The Wisdom of Middle Age

At the turning point of maturity, one is in a position to change one's roles so as to make a satisfying life for the next 25 or 30 years. This requires a kind of wisdom which consists of self-analysis and self-development along several lines. *

Valuing wisdom versus valuating physical powers

Decrease in physical vigor and attractiveness must result in feelings of failure and inadequacy unless one learns to accept this as a natural consequence of growing older, and learns to give a higher value to the foresight and judgment that arise from the experience of living. The principal means of coping with life shifts from the use of physical energy to the use of wisdom. By employing this shift, one can actually accomplish more than younger people, for one can now concentrate on things that are really important.

Emotional expansion versus emotional constriction

Middle age is the period when, for most people, parents die, children leave home, and the circle of friends and relatives of similar age begins to be broken by death. Also, this is the period when sexual activity begins to drop off for the male. All this can mean an impoverishment of emotional life-fewer friends and fewer family members to love and enjoy. But the successful person learns to reinvest his emotions in new friends and other pursuits. When the primary bonds to parents and children are broken by death and departure, there is either emotional constriction or the forming of new emotional bonds. While it may be true that some people are so deeply bound to their parents that they never completely recover from their deaths and thus doom themselves to a later life of emotional constriction, this hardly seems true of many middle-aged people today.

There is certainly a possibility of forming new friendships and investing emotional capital in new pursuits, for a person at this age generally has a wide circle of acquaintances and has the freedom and the time and financial means to do new things.

Mental flexibility versus mental rigidity

By middle age one achieves a relatively stable and publicly known set of attitudes on a variety of public and private matters, which automatically govern one's behavior and give it a fixed and rigid quality. Since, by this time, one has usually achieved a degree of worldly success, there is a temptation to coast along on this success, making no effort to examine new circumstances for possible new answers. In other words, one tends to become mentally rigid.

Yet the changing circumstances of our society call for a degree of open-mindedness and flexibility, both on public and private issues.

Expansion of interests beyond the work role

The work role is the principal source of satisfaction and feeling of worth for men and many women in our society. Some women adopt the work role after 50 as a substitute for the mother role. But the work role generally lasts only to age 65 or 70 at the most, and its rewards fall off after the age of 60 for most people. Consequently it is important in middle age to expand one's interests beyond the work role so as to get out of other activities satisfactions which formerly came largely through work. This may be done through the development of leisure activities, or through putting more investment into clubs, church, civic life, home-making, friendships, or some form of creative expression.

The main problem is that of finding sources of self-respect outside of the work role. Americans are so thoroughly work-oriented that it is difficult for some of them to achieve self-respect through competence in any other area of life. A man of 64 said: "I have asked our pastor, when he prays; will he pray that St. Peter will give me a good job when I die. That's all I want, a good job in heaven." Somehow one must find some other definition of heaven than that of possessing a "good job." Otherwise one is not likely to enjoy his last years on earth.

Body transcendence versus body preoccupation

The lessening of physical vigor and attractiveness that accompanies middle age comes as a blow to most people, because they have invested a great deal of emotional capital in their physical appearance and physical well-being. This blow may be made more devastating by some chronic disease which causes pain or limits activity. It is only sensible that people should maintain their health and physical attractiveness by getting medical advice, by watching their diets, by getting exercise, and by dressing carefully. This much preoccupation with the body is desirable in middle age. But along with it should go a new definition of happiness and comfort, in terms of satisfying human relationships and creative mental activities which will survive the physical decline of the body.

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