In my last letter I wrote about my desire for freedom and emphasized freedom from constraints. But as we all know, there is more than one kind of freedom: freedom from and freedom to; and the feeling of being so absorbed that you lose self-consciousness. You are free because you have escaped all those enervating inner monologues about doing better and doing more.
A key part of absorption is the experience of confidence. You move through an activity feeling sure of yourself, not even worrying about mistakes, just flowing the way that an athlete moves when he is in a “zone,” the way a piano player’s fingers move across the keyboard, as though they are independent of her mind. For a moment, there is almost no intention. It’s just happening. You’re just happening.
For the most part, we associate this kind of confidence with youth. They are too young, we say, to understand all that can go wrong, and we envy their innocence. But confidence is essential to aging as well, and that’s what I want to explore today. I have been feeling confident in the writing I have been doing. It has come easy. Ideas and words are flowing. I’d like to understand how to sustain it.
Researchers seem to prefer the phrase “self esteem,” and have gone to great lengths to measure it, even to measure its developmental course. After large, longitudinal studies, for example, Ulrich Orth, PhD tells us that “Self esteem was lowest in young adults but increased throughout adulthood, peaking at age 60, before it started to decline.” Retirement adds an extra push towards decline. Good health and success in life help to stem the loss, as can many individual experiences. But generally, confidence dips in step with aging. As anyone observing very old people knows, anxiety comes increasingly into the forefront.
Being seventy four years old, and knowing that my health and strength will inevitably continue their downward course, I am particularly eager to remain confident anyway. I keep asking myself: can health and confidence be separated? I know that there are limits to how much I can control about my health. The question is: can I build the discipline to focus on what I can control and on what makes me confident.
Paul Baltes, a developmental psychologist, had some very good ideas about this. When describing his SOC model, he began with a story about the great concert pianist, Arthur Rubenstein. Rubenstein had just given a performance to thunderous applause. A young man approached him with a question: how do you keep playing so well at eighty six? Rubenstein smiled, sat down carefully, and explained. “First of all,” he said, “I have narrowed my repertoire a great deal.” That’s what Baltus calls Selection. You choose what you can and want to do well and eliminate what you can’t. “Second,” Rubenstein continued, “I practice that small repertoire all the time.” Baltus calls this Optimization. You can sustain your nimbleness and effectiveness within a chosen range of activities. “Third,” said Rubenstein, “I have tricks. As you know, I am known for my speed and emphasis at the keyboard. When I approach fast passages now, I slow down a great deal more than I used to. That way, when I speed up, the difference between slow and fast is just as great, and I seem to have maintained my speed.” That’s Compensation.
As I age, I’ll never get better with details and names. I’ll need my grandchildren to help with my computer and my phone. It’s unlikely that I’ll develop a flair for dancing or a keen understanding of quantum physics. All of those arenas make me feel like an idiot and, unless I can laugh about them, sap my confidence.
What, then, is my comfort zone, arenas that build my confidence? Most of all, I do feel that I see the big picture and the long view. This is common enough for older people. If you are sharp, you may have noticed that I have been writing blog posts lately. They are flowing from my mind, something like the way that Rubenstein’s fingers still flow across the keyboard. The ease is surprising and wonderful. And like Rubenstein, I have some ideas about why this is happening.
First, many specific topics fit into a pretty extensive base of knowledge. I’m an old guy. I’ve been reading and listening and thinking for decades. I have accumulated all sorts of ideas about how things work and what motivates people. There are streams of ideas, impressions, stories floating around my brain, and new ideas fit within the streams. These streams are waiting to be tapped. I don’t have to search too far for what an event in the news means to me. The whole process is so fluid, so automatic that ideas to write about virtually form themselves. As a result, I have such a good feeling of freedom and confidence when I am at my (computer) keyboard.
And I trust the ideas. They just feel right. I also trust them because they don’t have to be exactly “right” or “the best.” They are mine and that’s enough. You can’t grow old without becoming at least a little eccentric, and I’m comfortable with that. That, too, feels liberating.
So let’s return to Baltes. I have selected an activity, writing, that I’ve been doing for more than fifty years. I’ve chosen a form of writing—brief essays—that is much easier than the complex essays and books I once wrote. Like Arthur Rubenstein, if a tad less successfully, I am learning and practicing my craft with discipline. That’s optimization. I’m not sure what tricks I am using but one may be that I’ve been writing in the spoken voice. It’s like talking to a friend—or writing a letter to a friend. A letter on aging. I don’t have to pretend to be setting the standard for a professional field. I’m just talking. That’s compensation.
As I write or talk to friends about my new toy, the blog, I do feel good, even confident. My hope is that you, too, will look into your own activities, then, in your own way, follow Arthur Rubenstein’s example. Let me know if it makes you feel more confident and, with confidence, free.