Aging and Longer-Term Changes in the Self

It seems to me that some things can only come to older people. I can only know some things having tried them out — my dietary preferences, or how I prefer to conduct a friendship, for instance.

I have now turned 50. This has its pluses and minuses. The minuses are pretty minor — a bit less energy, I’m slower to recover from late nights and such. The pluses are things like having a sense of who I am and my strengths and weaknesses. For me 50 is a good place to be — far nicer than adolescence and early adulthood.

It seems to me that some things can only come to older people. I can only know some things having tried them out — my dietary preferences, or how I prefer to conduct a friendship, for instance. These kinds of things I think we can only figure out by trying things out and seeing what fits for us. It is only by having the experience and reflecting on it that we can know — some things can only come with age.

A lot of psychology and psychotherapy is taken up with healing and fixing problems: freeing people of past trauma, helping them with difficult relationships and so on. It may well be that this is the right emphasis. A consequence is that the adult development over the long-term tends not to be focused on. In this post I’d like to reflect on the longer-term changes — changes over years or decades, rather than days of months. (There are studies of adult development, the most famous of which is probably Erik Erikson’s Eight Stage model. See, for example, Identity and the Life Cycle, Childhood and Society, and The Erik Erikson Reader.)

Inevitable Aging

As we age I think some things are inevitable:

  1. Our choices usually have consequences: as we age we shape our life. Looking back on our lives there will usually be many paths not taken, with all the incalculable consequences that this entails. There will also be the unforeseen consequences of the paths we did take (aspects of jobs that we knew not of, personality traits of our partner that have developed since we got together, and so on).
  2. As we age we develop habits and routines. Some parts of our lives become settled: perhaps our work or diet, the way we dress or how we relate. These habits and routines can serve us well, but they can also become traps: they can lead to our feeling stale and stultified. One task of aging well is staying young and fresh — keeping on learning and being nourished by new experiences.
  3. As we age we may also have more experience to draw on. Curiously, more experience can help us to learn new things. An expert can add a new fact to their domain of expertise very easily, while for a beginner it is harder. If you have ever learnt another language you will know that you need to know enough words before you can easily expand your vocabulary. Once you are fluent, it is easy to learn a new word — which is quite different to when we started by memorising those first few words. Knowing more can help us learn more easily…

As long as we remain open, that is. The problem with all our experience is that we may think we know it all (or more than enough anyway). This may mean that we move on to something else, which may be entirely appropriate. The problem I think arises if we try to ignore the surprising and unexpected. When we ignore too many surprises or too much of the unexpected then our past experience is no longer a reliable guide to our current world. This can have consequences like not benefiting from new technologies, not developing new interests, or not knowing how to make new friends.

My Story

When I look back on my adult life — after, say, age 25 or 30 — there are two major changes I see in my self. The first major change was in my 30s, and the second was in the last year or three.

It was in my 30’s that I discovered what I thought was my own contribution: write a book about a Christian, physical spirituality. Until then I had followed what interested me, so I had been doing what I wanted to do in that sense. However, trying to put back into Evangelical Christianity a valuing of our physicality was something that was distinctively my own. This was a way of coming to terms with my faith tradition and locating myself within it. It meant having both a sense of this tradition and myself. (It turned out that it was very much my own — the book I wrote about it was almost universally ignored.)

The second major change is recent. In the last few years I have found a sense of settledness in my self. I’m at home in my own skin.

If my first major change was about my spirituality, then my second major change is about my ‘psychology’ (my thoughts and feelings). My own particular focus here is on authenticity. This includes the social dimensions of our lives. (I am naturally introverted and it is only in the ‘second half’ of my life that I am becoming more comfortable with the external world, with all that this entails about personal presentation and ‘marketing’ in the business world.)

For me, getting older has been a very positive experience. How has it been for you? Would you prefer to be younger (or perhaps older)? Do you think there have been long-term changes for you? I would love to hear from you in the comments.

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