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The Four Ages of Life

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The big money in mental health research goes toward the problems and disorders that interfere with normal functioning, personal happiness, and human fulfillment. Volumes of theories, diagnostic manuals, and expensive interventions are devoted to correcting what’s wrong with us, or, if the cause is unknown, at least relieving the symptoms of our suffering.

Critics have noted that the conventional notion of a mental “disorder” is problematic in that it presupposes something (mental “order”) of which we have no clear understanding. This leaves the market open for a proliferation of so-called disorders – as many as need to be invented – and their matching medications.

The science behind the trend of reducing mental health (and health generally) to molecular biology and the pharmaceutical interventions that can fix us tends to dismiss spirituality as not only less than helpful on the matter, but as so distracted into its own crystal ball of unfounded metaphysical claims and spooky practices as to be utterly irrelevant. In the minds of many, science accomplished our liberation from spirituality, as it trained our attention on things that actually exist. As they define it, spirituality is a holdover from our benighted and superstitious past. In the verse of Alexander Pope: “God said, Let Newton be! and all was light.”


In numerous posts I have worked at correcting this widespread but erroneous characterization of spirituality. For sure, there’s a lot of metaphysical malarkey out there, and good people have fallen for it again and again. Angelic visitations, divine revelations, psychic readings, and miraculous powers are found in sacred myths, folk tales, and personal testimonies around the world, but such things shouldn’t be confused with spirituality. They are adornments of religion, not its true essence.

As a symbol system and way of life, religion might be organized around such mythical characters and events, but its primary function is in providing social structure for the expression of a deeply interior experience.

Now, it might sound as if I’m thinking of this deeply interior experience as something esoteric, in the sense of secrets kept hidden from the uninitiated and simple-minded by those who really know the truth. Typically this secret knowledge involves the translation of popular myths and symbols into a vocabulary of metaphysical abstractions protected by an occult tradition of rituals, creeds, and hierarchies of authority. Esoteric religion is thus an underground version of what’s going on at the surface of conventional society, but with the veil of ignorance purportedly removed. It’s not really a deeply interior experience at all, just another kind of religion carried on by an elite few.

What I mean by spirituality has nothing to do with supernatural realities, metaphysical realms, or secret knowledge. It is the deeply interior experience of being human: of existing, striving, and becoming fully human, more fully alive. Genuine and true religion is the structural expression of this adventure in the life of society, linking the individual ego inwardly to its own grounding mystery, across the social synapses of community life, and outwardly to the turning mystery of the universe.

In its better days, religion facilitates the progress of spirituality and our construction of meaning. At its worst, it blocks progress and even represses the creative spirit. Unfortunately, many have identified religion with its degenerate forms and historical periods of corruption, concluding that we are better off without it.

It’s this idea of spirituality as a deeply interior experience that grows, develops, and evolves over time which I will expound on here. If we think of human nature as actualizing through distinct periods, then each period corresponds to some aspect of our full capacity which is activated (or suppressed) during that stage. (In the interest of space, I won’t go into what happens when spirituality doesn’t progress and the reasons why. My reader is invited to check out other posts in this blog which delve into the hang-ups that get institutionalized in pathological religion.)

The Age of Faith

In the beginning – and I’m using that phrase for its resonance with Creation myths – we were carried in the dark waters of our mother’s womb and eventually delivered through a narrow passage into another dimension. We were vulnerable and dependent, relying on her (or her surrogates) for the satisfaction of our every need. In the nursing embrace we gained a base of security, and her supervising care instilled in us a sense of reality as resourceful and responsive – in a word, as provident.

This is also the earliest, and deepest, stage of spirituality. To some greater or lesser degree, all of us have (and continuously seek) this experience, which is named faith. It’s critically important that we distinguish such an existential faith – this open trust and absolute surrender to reality – from the catalog of beliefs that any given religion might regard as orthodox (“correct opinion”). Faith in those first days and early years of life was indeed closely associated, if not identified, with the existence of our higher (or taller) power. This may explain why existential faith, as I have described it, is frequently confused with belief in the existence of god.

