How does growing old affect 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 how it feels to me. Maybe my experience will help others raised with indifference, absence, and cruelty.
For me, growing old feel welcome. Why? Because aging has lightened my burden of formative trauma. Domains that challenged me in early life trauma are becoming domains of strength as aging matures me.
The following are a few examples:
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 careers, status, wealth, or even relationships. It comes from our simple existence as living, breathing organisms. We find our deepest selves by opening our eyes on another day. It's not about justifying and competing; it's about being.
For those us raised in homes where unconditional love seemed as distant as the moon, there is comfort in leaving the proving grounds. 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, like posture, tone, the twitch around the mouth, the scent of alcohol. At the same time, we learned to distance ourselves from reality as we surrendered our bodies to the power of cruel adults and sacrificed our vitality to the spiritual emptiness of our guardians. The only way to stay sane during that surrender and sacrifice was to transport our psyche elsewhere, to dissociate. Having committed our powers of concentration to keeping us safe, and having found dissociation a refuge, we became adults who can bring sharp focus to bear for short periods of time, but who live more commonly in a blur. As we grow older, we find less call for vigilance. No longer climbing toward career pinnacles, we don’t need to scan the terrain for competitors. With less demand from sex hormones, our attention feels less driven by sexuality. Facing a multitude of uncertainties, we grow more able to let things go. Some of these shifts feel like losses, but they are also gains. They lessen our need to scan the world, so our difficulties sustaining attention seem less like problems. We can let the soft focus of dissociation makes easier the task of finding meaning amidst the hard edges of the world.
- Reactivity: When younger, I battled for everything. I fought for my opinions, for my status, for my mates, for my survival. Slight offenses fueled fury and attack. Now, more 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 sometimes feel hurt or angry, but I react less strongly and recover more quickly.
- Relationships: Social networks change as we age. Friends and family members move away or die. We engage less with the workaday world, with its demands for interaction. Although retirement provides leisure time, forming new relationships may be difficult due to isolation, bodily limits, fatigue, and other challenges. 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.
By confronting us with limits and vulnerability, aging makes moments of simple living seem more valuable. Humans are capable of many great works, but the greatest is loving participation with life. We are at our best when we most appreciate the miracle that surrounds us. Yes, we can explore, build, express, and create, but as we age we learn that what’s most important is to notice the field in which human productivity grows, to bow before reality's wonders. We finally get the point of life, which is to live.
Medical problems forced me into early retirement and made me feel older than my years. That my body struggled is not surprising, given links between early adversity and later health problems. I mourned the loss of important roles and the trappings of success. Eventually, however, I began to appreciate how early aging issues opened the door for early benefit from aging's gifts.
Perhaps this is the most important lesson of growing old: we learn we can’t judge any difficulty by how it feels at first; we must wait until we’ve mastered its lessons and met its demands. A childhood that used to feel tragic and unfair now feels...valuable. Not in every way, but in many ways that help me approach the last phase of life with something like joy.
Aging is a hardship we inevitably face if we don’t die young. Luckily, it offers much of value, especially to those for whom the flowering of childhood was stunted by trauma, bereavement, and neglect. Here, toward the end of life, we gain for having lost at the beginning.