Remembrance-thinking & the Aging of “Character”

In “The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain,” the late Gene D. Cohen, geriatric researcher on positive aging, wrote about a “summing- up” phase in life that typically hits people in their late sixties and into their seventies and eighties. Cohen identified this phase as “a time of recapitulation, resolution, and review.”  Recapitulation, according to Google dictionary, is “an act or instance of summarizing and restating the main points of something.” Resolution is “a firm decision to do or not to do something.” And review is “a formal assessment or examination of something with the possibility or intention of instituting change if necessary.” Let’s call them the 3Rs of Old Age.

The 3Rs of Old Age form a thought-provoking and dynamic impression of the aging process that often gets overlooked due to our preoccupation with the nasty physiological aspects of our aging selves that too often take precedence over the highly important psychological, sociological, spiritual, and philosophical aspects of our elder-years. The late Psychologist James Hillman would refer to this aspect of the aging process as “character development.” Prolific author of books on spirituality, Thomas Moore, who was a student of Hillman’s, would call this “Care of the Soul,” which is also the title of his still popular best-seller (first published in 1994).  Social work researcher and another best-selling author, Brene Brown, would probably call this an “unraveling,” as called out in her book “The Gifts of Imperfection.” Any way you dice it, I believe the 3Rs of Old Age happen to a lot of us. It’s happening to me in full force at age 63, and I refer to it as “remembrance-thinking.”

Profound, strange, and inconsequential memories have started to come frequently (sometimes hourly for days) without warning and without any logical explanation. At times, it feels very strange and awkward. These thoughts of the past simply arrive in semi-vivid picture frames, without any relevance or connection to what I happen to be engaged in at the time. I don’t know what to do about them other than write about them, as well as think them through to discern their meaning. I suppose this kind of thinking is common. Don’t many of us focus on the rear-view mirror a bit too much at times? In any event, what I refer to as frequent remembrance-thinking can become self-annoying, as well as annoying to others when I start over-talking about my past.

I thought I was losing my sanity, until I read a chapter titled “Memory: Short-Term Loss, Long-Term Gain” in Hillman’s book “The Force of Character: And the Lasting Life,” where he describes the late aging process as a period of intense life review coupled with intense imagination. Essentially as the chapter title implies, we may feel ourselves forgetting where our keys are more often, but, at the same time, our deeper memories become just that: deeper and more meaningful in our present mind. As Hillman noted:

The inability to recall this morning’s conversation, let alone last week’s visitors, keeps the shelves open for assembling the records so long stored. Geriatric psychology finds that older people spend more and more time taking stock, doing their life review. . . The ingathering of old images to the exclusion of recent events seems imposed on the aged, as if the soul insists on this review. As we age, something in us wants to return to distant halls and dusty mirrors. I think character wants to understand itself, increase its insight and intelligence.

I feel grateful to Hillman for confirming that my memory issues are not psychologically and even physiologically abnormal. To the contrary, they are contributing to more growth as I age. “On the one hand, brain cells may be flaking off like autumn leaves in a deciduous forest; on the other hand, a clearing is being made, leaving more space for occasional birds to alight,” Hillman wrote in his typically eloquent flare.

Despite this very positive outlook on how our memories change as we grow old, and how we come to a new dwelling in life in which we increase our insight and inner journey into past experiences to more fully understand who we really are, not all elderly people feel good about this. For example, I recently spoke with several people pushing 70 about this topic who explained to me quite forcefully that they know who they are and do not in the least bit feel a need to go into such philosophical and/or psychological meanderings. “I know what I believe,” one person said. “And I don’t like philosophizing about it.”

Yes, I thought, how close-minded, and perhaps even shameful. They took the road in which there was less anguish, less anxiety, less pain, by burying any of their uncomfortable memories in favor of simply focusing on enjoying the present without thinking about things too deeply. I have known some of these people for decades, and I have found most of them to be strongly inclined to accept falsehoods if accepting the truth is uncomfortable or causes pain. They have taken that with them into old age. In effect, I believe, they have lost something that lives dormant inside them. I knew immediately that there was nothing I could say that might get any of them to at least entertain thinking differently about thinking deeply, regardless of the discomfort or questioning it would inevitably bring to their sense of everything.

In “Care of the Soul,” Thomas Moore, wrote that “when the soul stirs, you feel things, both love and anger, and you have strong desires and even fears.” He added that living soulfully is a life-long process that many people ignore to their loss.  If, however, “you discover that you have a soul and that nothing is more precious, you may willingly remain in an unsettled state of transformation in spite of temptations to pull out. Life may never be the same again, because the needs of life and those of the soul don’t always coincide.”

As Buddha said, “there are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth; not going all the way, and not starting.”

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