As many of us understand too well, adversity during childhood leads to later problems with identity, concentration, reactivity, and relationships. Yet although I’m far from the person who might have emerged had I been raised with love, in recent years I’ve been feeling healthier in each of these domains. Some of that improvement can be credited to my longstanding efforts to recover, but the rest is due to something that happens by itself: growing old.
Maturing is a task done twice. First in the crib of childhood and then, much later, on the rocky path toward deterioration and death. Between these two generators of wisdom toils the body of young adulthood. The pressures of early adult life, its promises and obstacles, keep maturation at bay. One is too busy to gain much clarity.
The youth grows understanding organically, just as the body expands–without effort–into potency. In later years maturity also emerges inexorably but more intentionally, as the mind grapples with the body’s decay.
Our first wisdom is gained in excitement. The teenager yearns for a driver’s license and steers enthusiastically toward the crowded byways of sex and romance, career and family. The onramp to adulthood is approached eagerly, and after a few collisions the youngster gains competence.
Our second wisdom is gained with reluctance. How discouraging to watch the body sag and weaken, as pains accumulate and sexiness wanes! The mind must stake its claim on some new ground, beyond the sinking landscape of skin, muscle, and bone. In searching for its new mother lode, the personality gets a chance to shuck its chains.
The bonds that tether us to the world of striving do not feel confining to the younger adult; they feel sustaining. The human in youthful stature centers identity in career, possessions, and connections. But the older we become the less we feel supported by entanglement with the world. Newer, hungrier generations rise up through the ranks. Our homes and talismans show the wear of age. Our relationships fail as loved ones die, move away, or shine their attentions elsewhere. Whereas the bubble of life first expanded and rose, it now shrinks and falls. Social standards that once seemed to hold us up now drag us down.
This is all well known. What concerns me today is how approaching senescence affects the adult who was oppressed during childhood. I can’t speak to how aging feels to those brought up with affection, but I’m beginning to learn–firsthand–how it feels to one raised with parental selfishness, indifference, and contempt.
Are you expecting discouraging news at this point? Does it seem like I’m preparing to declare the second phase of maturation more difficult for those whose first unfurled in a storm of adversity? Then I’m happy to surprise you. I believe growing old may feel more welcome to the wounded than the well. Why? Because aging can lighten the burden of formative trauma in each of the categories listed at the outset.
Identity: Growing old erases many of the surface features that our culture uses to judge people. If we don’t resist the changes too much, we can learn to focus on what is essential in ourselves. In the best case, we discover that our fundamental value doesn’t come from desirable bodies, impressive accomplishments, financial resources, or family relationships. It comes from our simple existence as living, breathing organisms. We find our identities merely by opening our eyes on another day, without planning, without justifying, without competing.
For those who were brought up to prove themselves at every turn, for whom unconditional love seemed as distant as the moon, there is comfort in relinquishing the trials of young adulthood. At last we can simply be, without striving to be good, or better, or best.
Concentration: As children we needed to please adults in order to survive. This required intense focus on nuances of gesture and voice. At the same time, we learned to distance ourselves from reality as we surrendered our bodies to the sickening power of cruel adults and sacrificed our vitality to the spiritual vacuum in our guardians. Having exhausted our powers of concentration on threat detection, and having settled for a refuge of dissociation, we became adults who suffer difficulty sustaining attention.
As we grow older, however, we discover less call for vigilance. We’re no longer climbing toward career pinnacles, so we don’t need to scan the terrain for competitors. And we’ve lost currency as sexual beings, so although we still feel calls of desire, we know there is less point in following them, less point in focusing on the game. These shifts feel like losses, but they are also gains. They free us from needing to concentrate so much. Our problems paying attention no longer seem like problems at all. In fact, the soft focus of dissociation makes easier the task of finding meaning amidst the hard edges of the world.
Reactivity: When younger, I battled constantly. I fought for my opinions, for my status, for my survival. The slightest offense against me elicited fury and attack or despair and withdrawal. Now, aged and tired, I feel less call for war. Growing older has diminished my energy for battle, and it has increased my desire to understand and forgive. When others hurt or disappoint me, I’m more able to tolerate it. I may still feel angry or betrayed, but I react less strongly and recover more quickly.
Relationships: Our social networks change with age. Friends and family members move away or die. Forming new connections becomes difficult as we engage less with the workaday world. Although retirement offers plenty of leisure time, new companionships form with difficulty for reasons of illness, fatigue, and preoccupation. On the other hand, those of us who as young adults had difficulty relating to others may find it easier to form attachments as we grow older. We’re less demanding and more secure. We expect less, so we feel satisfied more. Crucially, we learn to nourish the relationships that matter most: our connections with our own inner being and, on the deepest level, with the Source of Life itself.
Aging makes obvious the limits of our human journey and so makes moments of simple living seem more valuable. Humanity is capable of many great works, but its greatest is the careful observation of life, which generates appreciation for the miracle that surrounds us. Yes, we can explore, build, express, nurture, and assist as we move through the world. But as we age we learn that what’s most important is to notice all that motion, to appreciate the rise and fall of creation’s waves as we drift from one shore to another. We finally get the point of life, which is only to live.
Medical problems forced me into early retirement and made me feel older than my years. That my body failed is not surprising, given the intense and repeated traumas of my childhood, and the well-established links between early adversity and later poor health. For nearly a decade I mourned the loss of my adult roles and the trappings of success. Now, however, I see that accelerated aging led to accelerated healing.
Perhaps this is the most important lesson of later life: we realize that we can’t judge any difficulty by how it feels at first; we must wait until we’ve learned all its lessons and found its hidden benefits. Aging is a hardship most people will face in due time. Luckily, it offers much of value, especially to those for whom the flowering of childhood understanding was stunted by trauma, bereavement, and neglect. Here, toward the end of life, we gain for having lost at the beginning.