What we carry with us from that primordial experience is not a set of opinions, orthodox or otherwise, but again a deep interior sense that we are supported in a provident reality. Our ability to relax, trust, release, and open up to What Is will continue to influence everything about our life going forward. Without faith we are groundless, without a sense of support, cut loose and adrift in an absurd and uncaring universe.

This isn’t something that religion itself can give, but religion will tend to translate the dominant or majority experience of its members into a more general worldview and way of life. By cultivating a community that is more grounded and intentional in its care for the very young, religion can foster the activation of faith in all its members.

My diagram suggests chronological markers that define the time periods and developmental thresholds of spirituality. This earliest stage, from prenatal life to the end of the first decade, is what I’ll call the Age of Faith. The prominent themes of spirituality here are grounding, providence, security, trust, and openness to reality.

The Age of Passion

From roughly age 10 to 25 is the second critical period of spirituality, the Age of Passion. This is when our openness to reality involves us in exploration, experimentation, and discovery. It’s also the age when the social construction of our identity undergoes significant trials and temptations. If we’re tracking along with world mythology, then this marks our Exile from the Garden of protection and infantile dependency, to the desert of self-conscious isolation and the jungle of sexual urgency. From here we might look back at what we lost and wish for it again, which is how some religions frame the challenge.

Whether it’s by a method of ego glorification or ego renunciation, the solution in either case exposes a fixation of this period on the separate center of personal identity.

Everything seems to turn around our needs and desires. In calling this period the Age of Passion, I am acknowledging the natural and very healthy way that consciousness regards all of reality as “staring at me,” as “judging me” and “making me feel” one way or another. While the word passion might have connotations of an extroverted drive for excitement, its root definition has to do with undergoing something, being “done to,” and suffering as a patient who is passive (“hold still!”) under treatment.

The Age of Reason

After 25 and until we’re about 60 years old spirituality progresses through the Age of Reason. This is typically when we are finishing our qualifications for a career and starting a serious job, finding a life partner and managing a family. By design, it is the time of Conquest and Settlement, when we take creative authority in making meaning, clarify a life purpose for ourselves, and expand our horizon of influence.

Faith and Passion continue to give us grounding and make life interesting, but it becomes increasingly important that our place in the greater scheme of things is relevant and contributes value to the system(s) in which we belong. This is the time in our development when, in the interest of intellectual integrity and rational meaning, many of us step out of organized religion to work out for ourselves a personal philosophy of life.

Religions don’t help when they intimidate us and condemn our quest for relevance as jeopardizing our place in the community or, worse still, in heaven after we die.

But the logical coherence, theoretical integrity, and practical application of meaning is not at all the acid or opposite of a passionate faith – although it does have exactly this effect on a belief system (orthodoxy) based in outdated models of reality and antiquated moral standards. Any belief system that is not rational, reality-oriented, and relevant to our times should either be reinterpreted, remodeled, or set aside.

The Age of Wisdom

There comes a time, however, when our most cherished constructs of identity and meaning need to open, like parting veils, to the present mystery of reality. In other posts I have characterized this threshold between the Age of Reason and the Age of Wisdom as bringing about an Apocalypse – a collapse of our world, a burning away of the canopy we had erected over ourselves for security, orientation, and significance.

The timing of our disillusionment with the years when we are starting to disengage from the consensus trance of school, career, parenting, and managing a household is probably no accident. Just as the carousel is winding down, our inner spirit is ready to drop out.

By ‘dropping out’ I really mean dropping in – out of the illusion of our separate existence and deeper into the present mystery of reality, into the Real Presence of mystery. Wisdom is not a function of accumulating knowledge, but is rather the breakthrough realization that nothing is separate from everything else, that All is One, and that We’re All in This Together. Oneness is not a matter of intellectually comprehending the totality of all facts, but of intuitively understanding that facts and thoughts, self and universe, the grounding mystery within us and the turning mystery all around us, are one reality.

What we do to the Whole, we do to ourselves. What we do to our neighbor, we do to ourselves. We are not separate from the rest. We are one.

Welcome to the Age of Wisdom.

 

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This Is Your Life!

Nature took a huge risk in giving our species self-control and free will. Of course, I need to qualify these terms right away, as our self-control and free will are really quite limited. But the degree in which we have these is behind most of what today we celebrate (and sometimes regret) as our distinctly human contribution to life on this planet.

