Aging & Character: Coming into Being
Written by
Jesse Mendes
June 2010
Written by
Jesse Mendes
June 2010
It’s always been curious to me how it is we can yearn for things we’ve never had any direct experience with: a certain kind of intimacy; an adventure defined by the challenge it offers; the call of the land or architecture in another country. We might rationalize that it’s the idea of the thing; something we read or saw depicted. But I’m not talking about anything that superficial. I’m talking about the stuff you can’t shake; an ache or a pining that persists over many years that runs so deep it almost becomes an obsession. You can’t justify it. You wonder if it’s in your genetic memory, part of your ancestral code, or the experience of a past life is still with you. You have more questions than answers. A transgendered person – for example, a physiological male who simply must find a way to live life as a woman – would know exactly what I’m talking about. So would the person who has long been besotted with living in another century; another time and place. Longings of this ilk can be a wretched thing indeed. Some folks, like educator Stephen Jenkinson, believe that the absence of the thing you long for is your teacher, and a life-changing one at that. Well I have many such “teachers”, one of them being my longing to be part of a culture wherein ceremony – and the ritualizing of transition – is a way of life. Where villagers gather to welcome and name a newborn in liturgy. Where adolescents are considered to be “coming into the world”, and their changing status is honored with celebration, and a symbolic ceremonial gesture. Where it is common to choose carefully the land on which you want to live, and the surrounding community joins you in blessing your new home. Where life passages are considered to be sacred, not routine, and where ritual enables due diligence in contemplating responsibility as it was meant to be – to our community, our land, and ourselves. Clearly, this worldview would be invaluable in changing our experience of midlife here in North America: a time or an age that, in other countries through history, has been considered a rite of passage; an entering into, as Suzanne Braun Levine puts it, our “second adulthood”. Interestingly enough, astrologers will tell you that Saturn – the planet of responsibility, and coming into being – will return to the same spot it was when we were born every 27 years or so (a transit known as the “Saturn return”). Between the ages of 27 and 29, our lives can experience a real upheaval of values and priorities, often forcing us to face this thing called cause and effect, and to take responsibility for our lives. And so it happens again in our early to mid-50s, but on an entirely different level altogether. So what is this “second adulthood”, and how have we gotten to the point where the opportunities it brings are all too often shrouded in our fear of aging? Inevitably, then, we endure this midlife passage as more of a “crisis”, and it is portrayed in media and film as our last desperate grasp on youth before the final resignation to the “reality” of getting old. James Hillman once said that the main pathology of later years is our idea of later years. Instead of viewing aging as a “coming into being”, we resort to drastic measures in order to defy nature, and to prove to ourselves that we’ve “still got it”. Which is tragic. Because, as Hillman points out, this crisis “compounds two fears: I am getting on in years, yet am I getting on with what I really am? Aging and character together. This popular syndrome is less about the middle of the life span than about the central crisis of one’s nature, less about being too old than about being still too young. Not loss of capacity; loss of illusion.” What does all of this mean? What is the relationship between aging and character? I am getting on in years, yet am I getting on with what I really am? Instead of being victimized by aging, what would it be like to own it; to mark our entry into midlife as a sacred life passage? What might it be like to live a life unencumbered by the obsession with youth?

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