What does “traveling through the life course” mean? Why do I use this phrase as a replacement for “aging”? Here are some of the central principles underlying my intentional decision to think about the aging journey as “traveling through the life course”:
One: I insist that aging is so much more than the number of years lived on this planet, but, more interestingly, it is the accumulation of life experiences, the nuancing of our identities, the deepening of our relationships and commitments, the ongoing creation of our life-stories.
Two: I assert that we have the opportunity to discover who we want to be and become more ourselves as we travel through the life course–we don’t become more alike as we age, but more distinct. Contrary to what normative discourse tells us, we humans have the potential to grow and change and individuate throughout the life-course, but to do so requires taking on internalized ageism. I am willing to challenge – with my words, with my very life – the ageist stereotypes that put all individuals into one really boring box according to age and try to convince us that growing older means ossifying, becoming rigid, and closing down. Sure, we have things in common because of the categories to which we belong (age, cohort, gender, class, ethnicity, etc., etc.), but as we travel through the life course, the edges of our fantastic uniqueness are sharpened. Individual differences rule; resist category errors!! (Let me say, however, that what I am describing is by no means an easy process nor does it happen automatically as a function of growing older and “maturing”; rather, it requires intention, reflection, experimentation, courage, and a willingness to change long-held habits of thinking and behaving.).
Three: I want to promote the strong idea that aging is a lifelong process that all human beings (and other living creatures) experience, not something that only older people are doing, not a process that only begins at a certain chronological age. Our aging journey is something that can hold us together as a human community, it has the potential to become a powerful source of understanding, compassion, and solidarity that transcends generational, gender, class, ethnic, geographical, political, ideological, and other differences that serve to separate us from each other.
Four: I desire to embrace the inherent contradictions involved in being a human being: our frailty and strength, our timelessness and finitude, our bodies and our embodiment, our materiality and our transcendence, our messiness and our purity, our incoherence and our certitude. Also, the fact that we are singular individuals (see point one) as well as members of a generation, and, more importantly, the creaturely community (see point two). We occupy – and can learn to be mindful of so as to positively harness — multiple positionalities simultaneously.
Five: I embrace and take-on the complexity of the human aging journey, I resist simple constructions of aging, later life, and old age. I want to clear space for experimentation, innovation, authenticity in creating my own sovereign and intentional aging experience.
Six: I want to develop the capacity for courage and curiosity in order to commit no matter what to developing as deeply as possible, as long as possible (in whatever time I have); to accept the amazing gift of this time in the earth’s history: To potentially live a very long life and explore unknown territories, inside and outside of my “self.”
Example One: From “Silver shooting stars on my head”
My “touches of silver” appeared starting when I was eighteen, barely an adult (still a girl, really). Precocious graying runs in my family–on both sides. So I have been doing fun, strange things to conceal my graying hair ever since—raspberry spikes, punk rock black bob, dark brown pixie cut, auburn pyramid of curls, then a decade almost of solid black, black…black.
Then, in November of 2008, when I was a month away from my forty-second birthday and had spent a lot of money before an important conference presentation on getting a professional coloring job, the jig was up. Actually, it was a lovely coloring job, but after the first washing, my grays started showing. I thought, among other things, What the hell? I’m a radical gerontologist, a critical social theorist, and I am spending my money on trying to deny the fact that my hair is pretty much wanting to be silver!?!?! I was outraged, not just toward the colorist at the salon, but at myself as well. I also saw the strange humor in the situation, the irony, and I decided to call my own bluff (in other words, I decided to “live my theory,” put my money where my mouth is, walk my talk.)
Example Two: From “Mid-point: Installment One”
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 (1), 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.(2)
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. (3) 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.
1) I am remembering Margaret Morganroth Gullette’s “aging studies” work, in particular “Mid-life as Magic Marker.”
2) 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.
3) For some evidence of our on-going collaborative work in the Intentional Aging Collective see http://www.intentionalagingcollective.blogspot.com