I’m 60. Stating my age has never made the impact upon my mind as it seems it does on other people. Age has become both more and less relevant now. People are healthier for longer (if we are lucky) yet the ‘cult of youth’ has never been more extreme. We have more leisure and more activities to entertain us in that leisure time, but we are exhorted to worry about ourselves more and more – if you understand that all those self-help articles which say live! Are actually saying ‘you’re going to die soon – so make the most of it’, preferably by buying some rejuvenating product/service.
It seems to be true for many people that they do begin to worry more, about smaller and smaller things. Maybe they need to, but probably not. It may be because they have fewer distractions – work, sport, status, children. Of course there are a few big things it is reasonable to worry about. Our own sickness, which tends to emerge and sink its teeth in us as age encroaches, whether we will or not. Our past bad habits may engender pointless regret. Pain, whether serious or trivial, is very hard to transcend. We may have still more aged parents, who don’t seem as sensible as we are, or who may feel that they are owed our duty. After all, that is how it used to be. And our children in their majority do all kinds of adult things which we don’t like and we feel will end badly. The deepest worry of all, in my case, is that the world seems to be going to hell in a handbasket, economically (maybe I don’t worry so much about this aspect) socially and environmentally.
Erik Erikson saw life as a series of existential crises, his favourite being the adolescent crisis (identity vs role confusion – how to choose what I will become?). Opinion used to be that this was because his own adolescence was traumatic owing to his conflict with his father. So many people who head for the hills of psychological practice seem to be emerging from their own youthful swamps. But I think the crisis of ageing, which he expressed as ego integrity vs despair, is real. Can the person on the brink of old age and even death resolve their life in some way satisfactory to themselves? Can there be more – learning, experience, companionship, defined selfhood , enjoyment and peace or will there be only less – forgetting, fearfulness and a closing horizon, isolation , dullness and anxiety?
As friends of my own age began to suffer and die in various ways, I certainly absorb some of their own anxieties. I don’t want to, I would rather be a cheerful and practical support. Maybe I manage to seem like that, but the tentacles of doubt begin to curl around the sturdy boughs of the tree I liked to imagine myself to be. I have recognised my own permeable boundaries for a long time. Last year, for the first time I experienced feelings of dread and nausea, I trembled and sweated, my heart raced, all on the behalf of another, or out of my own fear of what was happening to them. I wasn’t proud of this, nor did I take it as a sign of my sensitivity or empathy. I began to feel rather like the feeble person I have tried to escape all my life. But it’s not even that serious. My thinking self understands that these are common human feelings, which most of us have in one way or another at some times in life. Our organisms are essentially the same, after all. We are all more the same than different.
I resorted to some talking therapy, but the effects were more volatile than usual. It’s a given that with a compatible person one can sit and talk and feel some relief even if no answers are expected. (I’ve found this kind of talk, while possible with a few kindred spirits is often not possible at all with family or one’s more judgmental friends. Even the proverbial woman on the train, or someone one has only ‘met’ on the internet, can be more supportive of this maybe imaginary true self.) I know that I want more of the approaching last phase of my life than I am contemplating at this moment with a feeling of stuck-ness. I don’t want a guide or a protector. Now, through my circumstances of birth and experiences of life “ [I] have become vision. [My] Eye is fitted to what is to be seen.”
Of course there will still be a person who is recognisable. I cannot be other than myself. But I have to consider how far I want to be ‘selfish’ I’m finding ‘consolation in philosophy’ as well as in observation, reflection, I want the best of my former life to re-emerge , the essentials of day to day existence, the core personality which some folk identify as ‘soul’. I want my own capacity to learn to be freed from convention and the constraints and energy drain of paid work or domestic labour. I want the limited frame of my former life to expand. I want to find the ‘still point’, and fully appreciate the turning world for the last few years of my life. I know this won’t all happen at once but I could better foster this expansion by using the greater availability of time well and choosing my activities more freely and wisely. It is valuable and worthwhile to pause in order that this process may be planned and appreciated. I want to be able to sift the sands for my own nuggets of gold: in observation, study, creation. As there is no ‘retirement’ except in convention, this process can continue as long as I wish. I’d like to get there in the end, whatever that means. But I really do want to ‘get’ it’ – the Point of it All. Not that there is One, but there might be Mine.