For many of us, aging is viewed and experienced in essentially tragic terms: as a narrative of decline, a downward trajectory to decrepitude and death. Such a way of “storying” later life can set us up for (among other things) narrative foreclosure, which can feed the depression to which we are susceptible in the face of aging’s many challenges. This article presents an alternative and more positive narrative of later life. Drawing on ideas from narrative gerontology, it outlines how aging can be “re-genre-ated” from tragedy to adventure in at least four main directions: Outward, Inward, Backward, and Forward.
adventure, biographical aging, conscious aging, narrative gerontology, spiritualty
A 2010 New York Times article, “Seeing Aging as a Never-Ending Adventure,” tells of Englishman Tom Lackey “wing-walking” in his 80s as a way of getting past the sadness of losing his wife. “[H]e strapped his feet to the top of a single-engine biplane … and flew across the English Channel at 160 mph.” As if this weren’t enough, his plan was to prepare for his 90th birthday by being the first of any age to wing-walk it in both directions. Noted Lackey of these exploits, numbering at least 20, “My family thinks I’m mad,” to which he added, “I probably am” (Johnson, 2010).
Aging as adventure … Though it seems a contradiction in terms and though Lackey’s version of adventure is, literally, over the top, this is the metaphor to which—as a recent retiree—I find myself drawn. And it’s one I invite anyone, old or young, to entertain.
I've long been interested in the “metaphors we live by” (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980), one in particular: life as story. Beginning with my book, The Stories We Are (Randall, 1995/2014), this interest has had me pulling on insights from narrative psychology, literary studies, and other disciplines to articulate a narrative perspective on later life, or a narrative gerontology. According to this perspective, our lives as we experience them subjectively are stories, forever unfolding, often shifting course, continually thickening with meaning. They are flesh-and-blood novels that we compose and re-compose in memory and imagination as author, narrator, protagonist, and reader, more or less at once.
Inspired by such a perspective, I’ve spent my career pondering the poetics of aging (Randall & McKim, 2008), namely how such familiar elements of stories as plot, character, genre, and theme can illuminate the internal dynamics of development in later life, its biographical dynamics. Besides representing a unique starting point for approaching vast topics like wisdom and spirituality, this way of thinking opens a space for seeing aging as a process of not just getting old but actively, consciously growing old.
Regarding the element of genre, stories come, of course, in different types. For Christopher Booker (2004) in The Seven Basic Plots, they include not just tragedy and comedy, but such archetypal storylines as Rags to Riches, Voyage and Return, Overcoming the Monster, and The Quest.
This way of thinking opens a space for seeing aging as a process of not just getting old but actively, consciously growing old.
Given these options, we are at liberty to alter how we “story” later life, and not stay stuck in the tragic trajectory by which aging is often perceived and which can lead to “narrative foreclosure” (Bohlmeijer et al., 2011). By this I mean the conviction that, though our life continues, our story has effectively ended; no new chapters are apt to be written.
Such a conviction is a recipe for depression, which is treated as a medical matter, when what is needed is not another pill so much as a better story: a counter-story to the portrayal of aging as a problem to be solved, a fate to be fought, a downward drift to decrepitude and death. We need to “re-genre-ate” how we talk about aging, to shift from a rhetoric of decline to one of discovery, of quest, of adventure.
Aging as Adventure
One ally in the mission to change the narrative of later life is Florida Scott-Maxwell (1968). In The Measure of My Days, written in her 80s, she made several soulful observations. “When you truly possess all you have been and done,” she said, “you are fierce with reality” (p. 42).
“I want to tell people approaching and perhaps fearing age,” she wrote, “that it is a time of discovery. If they say, ‘Of what?’, I can only answer, we must each find out for ourselves, otherwise it won’t be discovery” (p. 142).
She spoke, too, of how she and others her age “seem to lead the way into the unknown;” of how “all is uncharted and uncertain” (p. 139). Unknown, uncharted, uncertain—this is all adventure-talk, and we have the option to adopt such talk as we journey into later life.
I'm hardly the first to combine “aging” with “adventure.” Betty Friedan (1993) devoted a whole chapter to that combination in her book, The Fountain of Age. Certainly, a burgeoning business of gero-tourism is enticing people ages 50 and older with sufficient means to take up everything from skydiving off cliffs to hiking in the Himalayas, escapades looked to as examples of “positive aging,” “successful aging,” or other up-beat mantras that have their merits, to be sure. I'm all for resisting ageist assumptions about how “seniors” ought to think and act. And we needn’t take anything away from off-the-charts achievements by Lackey and the like in the campaign for “healthy, active aging.” They inspire us to rise up from our couches, toss aside our canes, and “just do it.”
But such campaigns, albeit well-intentioned, only scratch the surface. There are other less expensive, less dangerous, and deeper, more fulfilling avenues to adventure in later life, perhaps four in particular.
