Rites of Passage
When Lao-tzu says: "All are clear, I alone am clouded," he is expressing what I now feel in advanced old age. Lao-tzu is the example of a man with superior insight who has seen and experienced worth and worthlessness, and who at the end of his life desires to return into his own being, into the eternal unknowable meaning."
—C. G. Jung
Memories, Dreams, Reflections, ed. Aniela Jaffé, trans. Richard and clara Winston (New York: Pantheon Books, 1963), 359.
The First Taste of Aging
In adolescence, individuals start to perceive their age more in social and psychological terms and, indeed, frequently report feeling significantly older than their chronological age. This process continues in early and middle adulthood, yet the subjective experience of age now starts to take the opposite direction and
individuals report feeling younger than their chronological age.
The first taste of getting old can be unsettling. You have been cruising along without giving much thought to age. But then you notice an unfamiliar stiffness and soreness after exercise. You can't stand up from a crouch as you used to. You see some wrinkles and a new crease. People treat you differently, offering to help you and asking about your health, saying how wonderful you look in a way that says: "You look good—for your age!"
Each decade feels different. When I turned thirty, I didn't know I was young. I never thought about age. When I became forty, I felt a jolt for the first time and became aware that I was older than some of my friends. A faint scent of aging. When I turned fifty, I could no longer deny that I was getting older. I began receiving mail for the senior citizen at my address. But I was in good shape and didn't notice many physical indications. Sixty was not an easy birthday. I was in Ireland, and a neighbor was celebrating his fortieth at the same time. I felt ancient in comparison and began to wish that I had been born twenty years later. Your comfort with age is delicate and easily upended.
When I consider aging, I think of my friend James Hillman, who was one of the most remarkable people I've ever met. He began his life as a writer and then became a psychoanalyst, basing his work largely on the psychoanalytic pioneer C. G. Jung—for years he was the head of the training program at the Jung Institute in Zürich.
But James went his own way in a community that honored every word Jung wrote, making revisions to Jung where he thought fit. He was an original thinker, always turning old and familiar ideas upside down, and he was passionate about bringing soul to every aspect of life. He didn't want to define therapy as just having to do with an individual's deep process. In his later years he was especially interested in the soul of the world, and he wrote eloquently about transportation, politics, city planning, racism, architecture, and gender issues.
When James turned sixty, he threw a big party to celebrate the big turn in his life. He told me privately that at sixty he wanted to enter old age consciously, and not let the years slip past. On a small outdoor stage in the round at his house in rural Connecticut he put on a talent show accompanied by a smoky outdoor roast, and several of his friends performed. He himself did a lively tap dance. But after the party, to all appearances, he didn't change much. He kept his vigor and was active and productive. I felt that the hoopla
he created was premature in some ways, and yet for him sixty was an important marker. Maybe the party was an unconscious way of keeping old age at bay.
In my mid-sixties something happened that forced me to think seriously about aging. I was on a book tour in San Francisco, walking up and down the steep hills, when I felt an unusual pain in my back. I went on to Seattle and again felt the pain and became dizzy even on a flat street. I stood at a corner amid heavy car and pedestrian traffic and held on to a post for a few minutes, my head spinning. I thought it might be pneumonia, which I had contracted on two previous tours. When I got home, my doctor suspected a heart
problem and scheduled a stress test.
It turned out that I had considerable blockage in one of the main arteries. Having them cleared out with tiny boring tools and receiving two stents wasn't painful, but I found it difficult to recover emotionally. As soon as I got home from the hospital and lay back on a comfortable reclining chair, I felt Saturn place his buttocks on my chest. I went into a mild depression. My wife says that I became a different person, softened and more relaxed. I certainly felt older. Even now, ten years later, it seems that those days of recovery were a turning point in which I really began to feel my age. The slope tipped in a downward direction. But the depression didn't last long. Besides, I felt so good after the treatment that I also gained back some youth. In the years since then I have had an active and productive life, both in my career and with my family.