Aging: Fleeting of the Self

A man and woman laying in bed smiling for the camera.

The soul’s dark cottage, battered and decayed, lets in new light through chinks that time hath made.

~ Edmund Waller


Aging in Place

I once attended a presentation by HR Moody to the Oregon Gerontological Association on Shaping the Future of Gerontology: Education, Inquiry, and Practice. Dr. Moody portrayed two possible scenarios for the future of aging: The first was dismal, focused on disease and decline–the second, hopeful emphasizing human potential and growth. His role play was humorous; yet tempered with the burden of insight.

No one today speaks to this dichotomy of aging with a clearer voice than HR Moody. His treatment of Erickson’s 8thand final stage of psychosocial development–Maturity (from 65 to death), was the take-home message for me: That the pursuit of eternal youth may be soul eroding.

In summary below is Dr. Moody’s message captured by the idea of “no-bodyness.”

by HR Moody

Heard the one about the story of the Narcissist who says, “Well, enough about me. Let’s talk about you. What do you think of me?”We see these things about other people but, alas, not always about ourselves. For example, I used to work for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, where my job was giving away other people’s money. It turned out I was suddenly very popular. Then one day I left the Foundation. Very quickly, people stopped returning my phone calls. No one was more surprised than me. (What had I missed?)

The problem of narcissism only increases with age, because aging,in so many ways, is a narcissistic wound. We lose social roles, the body begins to fail us, we don’t even look like ourselves anymore. What to do about it all?

There are two paths. One path waits for that phone call, looks for plastic surgery, and plunges into new activities, hoping to deny the obvious. Over and over again, we “keep busy” often asking, in essence, “What do you think of me?”The other path lies in “the road less traveled,” which is the journey toward inwardness and detachment: as Ram Dass put it,” becoming a nobody.”

The problem of narcissism is that this enemy is invisible, like carbon monoxide gas that kills you and you don’t even know it’s there. To struggle against narcissism is not easy.Ram Dass suggested that the real school for Aging is the school of nobody-ness, of consciously learning to become a nobody:

“I’m nobody. Who are you?
Are you nobody too?”
~ Emily Dickinson

Part of our problem is that we live in a culture that celebrates “self-esteem” at every turn, from childhood on up. We all want to be famous (even if just on Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok).

For a useful analysis of this problem see THE NARCISSISM EPIDEMIC: Living in the Age of Entitlement, by Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell (Free Press, 2009) and of course Christopher Lasch’s classic THE CULTURE OF NARCISSISM.


For more on HR Moody

Link for Narcissist

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