Change and "Life's Third Act"

This NPR article talks about how little people expect to change throughout their lives. It discusses a recent study which asked participants to rate how they were a decade ago, how they are now, and how they might be a decade later. It seems, regardless of age, people acknowledge significant change has occurred in the past ten years, but do not expect it to occur for the next decade of their life. In short, they underestimate what will happen (if we trust those who are older).

I have always been amazed at how much I have changed especially after moving to new jobs/schools/areas. New people (and the internet/social networks) bring rapid change. The emotional intuition a new, intelligent and trusted friend can share has the possibility to fundamentally change my view on the world.  With that noted, I am not very attached to my current values (philosophical/religious/political/academic). All of these fields have change dramatically over the centuries. Only a very deluded mind would view the present moment as a unique period where we have somehow discovered truth in these areas. We are a world in flux. Change is the only constant.

Personally, I want to change. I expect to change. I actively search for new ideas and view it as one of the primary motivators for living – change is essential to personal growth. Though, as much as I like it, it sure makes planning for the distant future seem silly (and difficult).  I think that might be account for why I have such trouble with the idea of long-term relationships. Not only do I expect change, I seek it out; while on average, it appears others expect life to stay relatively the same (it would also be interesting to see if they viewed the prospect of change positively or negatively.)

I would like to criticize the article a little bit. First is the well-known bias associated with self-reported information. People tend to be very inaccurate at personal assessment. I would also say that while I do agree that ideological change has occurred, I am a bit skeptical that true personality change has occurred (excluding emotional/physical trauma which does change people). Maybe I am just a Myers-Briggs devotee, but the basic qualities of people (for example, introversion v. extroversion) seem to remain relatively constant. Yes, people might view the amount of change relative to their past selves as dramatic, but on the scale of human diversity I think most people would rate the same person very similarly ((for instance, I see myself as much more calm but compared to the average American, I am still pretty energetic/hyper on an absolute scale). I would also add that while I have seen people go from religious zealots to raging atheists, I have not seen people go from neat freaks to slobs or introverts to life of the party. Basic personality preferences tend to have more stability. (Note to self about what I should seek in relationships.). Lastly, it could be that the last ten years were rather unique as we shifted from a world of book-based knowledge to a world of digital, at-your-finger tips knowledge. It's possible this shift caused an anomaly for older generations that might not occur again, but I would expect it to persist into the future.

Anyway, I decided this would be a good topic for my “TED talk of the day” so I typed in “TED talk aging” into YouTube and came across a presentation by Jane Fonda on “Life’s Third Act.” The basic premise is that while we have added 20-30 years to the expected adult lifespan (essentially an entire second adulthood relative to a few generations ago) we have not put very much thought into what we will do with this time. She argues that it is as different from midlife as childhood.She also shares a new metaphor for the arc of life. The traditional view is one of a steady climb into middle age and then the slow descent into old age and decrepitude. Instead she says we should view life as a staircase. Age is not pathology - it is potential. Obviously some portion of this period will be determined by genetics, but the overwhelming majority is subject to our own decisions. She describes this as an opportunity for “wholeness, authenticity and wisdom.”

I think this is true. I have a few shining examples in my own life – friends who are happier, loving and finally at peace in their final years. Through my own friendships over the years, I have seen the stark differences in those who let their worlds shrink into nothing and those who “walk the staircase” into their final years. These two contrasting images of our final years offer hope for the future, and encourage rather than discourage.
She talks about her own journey and reflects on why she is where she is. She says this was an opportunity for a “life review.”  She talks about understanding the impact her parents had and the impact her grandparents had on her parents - things she once viewed as hindrances she now views as part of what it means to be human. I can relate to her story and feel that it mirrors a good bit of my own journey over the past few years. The time I took for myself after Bridgewater was used in a similar manner and paid similar dividends.

She shares two stories – one of a man diagnosed with ALS and another from an individual in a concentration camp. She talked about how these two people used these circumstances to slip away gracefully rather than bitterly. A quote I liked was “Everything can be taken away, except for how you choose to respond to the situation you’re given.” How do we choose to relate to our reality?

To bring the conversation full circle, I wonder what this means for modern marriages. I heard a comedian joke that went  " When I look around and see the relationships of most people I know that have been married for 20-30 years, I don’t say to myself 'I need to get me some of that.'” He continued – “when marriage was invented, people lived to 30 or 40 years, now people live to 70, 80, 90. No one intended this to happen. I mean we doubled or tripled  the length people are together. How about we get the guys who invented this crap and see what they say. I don’t think they would condone this monotonous torture.”

I don’t think it means marriage is impossible, but I do think it means, if we are honest about what it really entails, it is actually a more momentous decision than at any point in the institution's history. It’s a decision to spend a extra lifetime together. Til death do us part is twice as important as it’s ever been.

Gratitude log:

  •  Grateful I live in an age where I can find information and ideas simply by typing a few words into a search engine.
  • Grateful that I can sleep at night and not worry about my own safety. I live in a society where random violence is not very common and the vicissitudes of nature are all but eliminated (outside of natural disasters which we can usually prepare for and run away from).
  • Grateful for people who want to help reduce the mental suffering of others through talks like these.