Water and mountains at sunset

The Third Age

Mar 14, 2024

By Ron Epstein, MD

The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected*

Swedish Proverb

For millennia, people have thought of life in phases, usually three. Morning, afternoon, evening. Spring, summer, autumn. Young, middle, old. Depending on cultural norms, one of those phases might be venerated more than the others—old age in Asian and indigenous cultures, youth in North America – and accompanied by social roles and expectations—learning, economic stability, wisdom.

Yet, in France, life is divided into four “ages,” not three. The first, “youth,” and the second, “maturity,” were familiar, maturity being like a good wine. But the next train stop after maturity is not old age. There’s something sandwiched in between, the “troisième age,” defined as the time “after children have been raised” presuming a traditional family structure. I take that definition metaphorically, though. After fulfilling major social obligations and professional accomplishments, we have greater opportunity to be creative and connected, relatively unfettered by the (internal and external) pressures of achievement. Albert Camus, the French novelist-philosopher, summed it up in his four conditions for happiness: time in the open air, creativity, a creature to nurture and love, and freedom from ambition.

The troisième age is about growth, generativity, and connection. A time to ask reflective questions. Here are a few of mine: What is it that grows? Where do you direct your creative energy? What makes you feel radiant and robust? To what degree do you, and do you want to, meet the expectations of others?

I practice meditation every morning as I have for decades, but it is different now. It is “just sitting” and being present, not trying to achieve awareness, calm, focus, connection, anything. I’m not even trying to achieve nothing. As an amateur musician, I practice every day, and prepare for little house-concerts. My goal is to understand the music more deeply and to share that depth and beauty with friends. It matters less if I miss a note. My wife, a professional musician, reminded me the other day that practicing slowly is the key. In the moment, slow isn’t a pathway to fast, it is just slow.

Social connections, the important ones, take on enhanced meaning. How often do you talk with friends about what is most important in life, what provides sustenance and growth, and how they, too, navigate changes in role and aspirations? How do you learn from those just a bit older, especially someone who is creative and generative, and do you ask them about their sparks of inspiration, their discipline, their joy?

Recently, I’ve been enjoying Anne Lamott’s hilarious and provocative op-eds describing her balance between “organ recitals”– the litany of sags, symptoms, and medals of bodily endurance—and insights and inspirations that come with age, with more wisdom than the many joyless books on healthy aging.

If you’re still working, perhaps what is important has evolved. What is the focus of your attention now? As a professional, can you choose to do those things that only you can do, and leave the rest to others? Do you meet with colleagues and mentees for coffee, not just in a sterile office or on zoom? If you read about a colleague’s achievements, how do you reach out, honor, and cherish them? Do you explore how their lives and their thinking have evolved? Finally, how busy do you want to feel?

Sometime in the last year, I noticed that when people would ask “How are you?”, somehow the word “busy” always crept into my response, either literally or by implication. I’d responded that way for years, as did most people I knew. It was a habit. The “aha” moment came when I finally realized I didn’t like the feeling of “busy,” with the connotations of self-importance, subtly communicating burden and burnout, or worse, “too busy for you” to others, and “too busy for me” to myself. Although not untrue – I am actively engaged with the world – I decided to banish “busy.” I don’t do any less, and I don’t move more slowly, but I feel – and am – less “busy.” Maybe I expend less energy, who knows? With the reality of diminishing metabolic resources, each watt and each what matters more now.

*The opening quote, a Swedish proverb, and information about the Troisieme Age, come from Ageing: A Very Short Introduction, by Nancy Pachana, an Australian geropsychologist.

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