Old age as staircase (maybe with one of those electric lifts)

One of the extensions of the TED brand is TEDWomen, and in this talk Jane Fonda describes her “third act.” She’s been thinking about aging for some time, and seems to be less conflicted than last spring, when Showbiz Spy reported “Jane Fonda Writing a Book about Plastic Surgery and Aging!” Her look is better too: love the wonky black specs.

Rejecting the old paradigm of life as an arch that peaks at midlife and then degrades, Fonda proposes a lovely new metaphor: old age as a staircase, “bringing us into wisdom, wholeness, and authenticity — not at all as pathology.” Like me, (and Betty Friedan and so many others), she was taken by surprise by the promise and pleasures of late life. “And guess what? This potential is not for the lucky few. It turns out most people over 50 feel better are less stressed, less hostile, less anxious. . . . even happier,” she says, adding wryly, “this is not what I expected, trust me.” Her forties were filled with apprehension, “but now that I’m smack dab in the middle of my own third act, I realize I’ve never been happier. . . . I realize that when you’re inside oldness instead of looking at it from the outside, fear subsides.”

Well put. And the fear Fonda refers to is the heart of the matter. As Simone de Beauvoir wrote in The Coming of Age, “that fear of aging and death drives younger people to view their elders as a separate species, rather than as their own future selves.” As I’ve observed at length, this view of the old as “other” is what creates and sustains ageism. The remedy lies in disseminating a more accurate, and therefore more positive, picture of late life. Ideally we’d be enlightened during life’s first or second acts, instead of having to learn it by living it, from “inside oldness.”

Fonda proposes a different remedy: a life review in which we come to terms with our past and “finish the act of finishing ourselves.” A little woo woo for me, and not political enough.  But she does conclude by pointing out that older women are the largest demographic in the world.  “If we can go back, and redefine ourselves, and become whole, this will create a cultural shift in the world” says Fonda, “and it will give an example to younger generations so they can reconceive their own lifespan.”  There’s a vision I can get behind.

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