The value of aging -- and of the aged

Psychology: Instead of dreading old age, author James Hillman suggests people should embrace the rich opportunity it allows for reflection.

Life After 50

November 21, 1999|By David Tarrant | David Tarrant,Dallas Morning News

In an age when faster isn't fast enough and newer isn't new enough, it's easy to overlook the virtues of aging.

We assign value to antique furniture, stately homes, classic cars. But at the first gray hair, we shudder with fear as if sentenced to a long, terminal illness.

"Old age is very hard, and it's no joke. But it's not a disease. That idea is more of an affliction on the old than their own afflictions."

So says James Hillman, a prominent Jungian psychologist, talking about his new book, "The Force of Character: And the Lasting Life" (Random House, $24).

The best-selling author of "The Soul's Code," Hillman is a former professor at the University of Dallas and co-founder of the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture.

Hillman, 73, poses this question: What is the value in growing old?

It's a question for the times. Since 1900, the percentage of Americans 65 and older has more than tripled, and, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, one in nine baby boomers will live to at least 90.

"There are baby boomers in the middle of life who are desperately afraid of old age and only see it as sickness and decay," Hillman says.

But that encounter with old age, so often called a "midlife crisis," is premature, he says. To project at age 40 what your life will be like at age 80 is as skewed as a child's perception of life as a parent.

"Kids think their parents of 40 don't have sex. Our culture is determined by very young, adolescent thinking," he says.

Aging plays a fundamental role in the human condition: Our true natures emerge as we grow older. We have the time, inclination and experience to review our lives.

Character gives aging its value and its meaning, he writes. "The last years confirm and fulfill character."

Recognizing the elderly

In current times, old people have disappeared -- and not just physically -- into retirement communities or nursing homes. Absent from modern life is the traditional role of the wise elder.

"It's a central issue in our culture. We don't have adults, mentors, elders. We have fixed ideas of seniors as benighted, almost embalmed," Hillman says.

"I'm stressing active citizenship," he says -- people can retire from productivity, but they shouldn't retreat from citizenship.

"There is an innate urge to be concerned about society and community."

Hillman doesn't care for retirement communities.

"They reinforce the exclusion of the elderly from participation in society."

He would like to see the elderly restored to the role they've had in many tribal cultures -- as caretakers of the traditions, stories and crafts, and as intermediaries between the natural and supernatural.

As we grow older, our purpose in life changes. Our task shifts from self-preservation to finding meaning in our lives -- and in that search, our character reveals itself, Hillman says.

Thus, while short-term memory fizzles, long-term memory sharpens. It's not necessary that we remember where we put our keys. It is more important for our character development that we remember the events of our lives and draw lessons from our experience.

Outward appearance yields to an internal gravity and thoughtfulness: "The old have gravitas when their insight reaches into the invisible core of things, into what is hidden and buried," he writes. "When the body begins to sag, it is abandoning sham and hypocrisy. The body leads the way down, deepening your character."

But what about those people, like John F. Kennedy or Lady Diana, who die young? If old age is required to fulfill character, then what about those who never reach it?

The common observation, says Hillman, is correct: " 'She died too early.' 'His death was premature.' By which we mean that their characters had not come to term."

People consumed with a morbid fear of growing old spend enormous sums to fight off sagging jowls, double chins, memory loss, sleep disorders and the plague of aches and pains that accompany aging.

All that energy could be put to better use -- not in concealing the body, but in exploring the soul, Hillman says.

To do that requires re-imagining old age as a time to follow one's true calling and discover one's soul.

"This takes both curiosity and courage," he writes, "a letting go of old ideas and letting go to odd ideas."

One such odd idea we should embrace concerns sex: Sexual fantasy is not only a natural but an important part of the aging process, he says. It is independent of physical prowess.

"Imagination precedes performance," he writes. "Performance depends only secondarily on Viagra."

A new perspective

In addressing subjects such as "psychology" and "soul," Hillman attempts to move beyond the constrictions of science and religion.

"Until now, the soul has belonged to the church or to the dead," he once said. "I wanted to reintroduce the resonance of the soul into psychology. The root of the word 'psyche' means soul."

Born in New Jersey in 1926, Hillman has spent much of his life abroad. He lived in Europe for 35 years after serving in World War II. A protege of Carl Jung, the late Swiss psychoanalyst, Hillman was director of studies at the C.G. Institute in Zurich, Switzerland.

He returned to the United States in 1978, teaching at the University of Dallas. A few years later, with colleagues Gail Thomas, Robert Sardello, Joanne Stroud and, later, Thomas Moore, Hillman co-founded the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, which organizes lectures and workshops on urban and cultural issues. He now lives in Connecticut.

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