Staring at Sixty: Some Musings About Mortality and the Bucket List
What would be on your "bucket list"?
Posted April 9, 2011
I will soon be sixty years old. Next month, as a matter of fact. Turning sixty can be a traumatic and treacherous time-- especially for those whose life hasn't gone exactly as expected or desired in some major way. Not that anyone's life ever does proceed precisely as planned. Life has a way of taking unanticipated twists and turns that are totally unpredictable. Some pleasant. Some fortunate. Some tragic. But by the time we reach sixty--assuming, that is, we do, since a significant percentage of the population, even today, even here in America, does not make it that far--the end of that winding and fateful road draws near. We have already likely spent at least eighty-percent of our productive time on this planet.
The advanced milestone of sixty is but a decade from the biblical limit of three-score-and-ten for the brief human life span. Sure, twenty-first-century science has found ways to prolong our lives and delay death beyond the age of seventy or even eighty or ninety. But even with all our miraculous medical advances, sixty still marks for most the inescapable, insidious start of significant physical--and sometimes mental--decline. We could say sixty signifies the beginning of the end. This may sound morbid to some. And depressing. Yet, paradoxically, the increasingly palpable existential confrontation with our own mortality can make life more meaningful and motivate us to appreciate and utilize whatever time we have left in this world wisely.
Death anxiety--the conscious or, more often, unconscious awareness of that which threatens our tenuous existence--can be a positive, even creative force, spurring us to seize the moment, mobilize action, foreswear procrastination, roll the proverbial dice, find purpose and fight furiously against annihilation despite its inevitability. As Dylan Thomas poetically puts it,
Do not go gentle into that goodnight
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light
Death anxiety, when courageously met rather than chemically or otherwise neutralized, denied or repressed as we stare at sixty, can serve to spur creativity, solidify one's sense of self, and significantly strengthen spirituality. Indeed, spirituality or religiosity revolves centrally around the existential dread of everything in life that brings suffering, disease, decrepitude and, finally, death. The quality of life after sixty depends in part on how we deal with death, the significance we assign to it, and the attitude we take toward it. Psychologist Erik Erikson characterized this stage of life as leading to either a sense of integrity or despair (see my prior post on "clinical despair") regarding how we have conducted our lives thus far, and depending upon how we come to terms with what we have or have not yet accomplished as we approach death. Addiction, nilhilism, consumerism, hedonism and desperately hanging on to youth are all ways of avoiding rather than creatively encountering death anxiety.
In this sense, staring at sixty is similar to what psychiatrist Carl Jung famously called a mid-life crisis. In the mid-life crisis, starting archetypally around thirty-five to forty-five, we ideally consciously yet sometimes unconsciously take stock of what we have and have not yet accomplished, consider how satisfied or dissatisfied we are with our current lifestyle, reassess our identity, dreams, desires and values, and either continue, modify or radically alter our course accordingly as we enter the second half of life. But it is incorrect to confuse staring at sixty with classic mid-life crisis, though this is a common misperception. These are two distinct rites de passage. At mid-life there is theoretically and statistically still time to do those things we haven't yet done and become more the kind of person we wish to. While a mid-life or "half-time" crisis forces us to decide how to live out the second half or afternoon of life, staring at sixty, the archetypal sunset or "end-game" crisis, calls for deciding how to deal with, as Dylan Thomas says, " the dying of the light." A full blown mid-life crisis can be chaotic, terrifying and profoundly disorienting. (See, for example, my prior post about Jung's own devastating mid-life crisis documented subjectively in his Red Book) But staring at sixty can make a mid-life crisis pale in comparison.
