What comes after 'adulthood'?


Opinion: Columns

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Marc Blesoff

I've been a pretty good athlete most of my life. I played organized varsity-level sports through college, and I've stayed active over the ensuing 50 years. To this day, I remember specific amazing plays or passes or throws I made, and I can still feel my own immediate wonderment at how I ever did such things — wonderment because I did not think at all about doing them at the moment they happened. They just happened. It's called being in "a zone."

In his book, The Five Invitations, Frank Ostaseski writes, "We've all had moments when we discovered solutions to our problems without needing to "figure them out." We've said things like, "All of a sudden it became clear," or "The answer just came to me," or "There was no question in my mind what I had to do." It is a quality of mind that senses what is needed without relying solely on rational processes.

This is noetics. Aging is inherently noetic, and the changes, both positive and negative, just happen without relying entirely on rational processes.

As we age, our rhythms change and, not only do we have the opportunity to get closer to being the person we'd like to be, we have the opportunity to become better acquainted with our intuition. We start to "know" what is really important.

Unless, of course, our natural tendency toward noetics as we age is blocked or hindered in some way or ways. Ageism is one of those ways — both cultural ageism and internalized ageism.

One link to understanding how aging is inherently noetic is understanding our new phase of life based upon our new longevity. Joanne Jenkins, CEO of AARP, in her book, Disrupt Aging, noted that we have added more longevity to our species since the year 1900 than all of previous human civilization.

There was no such thing as adolescence 150 years ago — we were children until we were adults. Today, we are only now recognizing a phase of life that comes after adulthood. We don't even have a word for this phase yet. To those of us who have gotten here, I say, "We Survived Adulthood."

This phase of aging, this phase of life, is inherently noetic.

Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson was particularly interested in the developmental challenges and opportunities that life presents to us at different stages of the life cycle. He wrote that, in midlife, people naturally become more concerned with "generativity." As Rabbi Rachel Cowan and Dr. Linda Thal write in their book, Wise Aging, "At yet a later stage, according to Erikson, we will turn inward and gather up the life we have lived, make sense of its ups and downs, wrestle with existential questions, and strive to integrate all that we have learned and experienced. This effort to reach integration and equanimity is what Erikson considers wisdom."

One of the clearest indicators that aging is inherently noetic is the theory of "gerotranscendence." As Dr. Bill Thomas notes, "Swedish gerontologist Lars Tornstam developed his theory of Gerotranscendence over a period of two decades. The core of the theory suggests that normal human aging includes a range of vital and commonly overlooked components. In brief:

 There is an increased feeling of affinity with past generations and a decreased interest in superfluous social interaction.

 There is also often a feeling of cosmic awareness and a redefinition of time, space, life and death.

 The individual becomes less self-occupied and at the same time more selective in the choice of social and other activities.

 The individual might also experience a decrease in interest in material things. Solitude becomes more attractive."

To Erikson, Tornstam, Thomas and others, it makes sense that in the third phase of life, humans are naturally more tuned in to the larger rhythms of what is really important. This is borne out by my experience facilitating IONS Conscious Aging Workshops for the past five years.

Whether at the local yoga center or at the township senior center or at "old people's homes," or even in a federal prison, I find older people are hungry to talk about our natural tendency toward a noetic understanding of life.

The Japanese aesthetic of wabi sabi is an appreciation of the beauty of impermanence. Wabi sabi takes time, just like reaching our noetic phase of life takes time. 

And speaking of wabi sabi, the Lake Theatre hosted the premiere of The Wabi Sabi Film Festival last week. This is a film festival about aging that encourages all members of our community to embrace and respect our aging population and the transformation of our society. The premiere, featuring the film On Golden Pond, was a huge success. The next screening will be at 10 a.m. on Friday, Jan. 24 at The Lake in downtown Oak Park and will feature the award-winning documentary by Sky Bergman titled, Lives Well Lived.

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