Talk to me, please. It makes me so much smarter.
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At the biennial conference of Sage-ing International this fall, I heard this life-changing question: How many years of life experience do you have?
Not, “How old are you?” Or (shudder), “How many years young are you?”
How many years of life experience do you have?
Just a few years ago, when a girlfriend (older than me) asked me my age, I said, “I’d rather tell you how much I weigh.” She still laughs about that, and often repeats it to friends.
I’m only a little embarrassed that I refused to tell my age. Such is the toll of epidemic ageism. In a culture that hates the old, none of us wants to own our years.
The question, “How many years of life experience do you have?” turns this situation on its head—where it belongs. I’ve asked it of many people now, and always see a light go on.
I haven’t had the opportunity yet, but I like to imagine saying to someone younger who’s patronizing me, “Excuse me, but how many years of life experience do you have?” When they tell me they’re in their 30s or 40s or 50s, I’ll say, “I see. Well, I have 65 years of life experience, so please show some respect.”
Never before have I hoped someone would condescend to me because of my wrinkles! But I find myself looking forward to using this new strategy in a teachable moment. I hope you’ll try it and let me know how it goes.
Until recently, most theories of human development ended with young adulthood and tacitly assumed that the sledding from there is strictly downhill, on the inevitable decline of aging. But nope. We continue to grow and change right up until the day we die. At least, we can.
It's DEFINITELY not all downhill
Several psychologists and psychiatrists are working on models of human development through the lifespan. Berkeley’s Norma Haan found (ages ago) very significant increases in three broad areas of personality development in people over 70: outgoingness, self-confidence, and warmth. Nice, hm? The great psychoanalyst Erik Erikson also conceptualized adult development as a series of four stages, around Identity, Intimacy, Generativity, and Integrity.
One of the most comprehensive and interesting studies of adult development is described in Aging Well by Harvard psychiatry professor George E. Vaillant. His six adult life tasks are modifications of Erikson’s, built on Harvard’s Study of Adult Development, which followed three groups of 824 people for decades.
Here are the six tasks Vaillant describes:
Identity: Yes, step one to successful adult development is the last step out of childhood, which some people never do make: establishing a sense of ourselves, our values, politics, and tastes, separate from that of our parents.
Intimacy: This is the task of bonding with another person in an interdependent, reciprocal, committed, and contented fashion for a decade or more. This is anti-narcissism. Intimacy can be achieved in close, asexual friendships as well as through live-in partnerships.
Career Consolidation: This task involves expanding our personal identity to assume a social identity within a world of work, involving other people.
Generativity: The fourth task involves demonstrating our ability to generously guide the next generation—to be in a relationship where we care deeply for younger people while respecting their autonomy.
Keeper of Meaning: This task (awkwardly named, to my ear) involves preserving the great products of human effort—in the arts, architecture, sciences, and political and cultural institutions. Keeping them safe, passing them on, so future generations can benefit.
Integrity: The ultimate task in human life is embracing the value and uniqueness of our own lives—of life itself—in the face of death.
These tasks are not necessarily accomplished in an orderly fashion (or indeed at all), but over and over again, Vaillant witnessed individuals in the Harvard study mastering each of these milestones, growing outward with each one.
How am I doing?
This work has made me think about my own continued development: Have I hit these marks? What work do I have still to do? Do you see your own continuing growth in these terms?
Thank you, Ashton Applewhite, author of This Chair Rocks!, for the brilliant suggestion that people of all ages should take up the mantle of “Old Person in Training.” What on earth is that?
The crushing paradox
Because of endemic, internalized ageism—and fear of death—we all dread aging. And yet we all aspire to age. Right? Very few of us want to die young. But we wish we could die without having aged. How’s that supposed to work?
Elders are happier than we are
In study after study, the consensus in people over 80 is that younger people worry way too much about getting old. There’s this amazing happiness “U” curve: we’re actually happiest at the beginning and end of our lives. Getting through the stress of the middle years and into the calmer perspective of older age is cause for celebration.
Close the gap between “us” and “them,” between me-now and me-old
Ashton recommends that we actively work to imagine ourselves into the older person in the next row, or across the aisle. Recognize that their inner life is as rich as our own, no matter what recoil their appearance triggers in an ageist mindset. That alone—recognizing the lively inner existence in the elders among us—is a big step toward breaking down ageist assumptions and our own associated dread.
But there’s a more radical step: imagine ourselves older. How do I expect to look in 20 years? (Hint: It will be significantly different from the way I look now.) What will I be thinking about? Where will I live, work, and play? Who will I have lunch or dinner with? What will I be doing for fun? What will I be doing to cement my legacy and improve the world?
There are many benefits to becoming an Old Person in Training
Try this, and let me know how it goes!