Turning sixty brings a burning urgency and powerful poignancy commonly missing in the garden variety mid-life crisis. By sixty, the bulk of our life has already been lived, and there is little time left to change course. It may simply be too late to make up for missing out on certain life experiences, or just not physically or practically feasible. Opportunities and potentialities that were still possible at mid-life have, at sixty, dried up or disappeared. Staring at sixty is the ultimate existential confrontation with limitation, finitude, loss and, finally, nothingness. At sixty, we can no longer avoid, deny or ignore our own mortality, typically having been confronted with the sobering, slow decline and death of parents, siblings, mentors, colleagues and friends. It is a perilous spiritual crisis par excellence, and the outcome is always psychologically uncertain. While Erikson's classic description of this stage as an inner battle between despair or integrity has merit, it seems to me that perhaps an equally apt aspect of this precarious passage is the basic question of courage vs. cowardice: Can we find the courage within ourselves to willingly confront, overcome or accept what inevitably lies before us? Or will we cower in fear and hunker down or despairingly retreat into self-deception, avoiding, distorting or denying reality in the daunting and mystifying face of what disturbingly awaits us?
There is a natural or teleological tendency toward wholeness within us which strives toward balance, compensation and completion, even as we enter our sixties and beyond. And we now face new opportunities and possibilities perhaps not available to us previously. Some doors close permanently by sixty, while others still wait to be opened. Sixty is a last chance to seek more balance, wholeness and integrity in life. Not merely by looking back, reviewing our life and reconciling ourselves to the past, but by looking forward to what we may still be able to accomplish, contribute and experience in life. Two of my former mentors, Drs. Rollo May and June Singer, lived well into their eighties, and remained active, creative and productive professionally and personally. Rollo May, for example, published his magnum opus, Love and Will (1969) at sixty, and his culminating contribution, The Cry for Myth, at the advanced age of eighty-two. Not all of us who reach sixty will ever see eighty. But however much time we have left is precious and must be well spent. And that then becomes the crucial question when staring at sixty: How to use the limited time left to us in the most meaningful, satisfying, productive and fulfilling fashion possible. To see sixty as the start of yet another chapter remaining to be written before the book comes to a conclusion. A last opportunity to try to leave the best legacy we can to loved ones, students, society and posterity. To discover and pursue our destiny.
Is death a door or a dead-end? Whatever one's religious beliefs, traditional spiritual teachings tell us that any continued existence beyond death will be influenced by what we do here in this lifetime and on this earthly plane. For atheists, the conviction that there can be no continued existence after physical death makes what we do with life prior to death absolutely paramount. So, either way, the unvarnished awareness of death's reality is essential for spurring on personal and spiritual growth in the form of more detachment from the material world, greater ethical and moral development, enhanced self-acceptance, learning to embrace both the good and evil sides of existence, cultivating caring relationships, increased creativity, and a finer appreciation of the present moment, beauty, and life's awesome mysteries.
In the 2007 film The Bucket List, Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman play two terminally ill, mid-sixty-ish men who meet in the hospital, receive prognoses of having a year or less to live, and decide to literally list and then actively pursue certain life experiences that had eluded them to that point before "kicking the bucket" (dying). Skydiving. Race car driving. Kissing the most beautiful woman in the world. Hiking the Himalayas. But also, especially for the more philosophically inclined Carter, the list includes less mundane, more romantic or even spiritual acts:. Doing something good for a total stranger. Witnessing something truly majestic. Morgan Freeman's character (Carter Chambers) leaves his loving wife and family to accompany wealthy, cynical and unattached Nicholson (Edward Cole) on these heady adventures around the world. But, in the end, he misses his wife and family, and returns home a happier and more contented man. Sadly, his contentment is short-lived as he succumbs to the cancer that had been stalking him. Cole too, who miraculously winds up surviving in remission to a ripe old age, finds some soul, reconciling with his long-estranged daughter, and delivering the heartfelt eulogy at his friend Carter's funeral. Both of these very different men went in desperate search of things they thought they wanted, found these experiences fell somewhat short of fulfilling them, and discovered something quite unexpected in the process: love, friendship, conciliation, compassion, acceptance, joy and, yes, as Erikson says, integrity. There is much that can happen post-sixty, and much yet to be created: Places to see, people to love, books to write, movies to make, paintings to paint, and so forth. But turning sixty is not necessarily the time to start composing your very own "bucket list" of daring or exotic things to do in the world. Indeed, for some it may not be about doing anything at all. Or, it may be that what needs to be done must take place primarily in the inner rather than outer world. That all depends.
