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Friday, February 4, 2011

Mid-point: Installment One


On the day I began writing this essay, I was one month into my forty-fifth year of life on this planet.  In December, 2010, I celebrated my forty-fourth birthday, and while I resonate aesthetically to “44” because of its great symmetry as a number, I resonate existentially to “45.”  There’s so much I still aspire to do, now in my present life, as well as into the future, however long my travels through the life course end up lasting. As such, while the difference of two years between 44-doubled (88) and 45-doubled (90) may not seem significant, once you apply this rudimentary math to your own life, your own hoped for future older self, two years can make a big difference!  Two years more to learn, love, and be alive to the world can be like a life-time. (But who knows what those two “extra” years, should I get to live them, will be like?  From the vantage point of 88, should I be fortunate to experience such a long life, I may feel that my life has been well and fully lived, that two more years are bonus but not consequential. Also, it is quite possible that I’ll be living with some pain and vulnerability in my late much later years, and I may wish to rethink or retract what I’ve just said—more is not always better.  But for now, from the vantage point of having just commenced my forty-fifth year, full of aspirations and wonderment about what the next forty-five years might bring, I’ll let it stand.)

From the vantage point of forty-five….

I have been working my way up to the realization since around 2006, but it has come to me with full-force recently that I may well be at or near the mid-point in my travels through the life course.  Of course, I can never know for sure. I (or those who out-live me) can only look backward from some future vantage point and determine that I was at my mid-point in 2011. Or look backward and realize that at this particular moment I was shy by 10 years, that my mid-point was sometime in the decade of my 50s; or, perhaps,  I have already passed my mid-point, perhaps it was back there in my third decade; I was already there, and I missed it.) 

I am not making a morbid point, but a mindful point: I don’t know, I can’t know.

Certainly, I can consult a “Life Table” in one of the books I use in my teaching, looking down the y-axis of the table for my current age, and then across the x-axis, to determine my estimated average life expectancy.  I do this exercise, knowing what will happen. I consult the table, scrutinizing the simple data – the average age I can expect to reach is 81.5; stated another way, as of my next birthday, I will have approximately 36.5 years of life remaining, or 13,332 days.[1] I tell myself, “Well, that number is just an average, and it pertains to the population-level, and thus it doesn’t take into account everything about me that makes me me – all those contingencies and conditions, my family history, my “individual differences” (as we say in the profession), everything that makes me so much more than “average”.  I let myself muse with optimism about how I could quite possibly live well beyond the average. And I attempt to push out of my mind the equally real possibility that I could die short of the average, by a little, or a lot. And, yikes, I realize that according to the data on the “Life Table,” notwithstanding that it represents averages at the population level, I probably already passed my mid-point a few years back.

In actual fact, consulting the “Life Table” may be one of the least relevant sources I can consult when it comes to my prospects for experiencing a meaningful life, be it long or not.  I’d be better off finding my inspiration, if not comfort, in a regular consultation with the daily horoscope, as the horoscope tells me things that ground me in the present – arrests my attention onto the this day I’m experiencing right now, which is all I really have – and gives me a moment to pause and think about my intentions for how to move through this particular day, if perhaps not the rest of my days on earth. So, for example, my consultation with a daily horoscope reveals this: “This is a time of great change in your personal and family life and a time of great inner psychological change.”[2] Wow! Indeed, it is a time of great change in my life!

But what quality of heart and mind do I want to bring to this time of great change?

Understand that I’m not claiming that the daily horoscope is more accurate than the “Life Table”, or accurate about anything in particular – I’m not making a point about accuracy, but about the information’s usefulness for and proximity to the daily unfolding of this life I’m living. I’m increasingly convinced that by living as fully and intentionally in my present life as possible I am engaging in the most creative and positive kind of preparation I can for the future older self I aspire to become.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it a thousand times more: We humans are time-travelers, living simultaneously in the past, present and future. I, for one, must exercise care about when and how I enter into the past or the future, as traveling in either direction takes me away from the present, and the present is the domain under my greatest purview and influence (Notice I didn’t use the term “control.”).[3]

