Aging and Identity

Dear Michael,

During the last few years, I’ve wondered how I would feel when I no longer worked at my profession and was no longer part of the community of people I worked with.  Now that retirement is here, I am still wondering if I will feel uncomfortably isolated and untethered.  It’s far too early to tell, but, since you’ve also retired recently, I thought to share some of my immediate responses.

No doubt, there is a lot less stimulus.  It’s not just the level of noise and activity but, more importantly, people to interact with.  Of course, I see friends and family.  But the contact is less automatic and scheduled than my work day, less ritualized.  I don’t have a Finance or Strategy Committee meeting each month.  I don’t have staff people to hold accountable.

I feel relieved by the freer schedule.  There is less rush, fewer people to please, less need to perform, and fewer needs to fill.  That, in a nutshell, is a big part of why I retired.  I also love being by myself.  It’s quiet.  My writing, exercise, and conversations with friends aren’t interrupted.  I love being unobserved.  It gives me permission to be myself, no matter how strong or weak or goofy or serious I feel.  Invisibility is a kind of freedom and a protective veil to me.  I breathe easier.  My muscles relax.

I know that isolation is considered a problem in old age.  It has direct ties to illness and depression.  This is especially true for men.  Women do a much better job of building networks of friends and acquaintances; their lives don’t change as much with retirement.  Men, who are much more identified with their work and much less connected to friends and relatives—especially in intimate ways—have a harder time.  According to research into illness and social networks, for instance, when wives die husbands tend to get very ill or die themselves within the first year.  Not so after the death of a husband.  Women generally find enough compassionate support to sustain themselves.

Like most research, this speaks to the general person.  I’m not that person.  I do have people to turn to.  But the diminished volume and regularity will likely challenge my ability to adapt.  And the challenge that most interests me is that of identity: who I am in the world.  Who am I now that I’m not working and not with colleagues?  Most of every day, I’m not important to anyone but myself. People don’t seek me out as much, ask my opinion, await my agreement before acting. My sister-in-law tells me that this is mainly a man’s problem, and she’s probably right, but that’s ok.  There are enough of us to make this an interesting theme.

Throughout our lives, we know who we are partly through other people’s responses to us.  Do they think we’re nice or mean, interesting or dull, sexy, smart, funny, sane?  We can’t come to a completely independent opinion on these matters.  We don’t live in padded cells.  We don’t just take in other people’s opinions.  We try to influence them.  For example, we try to put our best foot forward, hoping that’s mostly what people see.  Over time, though, they see more than our best.  We try to act like we want to be, but we don’t always succeed.  We correct people who see us in the “wrong” light.  We work hard to live up to other people’s expectations.  We shy away from people who have poor or divergent opinions about us, and we gravitate to those whose responses to us are aligned with how we want to be known.

Eventually, we more or less come to an agreement about who we are.  That agreement forms the basis of stable relationships.  With time, these stable relationships tend to grow more plentiful and prominent.  They emphasize parts of our personality and de-emphasize other parts.  As they grow stable, the relationships become more supportive of our identity, which is our public face, mediating between our deep character and our behavior.

Psychologists talk about negotiations between the story we tell ourselves—this is who I am—and the stories that others have. The net result of these negotiations is our identity.  Unlike character, identity is not immutable.  Every time we meet someone new or confront a new situation, we have to reestablish that identity, or try to reestablish it.  But it is never completely the same again.  The very act of trying to remain the same changes us because we have to adapt to places that fit the view of both others and ourselves.  It can be hard work, generally passing through periods of ease and stability and periods of instability.

During stable periods, our identity holds us, gives us the experience of a solid self.   This works a little bit the way that the psychoanalyst, Donald Winnocott, believes mothers hold their babies and, thereby, create children with the opportunity to build sturdy lives.  When we know who we are and we feel relatively pleased and safe in that identity, then our lives can proceed with some sense of security.  Other people see the consistency and think you authentic.  There isn’t much negotiation to do.

Unstable periods are different.  They take the form of what psychologists call identity crises, such as the periods we call adolescence and midlife.  In the midst of these crises, we often feel uncertain and needy.  We may not know how to break out of our confusion, how to convince enough people to see us how we want to be seen. Our actions careen all over the place.

Combined, retirement and old age often precipitate identity crises.  The only difference between aging and adolescence seems to be that we older folks have our eyes open.  Our bodies change; we gain freedoms; we feel like we are searching for something that isn’t yet clearly in sight.  We may want to take charge of this change, as we have during other crises, but it often feels like the changes are happening to us and out of our control.

I have a number of friends who seem quite content in retirement.  They cherish their freedom, the time for long-delayed activities, the absence of work-related tension.  I hope to be one of these lucky people.  But there seems to be unfinished business.  Getting to the other side of the identity crisis seems to require of me that I answer certain kinds of questions.

One set of questions has do with an assessment.  I have mostly completed my life’s work.  My children are on their own, doing well, and raising their own broods.  My professional career is behind me.  I’ve done what I’ve done.  But is it enough?  Did I do well enough?  Can I be proud?  Where should I tuck my failures?  What should I do with the remaining anxieties?  No one else is very interested in this report card.  So I often find myself in dialogue—and in negotiations—with myself.  And not just my current self.  I want to know how my younger self would evaluate me.  It goes something like this: “Did I fulfill those aspirations that you had for me?  Did I live according to the values that firmed up by the time you were a young man?  Would you be proud of me?”

Sometimes I seem to be in dialogue with a much younger, less filtered self.  When I am alone, which is more often these days, I day dream.  I muse about the child that I was, the way that I ran and laughed and swam in the sun.  Somehow, I feel that I need to bring that child back into my current identity.  I don’t have to work now, which means I don’t have to keep him at bay and I can play.  He’s not an interference.  But yielding to him can be confusing.  At such times, my identity grows a little chaotic.

So I’ve got work to do.  I need to complete my self-assessment, the good and the bad, and come to conclusions that leaves me at least somewhat at peace.  And I need to reintegrate the child in me.  I think then I will have navigated this developmental crisis and be prepared for a time of stability.