Coming of Age

Today is my 70th Birthday and I feel drawn to reflect on ‘age’

What do we understand by ‘age’ as it pertains to you and I, and to other people in the world?

Primarily people see it as a measure of time passed – of how many years or planetary circuits of the sun, one has been ‘alive’ in the form of a corporeal human being.

(That may of course not be the same as how long you and I have been – and will be –  ‘alive’ as spiritual beings but that’s another story.)

People also see a person’s ‘age’ as a label.

Because someone is a certain age they are first of all labelled as ‘old’, ‘young’, or ‘middle aged’ (whatever that means) and these adjectives are then given certain attributes depending on the perspective of the ‘labeler’.

I must admit that I get annoyed, even offended, when people in the media describe people who are 20 years younger than me as ‘old’.

I may have lived for 70 years so far but my mind and my spirit are not by any means ‘old’.

I prefer the term ‘wise’, because for you and I – as our age increases and our experience is added to over the years, and we make mistakes, and we find better ways of doing things, and we learn new stuff, we, by default, increase in wisdom.

That doesn’t mean we ‘know everything’; it actually means that we know that we don’t know everything and that we can still learn more . . . and more. That’s the essence of wisdom.

The pity of it is that society doesn’t encourage this, at least not western society.

‘Old folks’ are supposed to ‘retire’ gracefully, sit down and shut up, preferably in a ‘home’ and ‘wait for God’.

Many younger people who haven’t yet acquired the wisdom that comes with increasing experience and personal development, actually resent the ‘burden’ (as they see it) placed on society by ‘old people’.

But what about the earlier stages of our corporeal progress through the ‘ages’?

In Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’ Act 2 Scene 7, Jacques expounds on the ‘seven ages of man’.

This is a prime example of ‘labelling’ and it should be remembered that in the 15th Century the average ‘lifespan’ was a lot shorter – for a multitude of reasons.

However what Jacques described in his monologue still bears some comparison with present day society.

The first stage – Infancy, was described by Shakespeare as ‘helpless’. But that was never true.

Infants are great goal achievers. Infants set their mind to do something and learn by themselves to develop the skills to do it. Despite what parents may think, infants learn to eat, learn to walk, and learn, by themselves, to imitate those things they see their parents doing: not ‘helpless’ by any means.

But then the parents start to interfere with the fateful words “you can’t do that” and so on.

As we reach the second age that Shakespeare calls ‘schoolboy’ the process begins where society, led by teachers and parents starts to ‘mould’ people into the image that it wants.

No wonder children are reluctant to go to school, find it boring and so on because they feel contumely held back and have their goals and dreams summarily dismissed without a second thought by those who are supposed to be educating them.

They aren’t being educated they are being trained, as an official of the National Union of Teachers recently put it “for the world of work”.

The third age in the 15th Century and indeed until quite recently was separate, now it overlaps with the ‘educational’ age and the fourth ‘work’ age which Shakespeare described as ‘young man’.

The third age is when puberty sets in and this has a massive impact on whatever else is going on. It’s the cause of much anxiety for everyone and has a negative effect on self confidence and personal development apart from being a complete distraction from ‘normal’ life.

This third age is probably the time when our corporeal and spiritual elements are in greatest conflict.

The fourth age is described by Shakespeare as the ‘bold and fearless soldier’ and in a modern terms this is when people first enter the ‘world of work’.

It’s an apt description because, unless they manage to escape from the societal paradigm of school-work-retirement, they become ‘cannon fodder’.

Regardless of educational standards achieved they will be low paid, overworked and in debt.

Some people remain in this age as ‘workers’ until they ‘retire’ into the sixth or seventh age. That’s what they’ve been trained to do.

Others go on to the fifth age which Shakespeare called ‘Middle Aged’ and I call the ‘career’ age. In most cases this still means being employed, but at a higher and more remunerative level.

Some people are lucky enough to be employed to do a job they love and other move on into self employment or business ownership in order to be able to do what they want to do.

Now there comes a divergence as you and I will be aware.

Some people adopt Shakespeare’s sixth age, where they suddenly become ‘old’; they behave ‘old’ and they dress ‘old’. In terms of years they may still be quite young, but they think ‘old’.

The seventh age soon follows, dementia sets in and they end up having to be cared for and in many cases, like my mother, actually want desperately to die.

Again, it’s so sad that this is what society believes is ‘normal’.

The alternative to this is the scenario I laid out at the beginning.

The alternative sixth age is the age of wisdom. It is the age of understanding, but continuing to learn, and it’s also the age of ‘giving back’.

And we can still be in the fifth age at the same time – it all depends what you and I want for our lives.

The sixth age goes on for as long as you and I want it to or until we reach the alternative seventh age which I describe as the age of enlightenment.

Difficult to describe, but there are probably less than 10 people alive who have reached this – possibly Nelson Mandela and his Holiness the Dalai Lama are two of them.

Which age are you in?