So, I have momentarily moved somewhat away from my main assertion, which is that I can’t possibly know when I’m actually at the mid-point of my travels though my life course, though I have a wide and elemental feeling that I’ve entered into a new existential and developmental phase.  This phase is the phase that I recognize as being called “mid-life,” a phenomenon I’ve heard and read about, witnessed in the lives of others, learned about in graduate school, a transitional phase of somewhat indeterminate length, in between full-on adulthood (and all of the responsibilities adulthood often entails) and the beginning of later life.  There are, of course, various formal and informal constructions of this phase of the adult life course, which I won’t be elaborating upon here, but I will emphasize the word “construction” because, indeed, we actively construct (though often not knowing we are doing so!) the phases and stages of the human life course: What’s expected, and when; what we should plan for, and avoid; what we should fear and what we might hope for; and what kinds of experiences are  “normative” and “non-normative.”[4]

I gather up what I know about current and projected patterns for human longevity, average life expectancies for Women born in the U.S. in 1966, and current and emerging recommendations for positive and healthy aging, and I put this bundle of professional knowledge together with what I know about my family history and my own little life thus far, where I’ve been and where I seem to find myself pointed during this “time of great change” in my personal and professional life. And where I hope to travel as the future unfolds.

I’ve just commenced my 45th year.  Isobel, my daughter, celebrates her 15th birthday on Valentine’s Day, and my mother just celebrated her 65th birthday on February 2nd.  My dear Gramma Jewell, in her 90th year, just experienced her second hospitalization in less than one year; she fell again and has pneumonia. I play make-believe and imagine she’ll live forever; alas, she won’t.)  This is more than a time of great change; it is a time of liminality. The women in my family are all standing at their own particular thresholds, passing from one phase into another. 

Izzy is half-way through her first year in high school, increasingly independent and differentiated from me, already anticipating getting her learner’s permit so she can start driving, already exploring where she’d like to go to college.  My mom, who spent 2010 almost completely (and quite courageously) rebuilding her life again after the end of a relationship, just crossed that monumental life course marker: She’s now a “senior citizen,” an “older adult.” Talk about the social construction of age and stage! Never mind that two years ago she had to take her Social Security benefit early in order to survive financially, no matter that after a short retirement from decades of work in nursing she had to return to the workforce as a part-time professional caregiver for other “older adults” and will probably need to work for pay for the foreseeable future, for as long as she’s able.  As a newly-turned 65-year-old she holds certain expectations for her life as an older woman, and her life in turn manifests both “normative” and “non-normative” characteristics simultaneously. She doesn’t know, she can’t know, how her life henceforth will actually unfold. I don’t know, I can’t know, but I’m along for the ride.

Why is it so significant to turn 65? Why is turning 65 associated with the ability to qualify for age-entitlement programs and benefits like Social Security and Medicaid, not to mention the 10% “senior citizen” discount at the local health food store (My mommy called me from the store yesterday, her birthday, to tell me about how cool it was to get to use her senior citizen discount for the first time. She seems too young to me to qualify for a senior citizen discount, but as I write this, I realize I don’t even know what I mean when I say “too young.”)? No doubt about it, this chronological age and all that it is connected to is significant, we’ve spent the past 75-plus years in the U.S. constructing it is as significant, right?  But why is it so significant? How come? In what way? Who says? What does it actually mean?

And why is it significant to me, if not the rest of the world, that I’ve decided to designate now as my mid-point in my life course journey?  Age 44 is less clearly socially constructed than age 65, or age 21, for example. But most of us living in the Western world at this particular time in history have developed – been socialized into – an expectation that there is, indeed, something called mid-life or middle-age, though the chronological age when this phase commences is a moving target, there aren’t any discounts associated with it, no age-entitlements. Just, it seems, a particular orientation to who one is and the life one has lived thus far as an adult. The most banal and wide-spread association with mid-life is that it is a time of major crisis (not just major change), a time during which one is often forced under duress to reassess one’s priorities, a time when one feels compelled to get one’s act together before it is too late (drop some weight, watch cholesterol, get a mammogram, exercise more, commit to sanity, etc.), or not.  For some folks, the mid-life period has almost magical qualities to it, there’s this weird sense that the balance of one’s life is delicate, that with one false move everything will blow up: job, home, family, finances, the very future one has been working so hard in preparation for.

