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Composing a Further Lifeauthor Mary Catherine Bateson discusses achieving perspective and peace in the second half of life.
Mary Catherine Bateson wants to upend the way we think of aging. In her latest book, Composing a Further Life: The Age of Active Wisdom, the renowned anthropologist coins a line that clings: We’re “living longer, but thinking shorter.”
She bemoans a society on speed dial: Political cycles, quarterly reports, Twitter missives, text messaging, mashups that cut between two or three different songs.
“There are so many processes and institutions in our society that promote short-term decision-making,” Bateson says. “The minute someone is elected to Congress, he is running the next campaign. In business, rewards are determined by what comes out in the quarterly report. But as older adults, we can think beyond our own lives. Caring about the future is an aspect of growing old, hoping for a peaceful and just world for future generations, gaining a longer perspective.”
Composing a Further Life (her 12th book) is the natural progression from her thought-provoking Composing a Life, which portrayed five successful women at midlife (including Bateson, once a dean at Amherst College). Bateson, now 71, interviews six older people, from retired Maine boatyard worker Hank Lawson to actress and fitness guru Jane Fonda, who actively seek new ways to live dynamic lives.
Bateson is well aware that “there has been a swelling tide of publication on aging,” but her focus is on the newly emerging period of active engagement that falls roughly between 55 and 70. She calls this period Adulthood II.
Adulthood I is the busy and productive time, which includes child-rearing years and the building of careers. When you enter Adulthood II, you “reflect that you have done much of what you hoped to in life but it is not too late to do something more or different,” she writes. “The doorway to this new stage of life is not filing for Social Security but thinking differently and continuing to learn.”
In an interview with SecondAct, Bateson talks about ageism, liberation movements and how people who are coming up to retirement at this point in history are beginning to escape from stereotypes.
SA: How does Adulthood II differ from Adulthood I?
MCB: Adulthood II is a new stage in the life cycle today because of improvements in health and health care. It begins when some of the major tasks of adulthood have been completed. A career has come to a stopping place, or children have grown up and moved away. For a lot of people, it coincides with retirement, but then again you might get laid off, or suddenly notice that you have earned all the money you need to earn for the rest of your life and now it’s time to do something different.
SA: You call this a time of “active wisdom.” What do you mean?
MCB: We tend to associate wisdom with reduced mobility. Active wisdom is the possibility of combining wisdom that has developed over the years with active engagement. If you like, it’s “wisdom on the hoof,” making things happen.
SA: You argue that men and women approaching retirement face the same challenge that new-wave feminism presented to women. How so?
MCB: During the women’s movement we became aware that we had internalized a set of stereotypes about what women could and should do. And we had bought into them. When we examined those stereotypes, we learned to imagine living our lives differently. That was a change of consciousness.
We are in the same situation now in relation to getting older in a society that has fairly negative ideas about aging. People will frequently say ‘Well I’m 60 or 70 or 80, but I don’t feel 60 or 70.’ You have to translate that as ‘I have now lived this number of years, but the way I feel does not match the stereotype that I internalized long ago.’ But even if we partially liberate ourselves from those stereotypes, we may still hold them in relation to others. You find a lot of ageism among older people towards others who may be the same age. We have to get over that, too.
SA: What are some of the common threads you found among the people you interviewed?
MCB: We want to make a contribution. Sometimes it’s phrased in terms of legacy. We feel we have something to give or teach. The other thing is continuing growth, and a kind of deepening. For some people, this takes the form of individual spirituality, for others a deeper engagement with a faith community — or both, growing out of reflection.
SA: You say that the challenges at 50 and 60 are similar to those at 16 and 25. How?
MCB: Your skin acts funny. Your body acts funny. Your emotions change. Many people in adolescence feel as if their bodies are betraying them. The same can be true in second adulthood. Your whole sense of identity has to be rethought.
One of the things that developmental psychologist Erik H. Erikson talks about is that for many young people, college is a kind of moratorium, a time to grow into the next stage. They don’t know what their career is going to be, and they try things out. In Adulthood II, you can’t expect to know immediately what you want to do. Many people, when they retire, set off and travel. That’s a transitional thing, comparable to taking a gap year, time out to dream new dreams.
SA: You do improvisational workshops with your daughter, Sevanne, an actress. How does that relate to aging?
MCB: Because the shape of lives is changing, we’re all on stage without a script as you are in improv. But we’re not alone. We have to figure out what to do, inventing our roles as we go along. You have to listen to what the other actors are saying and doing. When you decide what you are going to do, you have to commit. In real life, you must make choices, too. The key is — as we teach in improv…don’t freeze.
SA: You write about the need to affirm death, life and love. Can you explain the importance of doing so?
MCB: I am in favor of saying ‘Yes, I’m getting old. Yes, my hair is turning gray. Yes, I know I’m going to die.’ And not wasting energy on pretending that none of those things is going to happen. It’s a basic rule of mental health. It’s liberating.
By affirming life, I mean affirming possibility, hopefulness. You affirm life by the lifestyle choices you make, like taking care of your body because your ability to make a continuing contribution in the world depends on taking care of your health. I am going to look hard at this life, of which there is a limited unknown quantity left to me, and live it as fully and deeply as I can, as lovingly as I can.
Bio: Mary Catherine Bateson
Hometown: Born NYC; now divides her time between a farmhouse in Hancock, N.H., and an apartment in Cambridge, Mass.
Personal: Married to J. Barkev Kassarjian; one daughter; 2 grandsons
Education: BA, Radcliffe, 1960; Ph.D., Harvard, 1963
Career highlights: Visiting Scholar at the Center on Aging and Work/Workplace Flexibility at Boston College; has taught at Harvard, Northeastern University, Amherst College, Spelman College and abroad in the Philippines and in Iran
Books: Composing a Further Life: The Age of Active Wisdom (2010). Others include: Composing a Life(1989); With a Daughter’s Eye: A Memoir of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson (2001); Peripheral Visions: Learning Along the Way (1994); Full Circles, Overlapping Lives: Culture and Generation in Transition (2000); and Willing to Learn: Passages of Personal Discovery (2004).
Mary’s Suggested Reading:
To understand the concept of life stages and the strengths that emerge from each one, she recommend Erik Erikson’s classic, Childhood and Society.
To understand Adulthood II, she recommends Marc Freedman’s books, Prime Time and Encore; Sarah Lawrence Lightfoot’s The Third Chapter; and Gene D. Cohen’s