AS we age and enter the so-called Second Half of Life we become far more attuned to our human vulnerability – struck by the awe of the privilege of being alive, but also the dread that it is slipping away.
It is how we walk the “ridge between awe and hope, and dread and fear” that is the real challenge of being a human, says Cork-based clinical psychologist and writer, Dr Colm O’Connor.
One of the main themes of his new book The Awakening, is the invitation to look in the mirror of mortality, but it is not as morbid as it sounds.
Instead, it offers a hopeful and compassionate message to us all, to rise above the hardship of life through the power of the imagination, as he taps into the heroic and mythological roots of ancient Ireland.
Though the book is meant to give heart to readers of all ages, the 56-year-old father of three, hopes it will continue to be a reminder to himself also, about what really matters, as he walks that ridge into his latter years.
He says: “We spend the first half of life building a scaffolding, and in the second half asking ‘Mmm...why am I doing this? What is REALLY important?’
"And I use the image of the Celtic Cross in the book with the horizontal aspect of it being all about success and status, security and safety and the vertical aspect all about meaning and purpose and then that we have to live at the crossroads of both aspects, symbolised in the cross.”
The vertical aspect has always been important to him, having “a poetic streak” from a young age, encouraged by his dad Cormac, a meteorologist who was also a Celtic scholar.
Although he died aged 69 of prostate cancer 16 years ago, Colm believes he “is still with us — through imagination and transcendence — in the family, and he’s very present with my mother as well”.
At 81, his mother Phyl is also an inspiration: “She’s a wonderful person — a lot of elderly people are — they maintain a heroic cheerfulness in a life that is slipping away from them.
"Of all the human qualities that are most inspirational, good cheer is one of the best. Depression touches us all and in a realistic sense, life is depressing and we all need imagination to elevate ourselves and rise up and not become a victim.”
This cheerfulness is embedded in a spirituality — not as a religion, but as a faith, a hope, a belief in something more than ourselves, he says.
“It’s a childlike sense that there is possibility — people still believing in a tomorrow. What I love about my mother is that she is still driving around in her car, planning her day, she is not coming to the conclusion that life isn’t worth living.
"Life is not about giving up, but about enduring, about having a sense of hope in something ahead, no matter how small it is.
“I know a number of people in their 80s who have that quality — that defiant cheerfulness — which is ‘Feck this! I’m still going to live for something’. It is wonderful.”
Colm has battled through his own ups and downs. His first marriage of 10 years broke down when his two children, Brendan and Christine — now in their 20s —were still in primary school.
“We didn’t break up in war or conflict. It was a good separation because we remained excellent co-parents who loved our kids, so we worked together. It worked very well for the children who are now happy and successful.”
He agrees that his personal experience has given him insight into his work as a family therapist and clinical director of Cork Marriage Counselling Centre.
“But insight into myself as well, because when I say it worked out well, it was filled with its own grief.
"When everybody marries, we go forward with a dream of how it’s going to be and I think the challenge of life is not so much making your dreams come true, as the American myth would say, but the character you show when your dreams don’t come true, because there’s an inevitability to that happening.”
In his own case he says “it all worked out wonderfully for me,” when he married his ‘lovely wife’ Jean, 12 years ago and had a daughter Ciara, now 11, illustrating that life can “throw out these jewels in the midst of the gravel, as it were.”
An example perhaps of the hardship in his life being imbued with the heroic hope he offers readers of his book.
The Awakening, by Dr Colm O’Connor, is published by Gill & Macmillan today, Sept 4, €14.99 Colm will be giving a workshop on the theme of The Awakening in Cork on October 31. Further details at www.drcolmoconnor.com