Every life has a story, and stories have chapters.
This is the simple premise on which Sharon Becker, local counselor and family therapist, began building the foundation for her upcoming workshop, "The Next Chapter Revised." This engaging, interactive seminar will take place on Saturday, October 22, at the Center for Women in Charleston. And it promises to be a compelling experience for anyone, particularly women, on the brink or in the process of turning a significant page of life.
Becker is clear, however, that this evolution is not defined by age. While often occurring naturally as a "second life" or "second half" journey, it should not be inferred to mean a strict chronological event. Rather, it is a point of transition, whether deliberate or accidental, that has seemingly set the individual on an exciting, but unchartered and perhaps unsettling, new path.
The journey that Becker took in assembling the footings for this project began this past summer. Seeking women who were solidly self-aware of their passage into a new chapter, she collected results from a survey inquiring about such factors as changes, expectations, and regrets. From these questionnaires, Becker narrowed the pool to a cross-section of 10 women, with whom she conducted more extensive face-to-face interviews.
The stories Becker heard from these women both moved and surprised her. She was so grateful to soak up the rich narratives disclosed with such candor, and in the end found that their accounts both supported her existing premises on transition and also gave rise to fascinating new ideas.
We had a chance to speak with Becker about "The Next Chapter Revised," as well as her personal experience with and theories on the notion of that unscheduled transformation.
Jennifer Johnston: What is the format for the October 22 workshop?
Sharon Becker: I’ll do a presentation, and then we will integrate individual exercises to be conducted there or at home. And of course, we will leave plenty of time for Q&A. We will focus on the things we struggle with as we learn to let go, both of the past – often what we adhered to in the "first half" - and of our expectations as we move ahead. We will explore how perhaps society is not reinforcing that need to let go, how our core of identity gets upset, and how women are able to demonstrate the courage and commitment to forge ahead.
JJ: Can you please tell us a bit about the 10 women interviewed in preparation for this workshop?
SB: Well, they were all new to me. Actually, I purposefully chose one of the women, she brought a few others into the group, and a few of them brought more. It grew organically, but fairly randomly. A few of them are under 50 years old, the rest are 50 or older. They all lead lives that are very different, but there are certainly numerous commonalities. One woman in particular, who had been ill, emphasized that what she really suffered from was dis-ease. I thought this was brilliant. Another one of my participants worked in the church, and I asked her, "If you didn’t believe in God, would you use another paradigm?" Her answer was yes, that she would use such standards as integrity and wholeness.
JJ: Would you share a little about your background, and your connection with the Center for Women?
SB: I have a private counseling practice in Mount Pleasant. I worked in the mental health field until age 40 when my last child was born. For me, this Next Chapter transition happened around that time. I wanted to do something completely different, so I started a business with children’s handpainted gifts, doing everything from home shows to catalogs. I basically started with nothing and took the business to the highest level I desired, then closed up shop just this past year. I also wrote a children’s book on kindness, "The Kindness Tree." More recently, I led a 6-week facilitated group series at the Center for Women, and I was hooked. I saw the same issues coming up, and common catalysts identified. These were often traumatic: death or other loss, illness, job change. But I think that when you shake up the foundation, it allows for growth and change. I am a person who believes in no regrets. I see individuals living with that "if only" syndrome, but there is always less safety than you think. I’m frequently surprised by how many people say what they wish they could do, and it made me wonder how I was strong enough to do what I did. I don’t know if my values changed, but I have new lenses. In my practice, I strive to empower women in a much more holistic way, not always with respect to men or other external forces.
JJ: Since we all go through so many changes in our lives, do you see the "second half" as that time where we feel more settled into our changes (and perhaps bounding less from one to another)? Do you think this is more age-related than not?
SB: I believe it is more experience- than age-related. For the women I interviewed, it was a redefinition. One woman, who had been very successful in her career, remarked, "I just got tired of drinking the corporate Kool-Aid. I wasn’t ‘in relation’ to a community - I was ‘in relation’ to the systems." Different things precipitated their leaps. The first half of life is all about fulfilling set expectations; the second half is more about creating your own expectations.
JJ: Can you share some of the more surprising results of the interviews?
SB: Overall it was just surprising how similar we are; here were 10 women with striking similarities, could there be another 10,000 out there? There was a common thread of successful women having the support of other women. And I must say that these 10 women, more than just participating, wanted to reach out and help others.
JJ: How will you incorporate the interview results into the workshop?
SB: Of course, they will be completely anonymous. It will be structured as "these are the components, here are some anecdotes." I started very much with a blank slate, and let the results of the interviews drive the content of the workshop. I was allowed the luxury of having time, and did not want to compromise the outcome.
JJ: Please tell us how you came to the title "Next Chapter Revised."
SB: I read a book called "The Third Chapter," which got me to thinking of changes; that’s where I got "revised." I did not want to attach an age to it, and did not want to call it a life-stage, per se.
JJ: What is your overall goal for this workshop?
SB: I would like to enlighten, encourage, and come together as a group. Women attending will leave more conscious and self-aware. I hope to create excitement and curiosity, and set up mentorships. It’s about bringing women together to get creative and mobilize.
JJ: Will there be a follow-up workshop?
SB: Absolutely, particularly with respect to the mentoring.
JJ: Given this recognition of a "next chapter," how might you advise young women, say in college or early 20s, as they approach the goals they’ve set for themselves in adulthood?
SB: Well, the process is very dynamic. It’s not like you can teach someone at age 20 what you’ve learned by the time you are 50. It is what that life stage is about, and there’s not a way - or even a need - to undo that.
For more information on The Next Chapter Revised, or to register for the workshop, visit the Center for Women website at www.c4women.org and click on What’s Happening.