It is not difficult to be bold when one is young.
The finest audacity is that at the end of life.
"I know who I am," declares a character played by Olympia Dukakis in the film Moonstruck. It is one of those consummate moments in the movies when a truth about life gets encapsulated in a sentence. She has been urged to do something that goes against her character, something that would benefit her on other levels but would violate a core principle by which she has always lived. She makes this declaration with the exuberance of knowledge decades in the making.
Self-acceptance is one of those aspects of life that often require a long struggle. Some younger people appear to be self-possessed, but this is not the same thing as the confidence that comes with getting older. Self-confidence that is earned over the years, rather than simply claimed, is much more resistant to self-doubt. There is no substitute for having been tested by prior ordeals and having come out the other side more solid than before. Each time we stand our ground, each time we throw off comparison and envy, another layer of confidence is added.
A man in his fifties marveled at how far he had come since the formlessness and insecurity of his youth:
There are so many things I used to put up with when I was younger. I would tolerate situations I hated for the longest time. I don't think I even recognized when I was miserable-in relationships, at work, whatever. Now, I pay attention to how I'm feeling, how I'm reacting. I respect my own sense of what's going on. I don't force myself to take it. If things aren't right for me, I know it and I get the heck out of the situation. I'm getting better and better at this.
By the time we reach later life, we have taken on and discarded so many self-conceptions that we are well familiar with their gossamer qualities. We have less tolerance for decorative surfaces, the trappings donned in order to get ahead, fit in, or be liked. Where once we may have needed these props of identity and status to tell us who we were, now we care only about what is most personally rewarding or essential. Having other people support our stance is affirming, but is no longer necessary. This is the great discovery of individuality.
Later life, especially, invites us to be ourselves. One diminutive woman in her eighties told me, proudly, "These days, I really speak my mind." For most of her life, she had remained quiet, adapting to other people's needs and suppressing her own preferences. She had grown up as the fourth of eight children, with three outspoken older brothers, and married a man similar to them in his garrulous charm. A few years after his death, she explained her growing assertiveness: "Why not? What do I have to lose?" Her confidence was captivating. She was ready to be herself at last.
As we get older, we become more and more ourselves. This does not mean the cessation of all doubt or a blockade against new learning, but rather taking uncertainty in stride and becoming more selective about who we really respect to teach us something new. We still get upset, but rarely does upheaval stir us to the core. Our equanimity has grown large enough to dwarf our smaller disappointments. We know we are not invincible, but we are sure of the aspects of our identity that have been tested over time. We are more determined than ever to live well, to break through the limits of our anxieties and get on with the business of flourishing. Growing into our individuality is an accurate way to envision aging itself, since an unflappable inner stance is the sweet fruit of decades.
Adapted from: Life Gets Better: The Unexpected Pleasures of Growing Older, Tarcher/Penguin 2011.