Oh my goodness. Jane Fonda brings together so many issues that have been on my mind recently in this TED talk she gave in 2011. She talks beautifully and with such wisdom.
Here’s a brief summary, some observations of my own and why I think you should listen up!
We’re living on average now some 34 years longer than our grandparents, she says. That’s a whole new period in our lives, one she calls the Third Act. But whereas age used to be thought of as pathology, as an arch – we ascend into middle age and then it’s all downhill – now we need a new metaphor. The one she suggests is a staircase.
Why? Because the staircase represents “the upward ascension of the human spirit into wisdom, wholeness and authenticity.” Age is something we can now see as potential rather than pathology. If we’re over 50, observes Fonda, “we tend to be less stressed, less hostile and less anxious. We tend to see commonalities rather than differences.”
The human spirit is the only thing on this earth not subject to the law of entropy, the law that says everything is in a state of decline and decay. The human spirit alone can continue to evolve upwards, irrespective of what’s happening to our physical selves.
She gives the example of a lawyer called Neil Salinger as an embodiment of mounting the staircase in our Third Act. Salinger joined a writing group when he retired at 57 only to contract Lou Gehrig’s Disease two years later. As this terminal disease wasted his body, leaving, as it does, his mind intact, he wrote:
“As my muscles weakened, my mind became stronger. As I slowly lost my speech, I found my voice. As I diminished, I grew. As I lost so much, I finally started to find myself.”
I was reminded, as I listened to her here, of a lovely post written by Professor Desmond O’Neill which I wrote about here. O’Neill drew on Aristotle’s notion of phronesis which can be loosely translated as ‘practical wisdom’ and is something that can only be achieved with experience. Like Fonda, O’Neill remarked that ageing offers an opportunity for becoming “our truest selves”. For him it’s a time when we can embrace a broad and alternative notion of activity, namely that of “practising the right attitudes.” This is activity of the mind not just of the body and, as Salinger demonstrates, we can practise this even in the face of the disintegration of our body.
I had this Aristotelian notion of phronesis very much in mind recently. I was reading a piece written by Marc Freedman, the CEO of encore.org in which he made a plea for a new term to describe our 60s and 70s – the youth-of-old-age – in contrast to our 80s and 90s. As I said in this earlier post, it occurred to me that maybe ‘phronescence’ might be a possibility, weird though it might sound to our ears now. Freedman pointed out that the term adolescence had only been coined at the beginning of the twentieth century and I’m guessing that this must have seen a cumbersome and weird phrase too at the time.
But back to Jane Fonda. As she was approaching her own Third Age and getting on for her 60th birthday, she says, she started wondering where it was she was going and how she was going to use this next stage in her life. And she realised that in order to look forwards, she had to look backwards. She started studying her first two acts, thinking about who it was she’d really been (not through the eyes of her parents or anyone else on the outside) and then she found herself looking at who her parents were and her grandparents…
As Fonda observes, what she was engaged in was a ‘life review.’ At the end of our first two acts, she says, we often still have a lot of unfinished business:
“perhaps our parents weren’t able to love us beyond how we performed in the world; perhaps we still suffer from psychic pain…perhaps we feel that many of our relationships have not had closure. So we can feel unfinished. Perhaps the task of the third act is the task of finishing up the task of finishing ourselves.”
She describes this process as one where we go back and ultimately free ourselves from our past by changing our relationship to it. We may find that things we’d thought were our fault had nothing to do with us and that we are “just fine.” We go back, we forgive the people around us and then find that we can forgive ourselves too.
It’s not, she says, the experiences we’ve had themselves that make us wise. It’s reflecting on these experiences that does it. Well, Socrates knew this too, didn’t he, when he spoke of the emptiness of “the unexamined life”?
But Fonda concludes with a very contemporary ending to her talk. Women may have agency as small girls and whoop with the joy of being the subjects of their lives. Yet at puberty they so often find themselves becoming the subjects of other people’s lives and the process of objectification can set in. Maybe, she says, the Third Act is where “we can circle back to where we started and know it for the first time.”
And here’s the rub. If we can, it won’t be just for ourselves. Older women are the world’s biggest demographic, she points out. So if we can indeed become whole at this juncture in our lives, “this will create a cultural shift in the world. It will give an example to younger generations so they can reconceive their own lifespan.”
That’s no small potatoes. At this point, I was reminded of my post about Caitlin Moran’s comments; she said that when she heard Hilary Clinton was standing for office, it “rewired my entire chronology of being a woman”.
I love it that there are so many different ways that ageing in general in the twenty first century, and in particular ageing as a woman, can offer encouragement and optimism to younger generations as they look forwards at the continued trajectory of their own lives. I’m delighted that we can replace the depressing legacy of Shakespeare’s “second childishness” where we are “sans teeth… sans everything” with a fullness, a wisdom and a wholeness that represents an entirely different paradigm. And I’m thrilled to be ascending that staircase myself as I become a new ‘old woman’ and enjoy my own phronescence.
So listen to Jane and be inspired. I’d be interested to hear who else can relate to what she says as keenly as I do. Please leave a comment below.