For example, for the extraverted type, sixty might be the time to further develop his or her introverted function: it may be a time for more introspection, meditation and solitude. Or for psychotherapy or analysis. This is more of an interior than outer adventure, but most assuredly an adventure nonetheless. After going through a prolonged period of extreme introversion spanning almost twenty years, C.G. Jung entered a more extraverted stage as he approached sixty. Introverted types at sixty may need to integrate more extraverted activities into their life-style, in some cases shifting from a life-style of relative solitude to one of greater interpersonal relationship and participation in the world. And, for some, a prior life devoted to relationship, marriage and family may turn toward being alone and independent for the first time. For the life-long materialist, sixty may mark the start of a more spiritual perspective. Or newly found religiosity for the former atheist. Or, in other cases, atheism or agnosticism for the previously devoutly or dogmatically religious person. For the ascetically spiritually-oriented person, perhaps sixty is a time to learn to partake in, enjoy and appreciate more of the sensual, physical, material world. And for the overly masculine, rational, logical, intellectual, aggressive individual (no matter what their gender), sixty can become the impetus to integrate his or her feminine, intuitive, emotional, receptive side--and vice-versa for the one-sidedly feminine man or woman. (See my previous post.) Some of this counterbalancing of personality polarities tends to occur naturally during this potentially profoundly transformative phase, though we may resist such changes violently, preferring to cling to our previous persona at all costs.
Sixty can be likened to the fourth and final quarter in football, or the seventh inning in baseball: in both cases, the game is coming to an end, but there remains time to decide the final outcome. It ain't over till its over. Or till the proverbial fat lady sings. That makes it all the more dynamic and exciting. Something unexpected can still happen to influence the score. There may even be extra innings or overtime. Fate, in the form of physical limitation, illness, professional, financial, personal and family circumstance, etc. always comes into play, just as weather, injuries, psychology, luck and other variables affect a baseball, football, basketball, tennis, golf or hockey game. But despite these fateful conditions beyond our control, we remain the main authors of this closing chapter, and possess the opportunity and bear responsibility for writing or rewriting the ending. Or, at least, trying our best to do so.
If, as sixty looms, we do desire to create our very own "bucket list," it may be more helpful to think of it as a compilation of "unfinished business." Of bravely facing new challenges, or old ones not yet taken on. Of compensating for our imbalance by developing that part of ourselves we perennially neglected. Not just in the outer world and with others, but in the interior world and with ourselves. Of things left lopsided, incompleted, unsaid, uncreated, unconscious or unfinished. Of matters the completion or compensation of which will leave us feeling more whole, harmonious, balanced, peaceful and contented. And as a sacred process of coming to terms with our failures, misdemeanors, missteps and mistakes. Self-forgiveness--coupled with a recognition of and taking responsibility for our past hurtful, destructive, evil deeds and their ramifications-- is a vital part of this stage of spiritual development.
In The Bucket List--as typically in real life--it takes being told that death is imminent to start the two men on thier redemptive spiritual journey. Staring at sixty, when taken seriously, can serve the same purpose. And possibly provide more time for pursuing the venture, though this can not be foreseen. Of course, we'll never complete all of our unfinished business, no matter how much time, creativity or courage we have. Nor will we be able to personally experience everything possible in life. Or become perfectly whole, harmonious and balanced. We will always have to bear some guilt, regret, resentments, grief, frustrations and disappointments. Some dreams will never be realized, and others perhaps only partially. Part of the psychological task of surpassing sixty is more about accepting who we are, our human limitations, and what we have or have not done or actualized than about changing ourselves or our lives. Learning to appreciate and focus on what we have accomplished versus what we did not, and what we have versus what we lack. Change after sixty--of character, circumstance, life-style, outlook, behavior, belief, vocation, attitude--while possible, is difficult. (See my prior post on Scrooge's exceptional spiritual redemption late in life.) But engaging with courage, commitment, creativity, integrity, authenticity and passion to the challenge of trying will take us the rest of the way. And we may just find some fun, excitement, satisfaction, joy, love, beauty, awe, enlightenment, meaning, purpose and peace of mind in the process. Check with me a little later and I'll let you know how its going on the far side of sixty.