I have often quipped that Freud and Jung were the great myth makers of the twentieth century. Both proposed broad theories of human behavior that were highly speculative and rife with conjecture. Yet, myths often convey powerful allegorical truths. The fact that the ideas of these psychologic pioneers have persisted attests to their power. Concepts such as introversion, extroversion and anal personality have infiltrated our vocabulary and are used often. Freud’s idea is that adult behavior is influenced by early childhood development; that children pass through through an oral, anal and genital phase. Containing some merit, but does this deal with the fact that our personalities continue to develop and emerge throughout life as we confront new challenges. The dynamics of maturing and of meeting the challenges of later life have been expounded upon by Eric Ericson. His final stage of development is with how one deals with the end stages of life which bring up the conflict of maintaining the integrity of our being, versus slipping into despair.
We live in a society where a man is defined by what he does. Many of us have experienced roles that involved various responsibilities and multi-tasking. At the zenith of my professional life I held the position of president of the medical staff of a large general hospital. Simultaneously I was medical director of a psychiatric hospital, a practicing clinician and director of a large psychiatric clinic. Although, at times, I chaffed under the pressure, I definitely enjoyed the challenges involved. I’m certain that this is true for a great number of men who love their work but get overextended in their endeavors. I bring this subject up to contrast the hectic whirl of working life to the lack of structure and the excess of time presented by retirement. For many, retirement comes a shock. The feeling of being unproductive forces many men to reevaluate their lives and their purpose. Questions arise. Has my life been worthwhile? Have I made a difference? Am I still useful? If so, in what way? Am I a burden to my loved ones? How much of my personal “bucket list” remains unfulfilled.
Of course, many men enter retirement with reasonable vigor and good health. For them this stage of life allows more time to travel, golf or pursue other diversions. As their body becomes more frail they also are forced to succumb to the contemplative life instead of a life of doing. More and more they live in memories of the past.
The questions previously posed become more intense. What purpose do they have in continuing to live?
I have no answers to these existential questions. Those who have prepared themselves for engaging in passive activities may weather this storm with relative ease. For others it might be turbulent with financial problems, pain, debility and impending death.
The Buddha suggested that all life is suffering. For pampered persons in Western cultures this concept seems foreign. Yet, to accept this idea may help in navigating the inexorable ravages of time. Plato further commented upon the ills of aging. He said that those with a calm and happy disposition will hardly feel the pressures of age. It might be possible to nurture these features through meditation and other vehicles such as psychotherapy. Keeping connected with family and friends is a powerful antidote against despair. It is important for old codgers to remember that they have important symbolic value to their children. Our progeny usually value our presence and usually do not want us to leave this vale of tears before our time. This last stage of psychosocial development can be a phase of quiet contentment. The battles of life are over allowing us to bask in the glories of our past.