Cusp

How it feels to be on the brink of a life passage, from youth to middle age to death.

Every Stage Is The Toughest Stage

We tend to think the most significant crossroads is the one we happen to be in

Life's most difficult juncture is the one you happen to be going through, writes New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Bruni in an interesting piece in today's paper. As Bruni puts it, "We’re a self-absorbed species, and one wrinkle of our self-absorption is our tendency, reflected in our art and entertainment, to believe that there’s no passage of human existence as fraught with perils and as peculiarly significant as the one we just so happen to be going through."

Take the twenties. Bruni says that for a young person like, oh, say, Lena Dunham (inevitably, he uses this column as a chance to weigh in on her beloved TV show "Girls"), everything interesting and juicy seems to be happening between the ages of 20 and 30. In the show, he writes, this stage is presented as 

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one of peerlessly keen neediness and doubt. You yearn to believe that you’ve figured out the dating game, not yet realizing that it’s eternally unfathomable. You ache for an assurance that you’re pointed in a purposeful direction, but suspect that you’re going nowhere fast. Your desire to project confidence is inversely proportional to your store of it, and you have some really, really bad furniture. I recall, from my mid-20s, a lacquered black table with fake gold accents that cost me next to nothing except, for many years afterward, an undying, unspeakable shame.

But if you're fortysomething, like, say, the film director Judd Apatow, you think the forties are where all the hard and meaningful stuff happens, as evidenced in Apatow's new movie "This is Forty." And if you're Frank Bruni and 48 years old, you focus on a slightly older age range for when the shit REALLY hits the fan.

The column put me in mind of a study reported in Science magazine earlier this week in a much-discussed article called "The End of History Illusion." In a way, that study -- conduced by Harvard's Daniel Gilbert and his colleagues  -- contradicts Bruni's basic premise. To Bruni, the most lively, most roiling, most transformative period of your life is the one you're going through right this moment. To Gilbert and his co-authors (Jordi Quoidbach of Harvard and Timothy D. Wilson of the University of Virginia), the most transformative period of your life is already behind you, and you expect that from here on in, things will stay pretty much the same.

The researchers studied more than 19,000 people between ages 18 and 68, and divided them into three categories: young, middle-aged, and old. (May I pause for a moment to quibble with the idea that a sample of adults that stops at age 68 contains a cohort that should be categorized as "old"?) At all three stages, they noted, they "all believed they had changed a lot in the past but would change relatively little in the future." This held true whether the projected changes related to essential traits such as personality and core values, or relatively superficial things like favorite foods or rock bands. And it held true whether they were asking 60-year-olds or 30-year-olds to compare their current selves with the way they'd been ten years ago -- and the way they'd be ten years from today.

"People, it seems, regard the present as a watershed moment at which they have finally become the person they will be for the rest of their lives," the authors wrote.

My friend David Berreby has an interesting way of looking at these findings -- different from how other science journalists like John Tierney and Ed Yong interpreted them. David, who blogs at Big Think, wrote a post recently about the End of History study. We're designed to think that our biggest changes are behind us instead of ahead of us, he says, because of the human mind's proclivity for storytelling.

For the sake of our psychological health, according to David, we tell ourselves stories about who we are and how we got to be this way. This helps us make sense of who we are -- as well as who we've been, But the unknowability of who will WILL be doesn't fit so well into the scheme. So for the sake of the narrative, we choose to tell ourselves that who we WILL be is, essentially, who we already are. As David puts it:

No matter how much your past is full of zigs and zags as you changed in personality, values and tastes, you can always package it as a coherent narrative. I can describe what happened to me as a natural evolution (my principles drove me to rethink my stance on marriage equality) or I can describe the change as a dramatic break (my experience in the war really changed me). It doesn't matter which; when I tell the tale, it will have the reassuring coherence of story. In other words, all autobiographies are coherent—not because people are, but because stories are. The future, being unknown, cannot be shaped in this way.

Rather than try to squoosh the unknowable future into the narrative, we ignore it altogether. In ten years, we tell ourselves, we won't be all that much different from how we are now. In a way, this observation is just another way of looking at Bruni's observation -- that who we are now, whatever stage of life that might be, is hugely, universally interesting.

Robin Marantz Henig is a science journalist and co-author, with her daughter Samantha Henig, of Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck?

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