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There have been many revolutions over the last century, but perhaps none as significant as the longevity revolution. We are living on average today 34 years longer than our great-grandparents did. Think about that. That's an entire second adult lifetime that's been added to our lifespan. And yet, for the most part, our culture has not come to terms with what this means. We're still living with the old paradigm of age as an arch. That's the metaphor, the old metaphor. You're born, you peak at midlife and decline into decrepitude. (Laughter) Age as pathology.
But many people today -- philosophers, artists, doctors, scientists -- are taking a new look at what I call the third act, the last three decades of life. They realize that this is actually a developmental stage of life with its own significance -- as different from midlife as adolescence is from childhood. And they are asking -- we should all be asking -- how do we use this time? How do we live it successfully? What is the appropriate new metaphor for aging?
I've spent the last year researching and writing about this subject. And I have come to find that a more appropriate metaphor for aging is a staircase -- the upward ascension of the human spirit, bringing us into wisdom, wholeness and authenticity. Age not at all as pathology; age as potential. And guess what? This potential is not for the lucky few. It turns out, most people over 50 feel better, are less stressed, are less hostile, less anxious. We tend to see commonalities more than differences. Some of the studies even say we're happier.
This is not what I expected, trust me. I come from a long line of depressives. As I was approaching my late 40s, when I would wake up in the morning my first six thoughts would all be negative. And I got scared. I thought, oh my gosh. I'm going to become a crotchety old lady. But now that I am actually smack-dab in the middle of my own third act, I realize I've never been happier. I have such a powerful feeling of well-being. And I've discovered that when you're inside oldness, as opposed to looking at it from the outside, fear subsides. You realize, you're still yourself -- maybe even more so. Picasso once said, "It takes a long time to become young."
I don't want to romanticize aging. Obviously, there's no guarantee that it can be a time of fruition and growth. Some of it is a matter of luck. Some of it, obviously, is genetic. One third of it, in fact, is genetic. And there isn't much we can do about that. But that means that two-thirds of how well we do in the third act, we can do something about. We're going to discuss what we can do to make these added years really successful and use them to make a difference.
Now let me say something about the staircase, which may seem like an odd metaphor for seniors given the fact that many seniors are challenged by stairs. (Laughter) Myself included. As you may know, the entire world operates on a universal law: entropy, the second law of thermodynamics. Entropy means that everything in the world, everything, is in a state of decline and decay, the arch. There's only one exception to this universal law, and that is the human spirit, which can continue to evolve upwards -- the staircase -- bringing us into wholeness, authenticity and wisdom.
And here's an example of what I mean. This upward ascension can happen even in the face of extreme physical challenges. About three years ago, I read an article in the New York Times. It was about a man named Neil Selinger -- 57 years old, a retired lawyer -- who had joined the writers group at Sarah Lawrence where he found his writer's voice. Two years later, he was diagnosed with ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease. It's a terrible disease. It's fatal. It wastes the body, but the mind remains intact. In this article, Mr. Selinger wrote the following to describe what was happening to him. And I quote, "As my muscles weakened, my writing became stronger. As I slowly lost my speech, I gained my voice. As I diminished, I grew. As I lost so much, I finally started to find myself." Neil Selinger, to me, is the embodiment of mounting the staircase in his third act.
Now we're all born with spirit, all of us, but sometimes it gets tamped down beneath the challenges of life, violence, abuse, neglect. Perhaps our parents suffered from depression. Perhaps they weren't able to love us beyond how we performed in the world. Perhaps we still suffer from a psychic pain, a wound. Perhaps we feel that many of our relationships have not had closure. And so we can feel unfinished. Perhaps the task of the third act is to finish up the task of finishing ourselves.
For me, it began as I was approaching my third act, my 60th birthday. How was I supposed to live it? What was I supposed to accomplish in this final act? And I realized that, in order to know where I was going, I had to know where I'd been. And so I went back and I studied my first two acts, trying to see who I was then, who I really was -- not who my parents or other people told me I was, or treated me like I was. But who was I? Who were my parents -- not as parents, but as people? Who were my grandparents? How did they treat my parents? These kinds of things.
I discovered a couple of years later that this process that I had gone through is called by psychologists "doing a life review." And they say it can give new significance and clarity and meaning to a person's life. You may discover, as I did, that a lot of things that you used to think were your fault, a lot of things you used to think about yourself, really had nothing to do with you. It wasn't your fault; you're just fine. And you're able to go back and forgive them and forgive yourself. You're able to free yourself from your past. You can work to change your relationship to your past.
Now while I was writing about this, I came upon a book called "Man's Search for Meaning" by Viktor Frankl. Viktor Frankl was a German psychiatrist who'd spent five years in a Nazi concentration camp. And he wrote that, while he was in the camp, he could tell, should they ever be released, which of the people would be okay and which would not. And he wrote this: "Everything you have in life can be taken from you except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. This is what determines the quality of the life we've lived -- not whether we've been rich or poor, famous or unknown, healthy or suffering. What determines our quality of life is how we relate to these realities, what kind of meaning we assign them, what kind of attitude we cling to about them, what state of mind we allow them to trigger."
Perhaps the central purpose of the third act is to go back and to try, if appropriate, to change our relationship to the past. It turns out that cognitive research shows when we are able to do this, it manifests neurologically -- neural pathways are created in the brain. You see, if you have, over time, reacted negatively to past events and people, neural pathways are laid down by chemical and electrical signals that are sent through the brain. And over time, these neural pathways become hardwired, they become the norm -- even if it's bad for us because it causes us stress and anxiety.
If however, we can go back and alter our relationship, re-vision our relationship to past people and events, neural pathways can change. And if we can maintain the more positive feelings about the past, that becomes the new norm. It's like resetting a thermostat. It's not having experiences that make us wise, it's reflecting on the experiences that we've had that makes us wise -- and that helps us become whole, brings wisdom and authenticity. It helps us become what we might have been.
Women start off whole, don't we? I mean, as girls, we start off feisty -- "Yeah, who says?" We have agency. We are the subjects of our own lives. But very often, many, if not most of us, when we hit puberty, we start worrying about fitting in and being popular. And we become the subjects and objects of other people's lives. But now, in our third acts, it may be possible for us to circle back to where we started and know it for the first time. And if we can do that, it will not just be for ourselves. Older women are the largest demographic in the world. If we can go back and redefine ourselves and become whole, this will create a cultural shift in the world, and it will give an example to younger generations so that they can reconceive their own lifespan.
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Within this generation, an extra 30 years have been added to our life expectancy -- and these years aren’t just a footnote or a pathology. In this talk, Jane Fonda asks how we can think about this new phase of our lives. (Filmed at TEDxWomen.)
Jane Fonda has had three extraordinary careers (so far): an Oscar-winning actor, a prominent activist and a best-selling fitness guru. Full bio »