Are we ever finished with growing? It seems that at a certain point in our lives we think we are. It also seems that we think we are more perfect than we are. How does that fit with the wisdom that comes with age?
Two articles grabbed my attention. The link between them was easy to spot as they were printed side by side. Whether this was clever editing or coincidence I don’t know, what I do know is that they struck a chord with me, a chord which has featured in the theme-tune of my life.
The first of these was Oliver Burkeman’s regular column in the Guardian. He wrote about research that shows, in brief, that while we happily accept that we change as we go through life, from a certain point (our 40th year, say), we think that we have finished changing and that the future – in terms of what makes us who we are – will be more of the same.
In other words, we are able to look back on our lives and see how we have changed as we’ve aged, but we are less likely to consider that we will go on changing as we get older.
Could this mean that though we can see that we have gained wisdom and insight with experience, we nevertheless consider that the process is over and that at any given moment we are as wise as we’ll ever be?
Deluded and bitter?
The second article was a confessional piece, What I’m Really Thinking, by a dating agency proprietor (as an aside, what do such people call themselves; ‘dateologists’; ‘dateographer’; ‘datist’, or even ‘splicer’?). It was an informative and entertaining read, a summary of which is that many of the agency’s clients are deluded “middle-aged people who are embittered and unrealistic about (their) own personal qualities and attractiveness.”
Apparently, people in their aspirations to re-make their lives tend to have an idealised image of the perfect (and therefore unattainable) partner they seek, and an equally over-inflated view of what they themselves have to offer a potential mate.
Age and wisdom?
The reason that these two pieces formed a whole for me is that they echoed a few of my deepest existential fears as I have gone through three-quarters or more of my life. For simplicity I’ll reduce these to two:
“What if I’m really quite stupid and unlikeable and people around me are just humouring me?”; and
“As I look back over my life I can see how stupid/gauche/arrogant I was back then, (sub-text, fortunately, I’m not like that any more so I have learnt and improved).”
Taken together you can see how the second more or less counters any angst produced by the first; since I have been constantly changing (gradually losing naivety and gaining insight), assuming that this process continues, I’ll continue to improve, with the chance that I’ll be alright one day, as long as I keep learning.
Are we ever finished with growing?
Throughout my life, I have been constantly looking towards the new set of opportunities presented by the next phase of my life. If you like, my get-out clause has always been “If I’m not OK yet (as a fully rounded and admirable individual, which I clearly am not), then there is still hope for improvement at a later date, and with even more age and experience.”
So much has this been a theme that I have got a bit of a reputation as someone who is, depending on your point of view
a) not very stable as I keep changing or
b) able to re-invent myself according to changing circumstances.
It was a surprise to me, when I read these two articles, to find that not everybody considers themselves to be a ‘work in progress’. Life inevitably offers us opportunities for healing and growth, but I guess not everyone sees it that way. Before you run away with the idea that this is just another delusion on my part, I can only say that my raison d’être has always been that the future presents possibilities; opportunities for growth and change and that this is a chord which continues to resonate.
Oliver Burkeman: Happy Just the Way You Are?