I began my medical career as a family doctor and during those years I devoted a significant part of my practice to obstetrics.
Among the most soulful moments of this work came when I held a newborn, just seconds old, in my arms and looked into that child’s eyes. I always felt that I was witnessing something that was exquisitely precious, a human being seeing the world for the first time.
When I shifted into geriatrics I had the honor of being present at the bedside for many peaceful, deeply meaningful, deaths. The bodies of the people I was caring for were frail, battered and sometimes broken, but in their presence, I could feel the power, and the truth, of a life that had been lived fully and completely.
Human infants, as adorable as they can be, have no story, no past, no loves gained and lost, no triumphs and no acquaintance with grief. Those who are fortunate enough to reach elderhood, however, possess all of these things in abundance. Elders spend a lifetime exchanging newborn perfection for something infinitely more valuable— a story.
Nowadays, we have the unprecedented opportunity to think about and choose between many different narrative arcs for our own life story. For many of us, the earliest chapters of our lives fell into a comfortable rhythm as we passed through the way stations our culture has prepared for us. The passage through elementary, middle, and then high school, followed by further education or entry into the workforce or a branch of the military, is a well-worn developmental pathway.
Unfortunately, as people approach mid-life and beyond, the kinds of clear-cut cultural signals that stimulate growth and change become far less common. The false belief that aging equals decline and the lack of cultural direction leads millions of people to become stuck. These “limbo episodes” make it much more difficult to continue the story of our lives. One well known approach to this problem is known (in the vernacular) as the “midlife crisis.” Men are especially well known for embracing adolescent fantasies (most famously cars and younger sexual partners) during mid-life. Although this behavior is heavily stigmatized, it actually represents an earnest response to a unique developmental challenge.
A midlife crisis is the consequence of a changing relationship with memories of our younger self. These memories form the foundation of our identity and we normally suppose them to be fixed and unalterable. In fact, they are subject to a nearly constant but unconscious process of revision.
Our youth-obsessed culture places a premium on maintaining an authentically youthful self-identity. Living life as a harried adult makes it increasingly difficult to maintain such an identity. The much-maligned balding man with the too-young girlfriend is actually engaged in a reconstruction project. He is trying (some would say desperately) to maintain the authenticity of his memories, and therefore his self, by rejoining them with real life experiences. Women face extraordinarily greater external pressures to meet not just their own youthful self-identity, but society’s standard of youthfulness as well.
Even when we’ve clearly outgrown both youth and adulthood, society continues to insist we remain confined to the adult roles we’ve established for ourselves. We live in a society where the number of “possible lives” available to older adults contracts with the passage of time and this creates an insidious developmental trap. In effect, the progress of our life story becomes stuck. What is most surprising about this is that so few men and women actually experience a mid-life crisis as they struggle to escape that sensation of being trapped in a way of living that no longer suits them.
Fortunately, there is a little known, but vastly more effective approach to solving the developmental difficulties that arise in late adulthood. Instead of attempting to reanimate memories of youth, we can revisit our past with an eye toward understanding the person we might yet become. We can reject the dominant cultural narrative of loss and decline and embrace a personal narrative based on growth and change. We can design an approach to “life beyond adulthood” that restores to us, in its mature form, the experience of living with many “possible lives” in front of us. Best of all, there is no sports car or cosmetic surgery required.
This is what I’ve been thinking about lately. What do you think?