Kapic divides You’re Only Human into two parts, each with five chapters. There is no foreword, preface, introduction, or conclusion. Part 1 concerns Particularity and Limits, and Part 2 is entitled Healthy Dependence.

He states that the aim of his book is to help readers embrace the gift of being limited as human beings and to discover the theological and pastoral significance of our limitations (15). In fact, embracing our limits is key to understanding God’s original design for us as humans—a design that God described as “very good” according to the author of Genesis 1-2. As humans, we are created in the image of God, but we are not God, and we are not meant to be God. God is limitless but we are limited. Therefore, our attempts to resist or reject our limits as created human beings could even be considered a sin that causes separation from our Creator (12). Kapic returns to this overarching theme several times throughout the book as he explores different perspectives on different questions related to our finitude as humans. The perspectives provided in each chapter include his own, but also a variety of Christian authors throughout the centuries. His most often cited authors include Augustine, Luther, Bonhoeffer, and Kierkegaard.

The questions Kapic explores form the titles of each chapter in the book, followed by short phrases that give the reader a hint as to the focus of the chapter. For example, Part 1, chapter three is titled, “Are the Limits of My Body Bad? Praise God for Mary.” In this chapter, Kapic focuses on the physicality of Mary’s son, Jesus, the incarnate Son of God who was fully God and fully man, and he makes the claim that only when we fully grasp the implications of Jesus’ humanity are we able fully to grasp the implications of our humanity. He goes so far as to suggest that when we are ashamed of our bodies and our finitude, we are dangerously close to being ashamed of our Creator (42). Other questions he delves into in Part 1 include: “Have I done enough?,” “Does God love me?,” “Why does physical touch matter?,” and “Is identity purely self-generated?”

In Part 2, Kapic’s questions include: “Have we misunderstood humility?,” “Do I have enough time?,” “Why doesn’t God just instantly change me?,” and “Do I need to be part of the church?” He concludes the book with a chapter titled, “How Do We Faithfully Live Within Our Finitude? rhythm, Vulnerability, Gratitude, and rest.” In this chapter, he offers practical reflections on four sacred patterns of life (noted in the title) that can help readers more readily embrace their human limitations. First, our lives are ordered in such a way that we experience different seasons and rhythms, and we would do well to receive each day as a gift from God to be savored, as opposed to dwelling so much on the past or dreaming too much about the future. Second, acknowledging our vulnerability is not a sign of weakness; rather, it is embracing the reality of how God designed us as humans, and it can even be a strength that we maximize in our relationships with others. Thirdly, as we embrace our limitations, we don’t have to choose between lament and gratitude; instead, we can take a posture of what Kapic calls “biblical realism,” which acknowledges that both gratitude and lament are appropriate human responses to experiences we face as we decline more and more each day (205). And finally, the sacred pattern of rest is essential to understanding what it means to be a finite human being—sleep is a daily discipline that reminds us that God is the one in control, not us, and we can find rest in this truth.

In contrast to Brooks, Kapic does not offer much practical advice to readers or specific exercises they can practice in response to a particular point made in the book. Instead, his writing is more philosophical and theological in nature, eliciting more of a contemplative response from readers. An exception to this is found in chapter ten when he encourages readers to consider beginning the practice of the daily “examen,” an ancient spiritual exercise common to some traditions of Christianity in which a person does three things each night before going to sleep:

1. Review the day and note the high points and low points, asking God for forgiveness and/or praising God for the gifts you received throughout the day.
2. Remember the various attributes and promises of God, and how those were manifested to you throughout the day.
3. Rest in the goodness and grace of God, remembering that as God was faithful to sustain you throughout the day, God has already gone before you into tomorrow (218).

While this is more of a reflective exercise that can be practiced at the conclusion of each day, it can also serve as a model for an annual assessment of one’s life, especially for someone who is in a season of contemplating their finitude and what the second half of their life might look like.

This review essay began with more of an introspective reflection on what it means to live the kind of life God designed us for: loving God with our whole being (heart, soul, mind, and strength), and loving our neighbors as we love ourselves. And while this seems quite simple and straightforward, it can be difficult for different reasons and at different seasons of life. Both Brooks and Kapic offer valuable insights and suggestions for how a person can effectively navigate the challenges of getting older. Both draw on the wisdom of others in making their points, and they both offer further wisdom of their own for readers to contemplate. And while their intended audiences are quite different, both authors’ insights were beneficial to me as I contemplated the fragility of my own life at this stage in my career, and I suspect readers of a similar age and stage in life will find them to be beneficial as well. If I were to choose which one to recommend to a friend or colleague of a similar age and stage in life as me, I would go with Brooks because he clearly writes to an older audience living in “the second half of life,” as indicated in the book’s subtitle. But if I were to choose which one to recommend to my adult children or to one of the college students I interact with daily at the university where I work, I would go with Kapic because his message is applicable to anyone at any stage in life who is contemplating how their “limits reflect God’s design and why that’s good news,” as indicated in the book’s subtitle.

Returning to one of the biblical texts referenced at the beginning of this essay, in Luke’s account of Jesus’ response to the question of what a person must do to inherit eternal life, he notes that Jesus turns the question back around to the expert in the law who asked it (Luke 10:25-28). “What is written in the Law” Jesus asked. “How do you read it?” Then the expert in the law answers by quoting Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18, noting the five dashboard indicators of our life: loving God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving our neighbors as ourselves. In response to this, Jesus says, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.” None of us knows how many days we will live on this side of eternity, but Jesus teaches that if we want truly to live the way in which we were designed to live as humans, we must live lives that are full of love—for God, for people, and for ourselves.

But this can be difficult to do at times, for any number of reasons. In chapter 19 of his Gospel, Matthew tells the story of a young rich man who asked Jesus a similar question as the expert in the law asked in Luke’s account. The young rich man asked, “Teacher, what good things must I do to inherit eternal life?” To which Jesus responds by telling him to keep the commandments. The man asks, “Which ones?” Jesus responds by naming a few and the man says that he has kept them, but still felt like he was lacking something. His description of feeling like something was lacking in his life sounds eerily familiar to those of us who are in a season of life where we have experienced successes, but who are contemplating our inevitable decline. Jesus gets to the heart of the matter when he says, “If you want to be perfect [the word here is teleios in Greek, meaning complete, whole, or living as you were originally intended to live], go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Matthew concludes this encounter with sobering words that are often the case with those who are holding on to something, whether its possessions, or identity, or fears, or anything that keeps them from loving God, others, or themselves fully. He writes, “When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.”

Like the story of the man on the plane Brooks writes about in his book, this account in Matthew’s Gospel is a sad example of someone who would rather grasp something that is holding him back, rather than let go and trust God with his fragility and his future. Jesus summarized this dilemma that we all face when he said on another occasion, “Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.”