Before I outline them, let’s consider the word “adventure.” Used so cavalierly, defining it has become a challenge. (As is defining “tragedy,” for in its classical forms there is a degree of redemption at work. In the middle of the protagonist’s demise, some insight is attained, some moral truth grasped.)
In essence, an adventure is a reaching out or a venturing forth toward some goal or prize, some destination, however dimly envisioned, that lies ahead. So conceived, adventures can be either firsthand, like competing in sports, or vicarious, like feeling the adrenaline of the play-by-play from the safety of our sofas. And they can be small or large in scale, from a weekend road trip to more existential ventures such as leaving home and heading off to college, or to war; or falling in love and starting a family—or beginning all over with somebody new!
Only quite recently has aging been seen as a naturally spiritualizing process.
Creative activities of countless kinds can be adventures. This is the essence of Art: something new comes into being that wasn’t there before. Life, with its ups and downs, discoveries and disappointments, is arguably an adventure! So, too, is science: the entire enterprise of asking questions, gathering information, and pushing back the frontiers of our knowledge. The key is that there is a measure of unpredictability at work, of trial and error, suffering and surprise, courage and risk, and the possibility, at any turn, of failure. Otherwise, it’s not an adventure but a commute, like driving to the mall.
As with any story worth its salt, there must be some “trouble” to make it worth telling. No trouble, no tale. Conveniently, aging itself brings all manner of troubles—arthritis and diabetes, cancer and dementia, bereavement and loss—to complicate the plot. But it is precisely because of this, because of our “apprenticeship with sorrow” (Weller, 2015, pp. 1–10), that our horizons are widened, that we learn and grow, that aging is an odyssey, an adventure.
First, though in no necessary order, is the adventure outward. This includes anything that pulls us out of our comfort zones and takes us to fresh places, from wing-walking at one end of the spectrum to playing piano at the other, with all manner of horizon-stretching undertakings in between: traveling to countries we’ve long pined to see, pursuing subjects we’ve been curious about for years, joining a club or a cause and forging friendships we might not have made while raising our kids. Sooner or later, though, such adventures nudge us to inquire within. “If my family thinks I’m mad,” Mr. Lackey might eventually wonder, “then perhaps they have a point …”
This is part of what Erik Erikson envisioned in proposing that, in his eighth stage of development, the route to “ego integrity” is life review (Erickson, 1963). Carl Jung claimed that, in the “afternoon of life,” it is our “duty” to “turn inward” (Jung, 1976). Not that honoring that duty is easy. The longest journey, it’s been said, is the journey inward. This is the longest and most uncharted, for it is where aging converges with spirituality. And in mainstream gerontology, it’s only quite recently, really, that this convergence has received its share of attention, that aging has been seen as a naturally spiritualizing process, much like it is in many Indigenous cultures and traditional societies. One avenue to the adventure inward is looking back across our past.
The autobiographical adventure, as I call it, has received comparatively more attention, and from no less a pioneer of gerontology than Jim Birren. His program of “guided autobiography” (Birren & Deutchman, 1991)—which entails writing short pieces about our lives related to pre-set themes like health, education, or love and sharing our writing with others—is one of many fine strategies for “possessing” all that we have “been and done.” By this I mean re-acquainting ourselves with the various experiences, major or minor, intentional or accidental, that have comprised our lives across the years—not just the same-old, same-old of day-to-day existence, but what sticks out as dramatic, ecstatic, ironic, or odd as key turning-points in our life-course overall.
It is these experiences that we’re most likely to look back on as lending content and color to our identity and rendering our life worth living. When we invite an older adult to “tell me your story,” what they’re likely to recount are not all the times that they did X or Y, but “this one time when … I was walking to work and... was bit by a dog, or hit by a bus, or met my future spouse.”
Yet the adventure backward is not always the joyful jaunt down memory lane that we might hope. Reflecting seriously upon the past, as in any adventure worthy of the word, means dealing with the positives and negatives alike, making it an adventure downward as well. It means opening ourselves to the many layers of our inner world, not knowing in advance what secrets will be uncovered in our inquiries, what hurts unearthed, what demons or dreams awakened, what backstories will emerge from the shadows and beg to be told. And we can’t know, until we get into it, what patterns of thinking and feeling will come to light that, earlier in our lives, we lacked the distance to discern, what unfinished developmental business will ask to be acknowledged.
Here, we enter territory that’s particularly contested. As if aging as adventure weren't controversial enough, aging as adventure forward seems, frankly, oxymoronic! What, really, is there to look forward to? We’re born, we suffer, we die ... end of story, a story with no intrinsic meaning to begin with.
Given the materialistic-medical paradigm that dominates our modern world, it is seen as silly to assume that aging might actually lead somewhere, might be a preparation for something, and that dying, whatever form it takes—heart attack, cancer, or dementia—might be a beginning as much as an end.
