Saturday, 13 October 2012

The Fourth Age - Life Long Learning

We are used to hearing about the Third Age but lately we are beginning to hear about Four Stages of life. People are living to be much older and many are active into their 60's and 70's in ways they were not previously - I was speaking to one man on Sunday who is still working aged 78. It's also true that many people are progressing into their 80's and 
90's and looking for ways to find friendship and to go on engaging in the adventure of life, even where physical health, sight, hearing or mobility has deteriorated to some degree. The writer Ann Morisy puts it like this, 'For the first time in human history, our map of life consists of not three stages, but four. The suddenness with which this new shape to our lives has come about makes it unsurprising that we fumble for ways of making sense of this apparent gift of extra years.'  

Apparently anyone reaching 65 (which, for most people, used to represent the age of retirement or beyond) can expect an average of 15 years' further active life. This general expectation of a greatly extended period at the end of life is a relatively new phenomenon. I can remember my grandparents commenting on every obituary they read in the Times where the deceased had had more than his or her 'three score years and ten' - it was unusual.

So what are the distinctive qualities and tasks of the Fourth Stage of life? Carl Jung lived to be 87. His psychological theory placed great emphasis on the need for a person to pass through the process of individuation which often occurs in later life, certainly after mid-life. By means of this process, poeple work through earlier internal conflicts and losses to become more themselves. James Fowler noted that, in the final stage of life, people often discover how to become more comfortable living with paradox, recognising that two truths that appear to conflict can be accepted and 'lived' together so they make a larger picture of what truth is - 'I loved my parent/my parent was sometimes unkind to me'  can come to be understood in the wider context, 'My parent had a difficult life/my life has been valuable despite the wounds/I can both love my parent and acknowledge that they were unkind'. Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross both portray the spiritual life as a succession of stages or 'rooms' through which we move, coming to stages where there is much perplexity, stages of comparative peace and stages where there is a deep yearning to discover more or to plumb the depths of our own psyche in order to look at the hidden places.

What are the implications of this for the churches?

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