Next time you feel burdened by your slowness, call your daughter by your son’s name, catch yourself repeating stories or wonder if it will be your last time on a long road trip, embrace the chance to rediscover yourself. When you do, you may see your character shine, as your story sparkles bright through the inevitable dimming of the body. There are profound reasons to celebrate aging, explains Jungian psychologist James Hillman in his 1999 book, Force of Character. According to Hillman, there are at least 12 ways your soul shines in a lasting and leaving life:
“Your mental capacities and physical vitality may decline in old age, as might your mobility weaken, yet your character shows ever more energy as your form becomes more actualized.”
In old age, an individual’s pattern of life becomes crystallized and embraced. The force of energy comes from evidence of experience “this is how I do things” or “it’s always worked for me this way.” We stop fighting ourselves. Our style emerges without apology. While in youth with feel pushed by outside forces, in old age we feel pushed from within, from lifelong habits, patterns and character. For better or worse we become the thoughts, feeling and actions we practiced repeatedly. Old age amplifies our best and worst characteristics.
“Character is characters; our nature is a plural complexity, a multiphasic polysemous weave, a bundle, a tangle, a sleeve. That’s why we need a long old age: to ravel out the snarls and set things straight.”
Circumstances require us to be different things to different people at different times. Age allows those compelling circumstances to lose grip and we begin to see ourselves as a whole person beyond the fragments of our functions, relationships, and actions. We begin to see our life as a unified path instead of a multiplicity of destinations and roles. We learn to hold the complexity and contradictions in our character. As our eventual destination becomes clear we can focus on our path, our style, what makes our approach to life unique.
“Once we were down the stairs and out the door way ahead of our feet. Now who knows when the trick knee will give out or the foot miss the tread. Once we learned from the fox and the hawk; now the walrus, the tortoise, and the moose in a dark bog are our mentors. The adventure of slowness.”
Slowness invites mindful awareness that includes possibilities of both discomfort and accomplishment. We begin to notice our own interactions with vulnerable curiosity instead of the assumed privilege of youthful invincibility. A trip up or down the stairs becomes an exercise of skillful awareness, a brave adventure into unknown pain, and an acceptance of our own unsteady weight. It is no longer simply an unthought means to getting somewhere, it is a journey step by step.
“Transcendence of the daily does not occur until the epiphany of the last time.”
The awareness of finality infuses seemingly mundane events with fragile beauty. The possibility “that this could be the last time” adds a film of nostalgia and romanticism. We look to save the last voicemail message, remember the last time she went to the park, he made coffee, the last time in the car, the last time something ordinary happened that now seems extraordinary in absence. Old age gives us the lived awareness of human finitude, vulnerability, temporality. We see the cut flower as both beautiful and dying. Old age teaches us that meaning lives in the small, daily activity of living.
“In old age, interest shifts from information to intelligence. By this I mean that information brings news, while intelligence searches it for insight.”
Old age opens our power to see beyond details into wide connections and relevance. We filter out unimportant minutia through the sieve of our experience. We reinforce and sometimes stubbornly holdfast to what we believe our own life has taught us as our truth. The flood of information often feels overwhelming, repetitive, and confusing. Intelligence cultivated over a lifetime and corroborated by experience distrusts abstract data.
“Inquisitive curiosity into the lives of others extends our lives. This is not sharing; it is artful listening. The other person is a fount of lifeblood, which transfuses vitality into your soul if you can provoke the other with your listening. Probing—sniffing for lowlife, tidbits of scandal, tasty morsels of salacious gossip that awaken the appetite for the teeming life around you—loosens the limits of personal self-occupied concerns. Backward, downward, outward extend a life beyond its borders and free it from attachment to personal identity, character freed of that greedy bully, Me.”
In efforts to engage and probe others, old age, shows us the breadth of life lived by many. As we become experts of our own lives, we crave to learn more about others. We become nosy and escape the struggles of our lives by engaging life around and beyond us. What are the neighbors’ doing? How are the kids? Where are our friends?…are ways to live vicariously, depending on our character with compassion or with judgment.
“By means of repetition the psyche forms significance from the ordinary. It is as if the soul begs for the same stories so that it knows that something will last.”