More optimistically, more positively, one might approach mid-life as a chance to make up for past mistakes, to transform experience into wisdom, to learn to think and feel and act in new ways, to respect one’s limited energy and finite time and thus use both well and fully, to re-affirm what’s really important and adjust priorities accordingly, and perhaps to commit to daily practices – spiritual, emotional, embodied, political… – on behalf of becoming one’s best self now.  There’s also an opportunity here in the middle to refresh one’s roles and responsibilities as part of the web of interconnections of which one is a part in one’s current life, but also in the services of one’s hoped-for future elderhood.[5] 

As I write this, I realize I may be close to a working definition of “intentional aging,” an idea some of my colleagues and students and I have been exploring together for a few years.[6] To commit one’s self to intentional aging involves getting into the critical reflective practice (and praxis) of asking one’s self and one’s close people the kinds of questions often associated with the liminal phase of mid-life: How can I best live in the body I am for as long as possible?  How well are my current thought-structures serving me? Am I willing to face what’s what (sometimes referred to as “reality”) so I can take care of crucial things now before they become truly outside of my influence? Are there any messes I’ve made that it would be right and good for me to clean up?  How are the creatures with whom I am interconnected flourishing and am I caring well for them, and they for me? What new dreams are emerging for me that I could enact for this phase of my precious human life? What do I really care about? What am I willing to live for?

These questions may be important questions to ask throughout adulthood, but I’m feeling in real time the difference in my experience as I ask them now, compared to twenty or ten years ago, even five years ago; and I know I will feel differently when I ask them in ten, twenty years from now.  And there will be new questions, questions I can’t know yet to ask.

There’s something that feels qualitatively – energetically – distinct about where I find my self now in my travels through my life course.  I remind my students frequently that human reality and our understanding about it is fundamentally emergent in nature – we muddle through this grand human adventure in real-time, and it is only after-the-fact that we can look back and do the work of trying to explain what on earth happened and why. I think this grand idea captures where I’m at right now in my own little precious life – I’m in a state of personal emergence: I know the questions I’m asking, I am becoming acquainted with my deepest longings for myself and those of and for my people, and I know the direction I am pointed: back to the stars, someday, but in the meanwhile, I’m committed to this adventure, however it unfolds.

And that’s about all I know, for now.



[1] From Olshansky, J.,  & Carnes, B.  (2001). The quest for immortality: Science at the frontiers of aging. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
[2] From http://www.astro.com
[3] I know I’m just scratching the surface of the idea that “we humans are time-travelers,” so this is a thread I’ll not follow further right now, but will pick up and pursue more fully in a future installment of this multi-part essay.
[4] This essay, I’m realizing as I write and edit it, is most likely going to serve as a prolegomenon for future installments.  A “prolegomenon,” according to Webster, is writing that contains “prefatory remarks; a formal essay or critical discussion serving to introduce and interpret an extended work.” The contours of the “extended work” are but little ideational glimmers at this point, but I can imagine a section in which I revisit and critique the extant scholarly and popular work on “mid-life” and “middle-age” human development.
[5] Again, I’ve introduced a juicy concept, “elderhood,” which I’ll take great delight in exploring further and writing more about in a future installment.
[6] For some evidence of our on-going collaborative work in the Intentional Aging Collective see www.intentionalagingcollective.blogspot.com

1 comment:

Joe Bertagnolli said...

Jennifer, there's a nice path between your observation of age in mindfulness and your aspirations in "intentional aging". I very much appreciate your emphasis on reflection and contemplation regarding applying what we've experienced and learned to what we wish to pursue in the days and years yet to unfold.

In following your thoughtful path, it occurs to me that on the other side of the human experience from our relatively advanced perspective, most human beings have lived on this world without knowing their modern calendar birthdays, nor how many "years old" they were mathematically at any given point. Thousands of people in traditional societies still don't know precisely, depending on where they've lived. Such a life may be a bit closer in experience to those of all the other living beings on this planet who never measure mathematically, yet follow their instincts in sensing when to undertake different time-appropriate endeavors as part of their life course. Yet they know, as you wonderfully express here, there is sacred value in the awareness of living that you articulately examine in your essay.

Whether from the standpoint of scientist-gerontologist with the aid of charts and graphs, or from the view of the tribal person contemplating age and existence as they gaze back up at the stars from their home-forest in New Guinea, the determination is the same... As we are intentional, as we are mindful of each day, we indeed make the most of this existence during the years we are blessed with in each life.