When in our prehistory this endowment occurred is impossible to say, but if our individual development through the lifespan recapitulates the timing and sequence of our evolution as a species, then we can confidently say that it began early. In all honesty we have to admit that it’s probably still in process, seeing as how so much of our tribulation along with the collateral damage we are causing is a consequence of our immaturity and neurotic hangups around self-control and free will. Self-control achieves a liberation of creative energy from the compulsive drives and reflexes of instinct, while free will invites the question of how this creative energy will be otherwise invested.

The beneficiary (and executor-in-training) of this endowment is that peculiar little miracle called the ego. For thousands and perhaps millions of years, the human body and soul have changed very little. The outward orientation of consciousness to its surroundings and the inward orientation to its own grounding mystery are essentially the same today as they were at the dawn of our history. The difference – and the difference-maker – across that great span of time has been this center of self-conscious identity: the “I” (ego).

As I said, although it may have begun to appear many millenniums ago – in the “childhood” of our species – we are at present certainly farther along but (just as certainly) significantly short of where we need to be. Nature’s gamble is still in play. It’s reasonable to assume that our evolutionary progress as a species advances according to how far we are individually able to develop and use our creative energy for the greater good. Our individual hangups may hinder human progress more than we realize or want to admit.Arc LifespanMy diagram above illustrates the timing and sequence of human development as it tracks with the formation of ego consciousness. The arcing magenta-colored arrow represents the lifespan, which I’ve divided into four periods – the early life of a Child, followed by the age of Youth, maturing into a longer period of an Adult, and culminating in the late life of an Elder. Before I dig deeper into each of these four periods, let’s stay at this level of resolution and think about the major ideas carried in my diagram: Ground, Character, and Destiny.

Character is first of all a literary term referring to personalities (human or otherwise) that are introduced and developed in stories. At first introduction a literary figure is a cosmetic placeholder, just a name filled in with the bare details we need to know as an audience. As the story progresses we are given more information and observe this personality in various situations of challenge, agency, and reaction. Over time (which means farther along the narrative) the figure takes on weight and consistency, to the extent that we can reasonably predict how he or she will behave next.

That’s what I mean by character: the habit of identity that accumulates around individuals as they follow their inclinations (or restrain them), respond to their circumstances (or hide from them), and choose their path through life (or look for excuses). The one doing all of this is ego, which makes character the “weight and consistency” that determines identity as time goes on. I’ve tried to illustrate this increasing influence of character on identity by the color gradient of the word (getting darker and heavier from left to right).

Destiny refers to the culmination of development, to what I have elsewhere called the “apotheosis” of the individual and evolutionary fulfillment of our species. Its most important meaning is subjective – that is to say, the clarity of vision that individuals, communities, or even entire generations have concerning the longer purpose of their existence. The color gradient of this word is also intended to suggest that this future vision becomes more vivid and attractive with the formation of character.

The third big idea represented in my diagram is Ground, which should be familiar to my readers. Ground is not some thing, but the generative source and support of all things; it is being-itself. Also called the grounding mystery, it’s the internal wellspring of existence accessible only by the descending path of introspective meditation. Even though it’s the best and most widely used metaphor for this mystery, “ground” is still only a conceptual qualification for what cannot be named or known. This ineffable nature of the grounding mystery makes it a limitless source of inspiration, which helps to explain the lush variety of mythopoetic depictions of God across the world religions.

But let’s come back to character, as it’s really the central idea of my diagram. Our evolutionary endowment of self-control and free will tracks with the gradual ascent of ego consciousness, as the individual increasingly becomes a “separate” center of identity. I put that word in quotes to remind us that separateness, along with the associated delusion of independence, is really only an apparent separateness (and independence) and is itself dependent on a crisscrossing system of suspension wires called agreements or beliefs.

In other words, who (we think) we are is nothing more than a function of what we attach ourselves to or push away from, constituting an “identity contract” that characterizes us (literally) as “for” this or “against” that. The identity contract itself will record various subsets of attitudes, behaviors, expectations, and responsibilities that fill out what a given role entails.

