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Monday, April 12, 2010

Longevity and Character

Is aging necessary for the human condition? Since we all age, getting older is apparently built in to the human physiology yet extends beyond what we conventionally think of as the "productive" years. In fact, in spite of some people's efforts to the contrary, as we all know, aging goes beyond physical usefulness and even mental acuity. Why do we live as long as we do?

First of all I want to get on the record that I do not support some common theories that human longevity is just the unfortunate result of human civilization's science or it's social system which yield "a crop of living mummies, suspended in the twilight zone." Or results in the view of aging as a disease. I believe that this is an unprecedented time for continued active personal development, growth and creation even as we lose some of our mental and physical attributes.

James Hillman ("The Force of Character and the Lasting Life") provides one provocative notion about the purpose of longevity. Hillman suggests that longevity confirms and fulfills a societal need for "character". Hillman says that the source of character is the soul and that the gift of longevity is the opportunity to more fully develop our spiritual life which, in turn, feeds the soul.

Character is usually defined as the combination of qualities, features or attributes which distinguishes one person, group, or thing from another. On a deeper personal level it can also mean the unique combination of values and beliefs which a person actively uses to direct or guide their life choices. When someone says "S/he has character.", don't they usually mean a person who is living a life which exemplifies their unique combination of qualities, values and beliefs? "True to themselves" might be another way of explaining a person of "character".

Hillman's notion has a ring to it that both excites and troubles. It is exciting because it puts a positive spin on "oldness" beyond the usual diminished capacities and decline. Exciting also because it takes the dialogue beyond the dysfunctions of aging to the functions of character building and the benefit that might have for society.

Troubling because there are no templates or definitions for what character means or how to achieve it. Even more troubling is the notion that society does not embrace "oldness" nor appreciate "character" or know how to engage it or use it.

All this said, it is somehow uplifting to think about aging as a process of character development and exciting that we get to make it up as we go through the process by aging intentionally. I'm also wondering how many people have the courage and independence to follow their path and become a "person of character"?

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