“Did I already tell you this, never mind, let me tell it again.” We become the old people who repeat stories to the annoyance of everyone. We practice our own narratives, fragments of memories, stories of love and loss in order to meet our craving for consistency. We supply the comforting known, if the world will not provide it. Repetition is how character announces itself as cultivated style. Next time you find your eyes rolling as someone repeats a story for the 4th time in two days, understand this person is trying to rehearse and recover meaning from the past. It is a form of appreciation like the security of reheated leftovers the next day.
“By muddling differences among the individuals of the family we may be getting closer to what we essentially share with them. The apple does not fall far from the tree, but first you have to see the tree.”
Have you called your daughter by your son’s name or vice versa? This certainly annoys them, perhaps assuming that you are not noticing them or paying attention to their uniqueness. Old age guides us to drop the details and focus on connections. In this case the son and daughter occupy the same category of nurtured beings, the specific name is secondary. In this fuzzy old age landscape, relationships, pathways, style, life simplifies into categories of love and fear. Depending on the force of your character, your mental landmarks reveal themselves in your established relationships and those you relate to.
“The sexualization of the old mind is part of its unusual wisdom. It shows a character that no longer separates pleasure from virtue. It places no restrictions on imaginative freedom. It presents character strengthened by imagining rather than by stiff-lipped willpower. The strength of this character lies less in controlling its lustful fantasies than in understanding their transpersonal nature as a cosmic dynamic.”
The proverbial dirty old man (or hypersexual old woman) challenges social decorum of restricted and functional sex. Old age exposes sensuality beyond procreational and sexual power. This fascination with sexuality is grounded in the lust for the connecting power of life. There is no goal or restriction. The old mind is free to imagine pleasurable intimacy free of expectations of egoistic virtue. As the sharpness of sensation softens, sensuality along with factors of slowness, integrated self, curiosity, and connection, allows the old mind to spark the old body with cosmic imagination.
“A structured character is not necessarily one laced together by moral virtues; its pattern may be facile, sneaky, even corrupt. But this, too, forms fate. Integrity does not mean having a granite jaw. A filigree is also a pattern; a house of cards is also a structure. The idea of integrity asks only that one be what one is and nothing more or other.”
Old age affords us integrity of soul earned through a lifetime of choices and experiences. Related to integrating and owning all the complex twists and turns of our lives, old age integrity is grounded in self-recognition: This is who I am, uniquely flawed. This acceptance quiets self-hatred with mercy and grace. One is complete, even when feeling physically broken.
“Climbing the stairs, you pause and pant. Lasting whispers: “Your lungs; the heart can’t take the sudden strain; you are getting weaker every day.” Leaving says: “Why are you still climbing, still pushing yourself upward, step after step? Is there no other way to reach another level?”
In admitting weakness and fragility, old age, asks us to infuse each act of effort with mindful self-curiosity. Why am I doing this? Wanting to last long in life reduces each ache and twitch to a betrayal. Old age as an attitude of leaving the body, Hillman argues, makes our soul shine brighter through cracks in the body. The graceful exit allows compassionate adjustments without moral judgments of weakness. My body is leaving life, how my heart accommodates this inevitability is where my choice and freedom exists.
“Where imagination focuses intently on the character of the other—as it does between opposing generals, guard and hostage, analyst and patient—love follows. The human connection may benefit from exhortations to love one another, but for a relationship to stay alive, love alone is not enough. Without imagination, love stales into sentiment, duty, boredom. Relationships fail not because we have stopped loving but because we first stopped imagining.”
Old age can help us nurture relationships with people unlike us, people who do not serve our needs, or whose needs we are not obligated to serve. A breadth of life experience sparked by imagination allows us to see in our opposite. Love erupts from honoring the character in the other, as we recognize our own force of character. If I can’t help who I am, can I expect the other person to do so? As we become less functional ourselves, we become willing to understand others who are not related to me functionally. We stop instrumentalizing others and ourselves. Love flows between souls illuminated by the force of their own character. We learn to imagine love as curiosity about other lives, beyond functional roles.
Advantages of aging gently help us find embodied acceptance of life as preciously finite. Our character ripens in the softness of the body. We become who we practiced being. We finally accept our character as an inevitable force, as we recognize the character of others. There is profound purpose in the wise old man or crone in showing the way through and out of life’s constrictions and life itself.
Instead of merely staying alive, may we all leave life well.