As we advance along the arc of our lifespan we are taking on additional identity contracts, even as we step out of others and leave them behind. The more defined our identity is, the stronger our character is, since character is nothing but the “weight and consistency” that identity accumulates in the process of becoming somebody (ego). On balance, the older we are the more identity contracts we are likely to hold. A newborn baby has no ego as yet, but soon enough she will begin taking on agreements and entering identity contracts with the powers that be.

The formation of character is thus a life-long project. But this project doesn’t proceed in a haphazard manner; we don’t simply take on identity contracts at random. Instead I will suggest that the arc of ego development moves through distinct evolutionary fields that coincide roughly with chronological periods of time – the four ages of the Child, the Youth, the Adult, and the Elder. The age thresholds indicated in the diagram (10, 25, 60) shouldn’t be taken as hard predictors, but rather as average ages at which an individual is likely to cross over from one major period (or evolutionary field) to the next.

Each age is oriented on an existential concern, which in a previous post (“Myth and the Matrix of Meaning”: http://wp.me/p2tkek-j2) I named a primary concern that acts as a magnetic attractor of values and interests. Now I can place these primary or existential concerns in the developmental context of an individual lifespan, specifically in this chronological order: security (Child), freedom (Youth), suffering (Adult), and fate (Elder). I’m not suggesting that this is the only thing an individual thinks about or dwells on in a given period. Obviously there is much else going on. The point, however, is that each existential concern – even if not explicitly registered in consciousness – pulls all other values into its gravity.

The remaining components of my diagram are “mood” (at the deep center) and four literary modes, or types of story (along the periphery of the arc). I am borrowing these modes from the work of Northrup Frye, a giant in twentieth-century literary criticism.

Mood is a kind of mode in its own right, referring to the physical-emotional state of the nervous system persisting over time. Our experience of life is profoundly conditioned (filtered, shaped, limited, and oriented) by our prevailing mood, which is how provident we feel reality is as it concerns our security, freedom, suffering, and fate. The ideal physical-emotional state is what we might name confidence (or faith), an inner assurance that the present mystery of reality supports us in our need.

During each of the four ages of life (Child, Youth, Adult, Elder) the individual is composing a life narrative (or if you will, a personal myth) that organizes his or her experience around the stage-relevant existential concern. One mode of story is the comedy, which constructs a narrative about security (home, supervision, protection, resources), the invasion of security threats, and the successful defense of home base. A comedy in this sense is not necessarily a “funny” story, but rather carries an optimistic confidence that everything is going to be all right or “happily ever after.”

Just as a comedy isn’t necessarily “comical,” a romance isn’t always “romantic” in the sappy sense. As a literary mode, romance is a story about freedom (adventure, risk, discovery, inspiration), the trials that wait beyond the horizon, and the validation of desire for a worthy ideal. Romance has an obvious correlation to the age of Youth, when an individual typically grows bored with the current world-order and pushes the boundaries of fashion, propriety, safety, and moral permission.

To associate adulthood with suffering and tragedy should elicit protest – but maybe not from adults themselves. The plot-curve of tragedy trends in a definite downward direction, engaging along the way in experiences of suffering (pain, obligation, sacrifice, loss), typically without an upward reversal of fortune to make it all better. The Buddha’s dictum that “life is suffering” rings true for many adults who have to learn the art of living with pain, of reconciling their youthful dreams to actual achievement, and carrying on after the loss of friends, employment, or aging parents.

As an individual progresses into the age of an Elder, the boundaries of what is possible begin to collapse more closely to the limits of reality. Since one’s character is largely the product of all that’s happened, of all the choices made, of the way things just happened to shake out, is it a fallacy to believe that all of it is as it had to be? What good is wishing it had been otherwise? In the greater scheme of things there may be limits and necessities that ultimately call the shots – what the ancients called fate. The literary mode of irony provides a double vision on the narrative, where the self-control and free will of its characters are contained and determined by the story itself. Just as in real life, the last period on the final sentence brings everything to an end.

Now, while that seems like a needlessly pessimistic note to end on, let’s remember that wisdom – the esteemed virtue of later life – is an understanding of how to live in harmony with the greater rhythms, higher wholeness, present mystery, and terminal conditions of our life in time. Before we shuttle our elders off to nursing homes, we might honor their lives and really listen to their stories.

 

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