Better to be Serene or Fierce with Age? The Conscious Aging Movement
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During most of my 60 plus years walking a spiritual path, I’d assumed that the goal of this next portion of the journey was to achieve serenity. Writer Gail Sheehy helped advance this expectation in her landmark book Passages. After describing earlier decades of life as turbulent, flourishing and flaming, she capped her life stage progression with “The Serene Sixties.” But Sheehy didn’t invent the notion of equating age with serenity.
Serenity as a cultural ideal finds its roots in the years following World War II. When the young men returned home from the battlefield, something had to be done with the women and older folks who had been keeping the home front humming along. Madison Avenue, in cahoots with Washington D.C., mounted an epic public relations campaign to convince the masses that women who refused to go home to the suburbs and older folks who resisted trundling off to golf courses, fell somewhere on the scale between eccentric and unpatriotic.
This was a version of marginalization lauded as serenity but looking a lot more like complacency, detachment and disempowerment. Of course, it was easier for women to throw aside the stereotypes of eccentricity and bitchiness to fight for the right to continue to play a role in mainstream society than it was for individuals on the far side of fifty or sixty to cast off something that virtually glowed with spirituality.
Our parents by and large adopted this version of a serene old age as the ideal. But an increasing number of their aging children, despite pressure to conform, simply aren’t buying it. In fact, many of us are awakening to the possibility that the busting of the serenity myth is not simply a personal trial, but rather, the Boomer generation’s next great revolution. This overthrowing of an old paradigm even has a name: it’s called Conscious Aging.
The best way to describe what conscious aging is all about is to talk about what it is not. In his seminal article“Conscious Aging: A New Level of Growth in Later Life”
, scholar and maverick Harry R. Moody writes about two theories of aging that have dominated gerontological theory in recent years. “Both Successful Aging and Productive Aging are strategies for making old age into a ‘second middle age,’ in effect denying the losses of aging altogether,” says Moody, noting that this strategy of denial can be quite effective. “Depending on life circumstances, individuals may achieve positive life satisfaction and mental wellness without any greater growth in consciousness or wisdom. They may simply remain themselves, adapting to new conditions but sustained by familiar midlife habits…”