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…”
This is not to say that even those of us who have found ourselves on this challenging journey don’t often wish there were an easier way to go. But the mystics of many traditions have a broader understanding of what it means to walk the spiritual path. Most conceptions of spiritual development equate spiritual progress with letting go of the illusion of comfort and control. We are asked to surrender the notion that we are calling the shots in our lives, applying ourselves to making things turn out the way we want. Awakening often comes bundled with the humbling realization that some and eventually all of our old tricks no longer work. We come to realize how much of our sense of mastery over our fates had always been limited, at best. At last, we are forced to loosen up our grip on the wheel of our lives, and forced to confront our fears.
As it turns out, when viewed through the lens of Conscious Aging, this is a good thing, Virtually every spiritual and religious philosophy centers on the shattering of illusions—be it the Hebrews tearing down of false idols or the Buddhists seeing through the Maya of surface manifestation. When we strip away the impositions, the fantasies and the denial, we begin to view aging as holding the potential for activation of new, unprecedented levels of self-affirmation, meaning, and spiritual growth.
This psychologically and spiritually healthy vision of aging only occasionally looks like serenity. While we may be quiet and peaceful sometimes, we may be rabble-rousing and making trouble, other times. Sometimes we are faced with external challenges, such as income loss and illness. Other times our challenges are internal: anxiety about the future, for instance, or feelings of personal failure. The truth is, as long as we keep growing through life, there will be anxious moments, regrets and self-doubt. But there will be transiting, transforming and overcoming, too.