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It was only in the scented air of Rajasthan that I began to understand the connection between the passion and the illness. First time round, language jump-starts the brain, journalist Russ Rymer speculates in his book about a "wolf child," Genie. "The organization of our brain is as genetically ordained and as automatic as breathing," he writes, "but, like breathing, it is initiated by the slap of a midwife, and the midwife is grammar." In going back for seconds, I was trying to replicate the process. On the edge of the desert, surrounded by elephants and palaces, I was slapping myself back to life.

Passion came up repeatedly in my conversations with other second borns. Its role first became evident to me one Christmas, a year after I'd had a bone marrow transplant, when I attended a holiday party for transplant survivors. If someone had been plunked down blind in that tinsel-decked corporate meeting room, they'd have thought they'd wandered into some bizarre human potential convention. "I got my MBA," people all around me were saying. "I became a Ford model." "I ran for office." It would have seemed like a heartwarming scene, unless you stopped to consider one fact: Transplants are treatments, not cures. These people weren't cured. They were barreling into their second chances, time be damned, roaring forward on passion as fuel.

It's through passion that a second chance takes you out of your (small) self and into your (larger) Self, according to Clifton. The very word, in fact, is related to the Greek word pathos: literally, "suffering, experience, or emotion." Passion comes on you. It overcomes you. "You become its servant," he says, paraphrasing the author Madeleine L'Engle: "'It's a pleasure to be a servant of the work, but a humbling pleasure to know my work knows more than I do.'" In the bargain, it invigorates you, gives you the intensity necessary to listen to your inner voice. Here you can trace another etymological link: vocation is rooted in the Latin vox, or voice. Through your inner voice, you find your true vocation. Second chances, Clifton says, induce you to "listen to an inner voice that tells you what to do, and...is different from what your parents, friends, or culture tell you to do." Second chances cause you to move away from cultural conditioning and toward your real self.

When I spoke with other people who'd had defining opportunities, a similar tao, or path, became clear. These lives unfold according to a particular order.

Every one of the people I talked to could point to an early moment when everything began to change. Most of these moments were fairly insignificant, except for the fact that they were acted on. As Anne Martindell did, when she was asked to take the schoolteacher job. My friend T. recalls an instant 18 years ago when, crossing Manhattan's 57th Street, a man told her she could be pretty if she'd ever bother to comb her hair. The man was about to break up with her; she and her life were a mess, he told her. At 27, she was no longer in the running to be the "California child drinking prodigy." "He held up a mirror," she says, "and I was appalled." She went home and began the process of ending a 15-year pot, coke, and alcohol binge. Her radical turnaround brought her into book publishing as a literary agent, then to a second career as a landscaper.

These moments don't happen unless you're ready for them. You have to do the hard work, before and after.

Here, too, there's an analogy with myth. The resonant moments preceding the breakthrough are like the question the traveler must answer correctly before she can pass through the gate. With everyone I met, the breakthrough came after the center of their lives began to shift, and rarely before the age of 35. (Though one man, on being asked if he'd ever had a second chance, promptly answered, "I was kidnapped at 4." Yep, I'd say that qualifies.)

"People can develop later in life. But they dismiss that notion. They think everything's set—you can't change or grow," says Amy Goldman, who was a child psychologist until she left an unhappy marriage at 43, shed 50 pounds, and enthusiastically entered the business of growing heirloom tomatoes. Sometimes you have to experience a series of small disappointments, she says. No one of them alone is necessarily a spur to change. But cumulatively, they bring you to a tipping point, where "it becomes apparent you have to act or fall into the abyss. All of a sudden, I realized there are opportunities," she says. "Every day." Second chances come along all the time. It's up to us to recognize them.

The people I found who'd taken their chances had certain things in common. Overwhelmingly, they were women, though that may have been because, as Po Bronson, author of the book What Should I Do with My Life? observes, men are less likely to own up to defeat. Many of the men he interviewed wouldn't say that the first chance had gone bust: Nothing wrong here. But men do go through the same swings as women, he says. It's just harder to get them to admit it.

Or perhaps women, more frequently than men, are edged into a first chance that's someone else's idea of a great deal. Psychotherapist Sheenah Hankin often sees women trudging a road their mother or father set them down on. "A lot of parents say, 'Get a safe job with health insurance in case, God forbid, you get divorced,'" she says, "safe" being home care or secretarial work or another low-paying 9-to-5. Later, when these women see others going further than they ever thought possible, "early dreams start to haunt them."

Early dreams give rise to passion, which may be why the refrain I'd first noticed at the holiday party sounded in all my conversations with people who'd had after-lives. They'd come back to claim their dreams. What I was hearing, I began to realize, were the strains of a redemption song.

Next: 3 women who made the most of their second chance

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