Growing Old, Growing Whole

Growing Old, Growing Whole

The text below is from a post I wrote in 2012. Included here is the second half of the original. The first part listed the effects of early life trauma, which isn’t my focus anymore, so I cut it out and put shorter descriptions in the discussion of aging. I’ve edited for clarity and to bring the piece more in line with my current views.
How does growing old affect the adult who suffered trauma in childhood? As I age, I’m beginning to learn, at least in terms of how it affects me.
In short, aging feels welcome. Why? Because it resolves some of the problems caused by formative trauma, problems that have troubled me much of my life. Growing old has helped me grow up.
Here are a few examples:
  • Identity: Research shows that early trauma makes forming a stable identity difficult. In young adulthood I could see what others valued better than I could see what I valued myself, so I pursued directions that didn’t match my talents, temperament, or preferences. In time this caused premature aging, which led to health problems that ended my career. Earlier than most, I learned that age erases many of the markers our culture uses to judge people. At first, this frightened me, but as time went on, it set me free. It taught me to accept the basic truth that my essential value does not depend on my looks, success, status, wealth, or even my relationships. It is inherent in existence, in being a living, breathing organism that feels, cares, and does its best. In time, I broke free from the endless justifying and competing, from the endless effort to find my worth in the world. Instead, I found it in myself. What a relief to leave the proving grounds! At last I can simply be, without striving to be good, or better, or best.
  • Concentration: Children living with familial chaos and abuse need to please adults to survive. They must focus on nuances like posture, vocal tone, facial twitches, etc. At the same time, the child separates from reality when adults invade person and body. The only way to stay sane is to transport the psyche elsewhere, to dissociate. Having devoted the powers of concentration to staying safe under threat, and having found dissociation a refuge, many traumatized children become adults who can focus intensely for short periods but live in a blur over longer ones. Thankfully, in later life there is less call for vigilance. The fact I’ve weathered a lot makes me less frightened of setbacks. Career striving is over, so there’s no need to scan for allies and competitors. With less drive from hormones, attention isn’t as captured by sexual stimuli. Facing mounting uncertainties, the I’ve learned to let stuff go. Some of these shifts feel like losses, but they are also gains. My attention is applied more judiciously. It’s freed up, so I can leverage it to enhance connection and enjoyment. And when I want, I can let it rest, which softens the hard edges of the world.
  • Reactivity: When younger, I was reactive and defensive. I battled for everything. I fought for my opinions, my status, my mates, and my survival. Slight offenses fueled fury and attack. 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. I’ve learned all-too-well the price of constant conflict, and I’m happy to see less of it.
  • Relationships: Social networks change as we age. Friends and family move away or die. We engage less with the workaday world, with its many interactions. Although retirement provides leisure time, forming new relationships can be difficult due to isolation, health issues, and other challenges. Despite all that, I’m doing better socially than ever before. I find it easier to form attachments. I’ve grown less demanding and more secure. I expect less, so I feel satisfied more. Crucially, I’ve learned to nourish my connections with my inner being and the Source of Life itself, which gives me more confidence and ease when I’m with others. These are lessons that might have been learned in childhood, but I’m okay with the delay. It’s a relief and a blessing to be learning them now.
  • Wonder: By confronting me with vulnerability and mortality, aging makes moments of simple living seem more valuable. We are at our best when we most appreciate the miracle that surrounds us. As we age we learn that the importance of serving the world and one another, bowing before reality's wonders, and feeling connected to Life. This seems clear to me in a way it never did before.
In summary, medical problems forced me into early retirement and made me feel older than my years. For a long time I mourned the loss of status and the trappings of success. Eventually, , I began to appreciate how early aging opened the door for early benefit from aging's gifts.
Perhaps this is the important lesson: we can’t judge difficulty by how it feels at first; we must wait until we’ve mastered its lessons and met its demands. In my case, a childhood that once felt tragic and unfair now feels...valuable. Not in every way, but in important ones.
Aging is a hardship we inevitably face if we don’t die young. It offers much of value, especially to those for whom the flowering of childhood was stunted by trauma, bereavement, and neglect. Later than we’d wished, but more than we expected, we regain what was lost at the beginning.