A human being can change in significant ways in a relatively short period of time. Sometimes we perceive the change to be positive and sometimes not. I wonder: What makes a change positive, and what makes it not?
When one of my students brought her little boy with her to an appointment a few weeks ago, I found the changes in him to be astounding! A few months earlier he was still being carried around by his parents; he still looked like a “baby.” But when I saw him recently, he was locomoting around my office, commanding his mommy’s attention with proto-words and gestures and holding my gaze. He was no longer a baby, he was a little boy! There’s a big difference between being an eight-month-old who is still crawling and being a one-year-old who is tottering and experimenting with first words. That’s a heck of a lot of growth in just four months, don’t you think?
Here’s another example. Last week, I resumed my gero-punk collaborative inquiry sessions at the Continuing Care Retirement Community. What is a “gero-punk collaborative inquiry session”? Well, it happens something like this: I try to show up early, greet my old friends as they arrive, engage in informal chitting and chatting, and then read an essay; we talk about whatever comes to our minds in response to the themes explored.
So, I showed up early. One of my old old friends – a friend whom I hadn’t seen for six months – was already in the room when I walked in. The last time I had seen her was this past summer.
When I greeted her she didn’t recognize me. I (re)introduced myself and mentioned that we’d taken a walk together a few months ago. I also let her know I’d thought a lot about the stories she’d shared with me about the world travels she and her late husband had enjoyed together over many decades. My mention of her travels jogged her memory and she began talking about the safari they went on in South Africa, and about how saddened she was by the shantytowns on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Then she asked me again who I was and why I was there. I told her I had come to visit and perhaps read something I had written. So she asked me to read what I’d prepared.
I finished with the reading, and we sat in silence for perhaps a minute or two. Then she began to reminisce about her grandfather, an Englishman who performed with the London Philharmonic before immigrating to the U.S. and establishing a theatre in a small town in Washington State. Sadly, her grandfather’s theatre eventually burned to the ground and he lost everything except for his “wonderful, positive attitude.” Then my friend began to reminisce again about the safari and other trips she and her husband went on decades ago. When I asked her about her sons, she told me I asked an awful lot of questions!
There is poignancy in the rapid changes being experienced by my student’s little son and there is poignancy in the rapid changes being experienced by my old friend. When I interact with my student’s son, my dominant feeling is excitement about all that he is learning second by second; about the amazing adventure he is on and all that he’s discovering and will discover. When I interact with my old friend, my dominant feeling is curiosity about her real-time experience of time traveling between the past, present and future – but my curiosity is tinged with sadness. But why? Why do I feel sadness in response to the changes my old friend is experiencing and not in response to the changes my student’s toddler is experiencing? Is it because I imagine my student’s son’s changes are governed by “development” and are “normal” and, thus, “positive,” but my old friend’s changes, harder to pin down, are “not-positive” because they seem to be governed by some other force – not development, probably not aging per se, but some irreversible and irresistible force related to living for a long time in a body on this planet?
He’s new, she’s not, but they are both close to their times of living in the stars.
Our travels through the life course involve a balance between gains and losses; development and aging are inexorably intertwined, commencing at birth when we become terrestrial and ending when we return to the stars.
And listen closely when I tell you this important secret: Development isn’t just about gains, and aging isn’t just about losses.
And life in a body is glorious and dangerous and contingent on time/place/space. We get out of this adventure neither unscathed nor alive. But whatever happens, the journey can be an exciting adventure for which we feel grateful, completely grateful.
Dr. Jennifer Sasser is chair of the department of human sciences and director of gerontology at Marylhurst University near Portland, Oregon, and co-convener of the Intentional Aging Collective. Read more of Jenny’s writings on her Gero-Punk Project blog.