I owe my own enlightenment on this topic to Ashton Applewhite and her indispensable book, This Chair Rocks!
Here’s what she writes: “Ageism is discrimination and stereotyping on the basis of a person’s age. We’re ageist when we feel or behave differently toward a person or group on the basis of how old we think they are. . . . Ageism occurs when the dominant group uses its power to oppress or exploit or silence or simply ignore people who are much younger or significantly older.”
How often have you heard older people trash a younger generation as a group? You know the lament about the laziness or entitlement mentality of Millennials and Gen-Xers. That’s ageist.
Way more often we hear deprecating jokes and generalizations about elders–Boomers and their (rapidly expiring) parents. About their warts, their whiskers, their humps, their spots, their snail’s pace, their smells, their inability to learn, their out-of-it-ness, their dementia. About how expensive they are.
A few quick happy facts
Boomers control trillions of dollars in wealth, and spend more per capita on all manner of goods and services than younger generations do (or can). Aging minds typically gain flexibility, creativity, and insight. The vast majority of us will not experience dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Elders are not a homogeneous group. In fact, the older we get, the more different from one another we become. (You’ll find sources for all of this information in the “Learn” section of this site.)
Why is ageism so persistent?
The term “ageism” was coined in 1968 (by the indispensable Robert N. Butler), the same year as “sexism.” American society has made all the other isms–racism, sexism, homophobia–not obsolete, sadly, but broadly shameful. But ageist jokes batter us constantly in an unnoticed barrage. This “ism” damages people as much as all the other “isms” combined, because it damages everybody.
Ageism becomes self-hatred
Americans dread becoming old like nothing else. We have all internalized negative stereotypes of aging with barely a thought. The older we get, the greater the dread. We don’t end this dread by trying to be young (see Denialism)–we enact and perpetuate it. The only way to end the dread is to end the “ism.”
Go to this section of “Learn” to make some connections.
You really need to read Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility, by Harvard psychology professor Ellen Langer (Ballantine Books, NYC, 2009).
One of the greatest baseball pitchers of all time, Leroy “Satchel” Paige, was confined by American racism to the “Negro League” for 19 years. He got his first crack at major league baseball playing for the Cleveland Indians in 1948, when he was 42 years old.
Along with his talent and personality, his advanced age blew people away. “How do you do it?” reporters asked. One of his great quips was, “Age is a question of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” Ahhh. Balm for the American soul, confirmation for one of our favorite ideas: You’re as young as you feel (so if you feel—ugh—“old,” that’s on you).
Other times, Paige would reply to this question with a riddle, of sorts: “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?” My first response to this question was ebullience. Of course! I can choose my age! And then I thought about it a little more and realized that the riddle itself embodies ageism – or at least, my response to it does.
Maybe Paige assumed that people would automatically think they were 10, 20, 30 years older than their actual years. But I doubt it. The liberation promised by the question—How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?—is that we get to choose to be younger—much younger—than we actually are. What a relief! Right?
Not so fast. (Though Paige’s high-precision fastball was legendary.) Satchel Paige was beloved and honored for many good reasons. And also for confirming our cherished belief that we can escape old age through the power of our minds. Nah. We can feel great while being older. But there’s only one way to evade old age, and most people want nothing to do with it.
We cherish a fantasy of old age as a time when we’re finally wise and calm, immune to emotional storms and full of sage observations about life. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Why Survive? geriatrician Robert N. Butler observes that “the myth of serenity portrays old age as a kind of adult fairyland.”
Now, as geriatrician Bill Thomas observes in Second Wind, “A room full of eighty-somethings inevitably contains more wisdom than a room full of twenty-somethings.” But wisdom isn’t a given as we age, it’s not an inevitable byproduct of aging, like wrinkles, sagging skin, and graying hair. (Sorry.)
Perspective and insights about life accumulate, sure. But turning decades’ worth of experience into wisdom takes more than just living through it. It takes reflection, self-assessment, deep processing. It takes persistent kindness, generosity, forgiveness—toward ourselves and others.
There are lots of routes to gaining wisdom as we age. Therapy can help. Inclusive religious practice. Spiritual development, formal or informal. Many older people are turning toward Sage-ing International or the Center for Conscious Eldering, and books like Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s From Age-ing to Sage-ing and Ron Pevny’s Conscious Living, Conscious Aging. I’m practicing mindfulness meditation, directed by the invaluable free online program, Palouse Mindfulness, created and sustained by Jon Kabat Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
If we pay any attention at all to the events of our lives, we all get smarter as we age. And research by psychologist Laura Carstensen, founder and director of the Stanford Center for Longevity, found that we humans tend to be happiest at the beginning and end of our lives. But wisdom? That takes work.