But if it’s possible to “reimagine the story of dementia” (Freeman, 2022), then why not reimagine death? Those working with people at the end-of-life, for instance, have attested to how, for some, dying feels less like a termination than a transition, a birth almost (Banerjee, 2005). What is more, research into so-called “near-death experiences” (or NDEs) has suggested that aging itself be seen as a nearing death experience.
In Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience, cardiologist Pim van Lommel (2011) describes an NDE as “both an existential crisis and an intense learning experience” (p. 329). People who have had them—when their heart stopped functioning while they were lying on the operating table or were pinned beneath a truck—report remarkably similar features to their sojourns on “the other side”: traveling down a tunnel toward the light, undergoing a panoramic review of their lives, feeling loved in ways they’ve never felt before, and finding that the reality they’re exposed to is realer—or “fiercer”—than that of ordinary life.
And they go on to experience similarly transformative effects upon their return: a decreased interest in material possessions, a broadened sense of time, an appreciation for the interconnectedness of everything and everyone, a desire to learn unlike any they’ve known, and an enormous reduction in their fear of death, even a looking ahead to it.
‘What is needed is a perspective on our “finitude” that leaves the door open for our infinitude as well.’
It calls to mind Lars Tornstam’s (1996) theory of Gerotranscendence, according to which those in very late life naturally experience a blurring of the boundaries between self and other, present and past, life and death. It points, too, to the fledgling field of “transpersonal gerontology” (see Wacks, 2011); “transpersonal” in the sense that our lives—and with them our aging and dying—occur within a far vaster context than a biomedical one. I mean a cosmic context, that of the universe in all its multidimensional mystery, bursting with creativity at every level, from the quantum to the galactic. Accordingly, what is needed is a “cosmology of death” (Schlitz et al., 2011).
What is needed is a perspective on our “finitude” (Baars, 2010) that leaves the door open for our infinitude as well, a perspective that scientist-mystic Teilhard de Chardin (2001/1957, p. 76) hints at with his beguiling image of “the hidden mystery in the womb of death.”
Aging as adventure, not a sentence assigned us by a cold unconscious cosmos but a journey of discovery and becoming to be made with openness and awe, a “falling upward,” as it were (Rohr, 2011). Surely, though, this is Pollyanna-speak, the sort of “happy-ever-after” thinking that we ought to have grown out of long ago?
Admittedly, the perspective I’m proposing is “just a story,” one of many to which we might subscribe. The prevailing narrative in several circles, including gerontological ones, is of course that aging—and with it, death—has no intrinsic meaning at all. In Science Set Free, however, scientist Rupert Sheldrake (2012) took this narrative to task. Science, he maintained, has defaulted to a worldview that “claim[s] that all reality is material or physical,” and can be boiled down to chemistry and physics (p. 6). Among the “10 core beliefs” around which it revolves and that “most scientists take for granted” (p. 7) are: that “nature is purposeless, and evolution has no goal or direction”; that “minds are inside heads and are nothing but the activities of brains”; that “unexplained phenomena such as telepathy [and NDE’s] are illusory”; and that “mechanistic medicine is the only kind that really works” (p. 7f).
Such a set of beliefs, he says, has become equated to what Science is. But it, too, is just a story, albeit a very powerful one which, he contended, restricts unbiased, open-minded investigation of the mysteries around us and in us, an investigation in which the line between science and spirituality, physics and meta-physics, is in fact quite fine.
The upshot of Sheldrake’s thinking for us is that we get to choose the stories by which we live, and age, and that the mechanistic-reductionistic narrative and, with it, the whole narrative of decline is not the only story in town. In a sense, this takes us back to Lackey …
Speaking at the recent funeral of her 15-year-old son, the victim of a stray bullet at a house-party scuffle that got out of hand, the sister of a Caribbean-American colleague of mine brought everyone to tears. Her arms around her three remaining teens, she shared with the congregation, of which he had been part, stories of how kind he was, how funny, how determined to succeed … of how his final words were “I’m not afraid.” To sum up his own view of life and to lift up the spirits of his pals, the phrase she kept repeating was “fly high … fly high … fly high.”
We need to heed this woman’s words, uttered amidst the darkest nightmare and deepest sorrow that any parent can know. Where aging is concerned, we, too, need to set our sights high. For, just maybe, we've gotten the story wrong. To talk of aging as adventure—outward, inward, backward, and even forward too—is one way, I say, to turn things around.
William L. Randall, AB, ThM, MDiv, EdD, is a retired professor of Gerontology at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, NB, Canada, where he taught from 1995 to 2022. Educated at Harvard University (AB), Princeton Theological Seminary (ThM), and the University of Toronto (MDiv & EdD), he will be a Visiting Fellow at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, in the Lent term of 2024. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo credit: Shutterstock/AlessandroBiascioli
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