Source: Art by Alexi Berry. Used with permission.
A friend sent me an article from The Atlantic recently, entitled, “Your Professional Decline is Coming (Much) Sooner than You Think” (Brooks, 2019). It was an excellent article which dealt with aging. As I’m aging, and have read a bit about it of late, I am devoting this post to the topic, and how to approach it in a more enlightened fashion.
When I first considered writing this, I wondered if anyone would read it. Afterall, the majority of people don’t want to think about aging any more than they want to think about death (as aging relates to nearing death). What’s more, studies indicate generally after the age of twenty-five people actually feel younger than they are (reference). If you are anything like me, the disparity between the age one feels and the age one is can be substantial. Given this, who would be reading about aging, their eventual decline, and death?
Reading the article reminded me of a humorous story by Simon Rich, entitled, “The Tribal Rite of the Strombergs”. In it, when an older Stromberg shows signs of aging, like losing at Scrabble, forgetting the name of an actor, or still using an AOL email account, they ask to be put to death. The story is humorous in its absurdity, but is reminiscent of the beginning of the article above. It starts with an unnamed famous person lamenting how no one needs him anymore and he wishes for death.
The Brooks article focuses on several aspects of aging, including how happy people are as they age. It initially focuses on the unhappiness of elderly men who feel they are no longer useful. Coinciding with this, the most common age (and sex) for suicide is elderly men. Aging can be extremely difficult for many.
The Brooks article also discusses how decline generally starts about 20 years after the beginning of a career. Most people can expect this decline after about the age of 50, though in some fields it starts earlier. Another aspect that affects this is having great success early. Bruce Springsteen has a song about “Glory Days”. In it the narrator is recalling different characters’ high points in their lives, most of which are in high school or shortly thereafter. In her Ted Talk, Elizabeth Gilbert discusses her approach to having probably achieved the pinnacle of her career at a relatively young age (in her early forties) and realizing, with another forty years or so of work ahead of her, she will likely never again reach those heights. The point is that declining can be a weight on one as they progress through life, for a number of reasons.
One of these reasons is that many fear aging, try to deny it, and minimize it. This isn’t all conscious. Existential theorists posit that the fear of death unconsciously lies beneath much of our psychological distress. As we age and the inevitability of it becomes undeniable, many shrivel up at the thought. Some manage to keep the conscious thought of their impending death at bay. Others begin to feel useless, worthless, and a burden. There are many ways to respond to aging and impending death. Unfortunately, the way many respond is unhealthy.
In his book, “Still Here”, Ram Dass discusses aging with consciousness. He delves into many topics, including making the best of eccentricity, loss of sex drive, and one related to Brooks’ article, facing retirement and the loss of meaning that can accompany it. Ram Dass focuses on the positives of aging, approaching it both more mindfully and spiritually (though the two needn’t be related). He also focuses on a topic I’ve discussed in the past, growing more comfortable with uncertainty (see Can’t Trust Thinking? Then What?).
In the Brooks article, he discusses a solution from India that he believes people would benefit from following. He discusses ashramas, which are stages of life. He purports many get stuck in the second stage, where a person attempts to build a career and accumulate wealth. The solution is to move to later stages, retire, move away from material gain, and focus on what he cites as eulogy virtues, what you would want people to talk about at your funeral.
This philosophy goes well with what Ram Dass purports, as well as the practice of ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Training). Defining one’s values, and then committing to behaving mindfully toward being the person you want to be is major component of ACT. I’ve also written about this previously (see Authentic Personal Growth). Another psychology theory that aligns with this well is by Erik Erikson. Erikson denotes eight stages of psychosocial development. The stage of middle age is “Generativity versus Stagnation”, where one either continues to amass for oneself, only care about oneself and one’s family (Stagnation) or where one gives back to the next generation, whether it be through teaching and mentoring or otherwise making the world a better place for future generations (Generativity). His final stage is Integrity versus Despair. In this stage one either lives focused on the regrets of his life (Despair) or reminisces about a life well lived and continues to live with integrity.
At the end of the Brooks article, he proposes a four-pronged plan to handle the traps and pitfalls of aging. He suggests leaving positions that require the fluid intelligence of youth, perhaps before decline is noted. Second, he suggests focusing on others, serving the community, or otherwise making others a priority. Third he suggests worship, or simply getting more in touch with your spiritual side. And finally, he suggests the awareness of connections, and focus on them. He suggests dedicating more time to important relationships in one’s life.
For me, a good deal of this brings me back to the philosophy of mindfulness. Humans live unconsciously more than they believe. Forces from within and without push and pull us but we think we are acting autonomously. In aging, as discussed above, there are many unconscious forces at work. Becoming conscious of these factors is a first step. Deciding how you want to be remembered, what you want your legacy to be, is another. Committing to action in that regard, and then behaving in these ways (though no one will do this perfectly) is next. These are the paths to mindful aging. Or, alternatively, you could join the Strombergs’ clan.
Copyright William Berry, 2019