All The Selves We Have Been

It is when we are young that we are most obviously busy with the project of trying to construct a self we hope the world will appreciate, monitoring and rearranging the impressions we make upon others. Yet as we age, most of us are still trying to hold on to some sense of who and what we are, however hard this may become for those who start to feel increasingly invisible. Everywhere I look nowadays I see older people busily engaged with the world and eager, just as I am, to relate to others, while also struggling to shore up favored ways of seeing ourselves. However, the world in general is rarely sympathetic to these attempts, as though the time had come, or were long overdue, for the elderly to withdraw altogether from worrying about how they appear to others. In my view, such a time never comes, which means finding much better ways of affirming old age than those currently available.

The need to think again and to think more imaginatively about aging should be obvious once we confront the rapid increase in life expectancy around the globe. Despite deep disparities locally and globally, ever more people are living into old age, often very old age. In Britain, ten million people are currently over sixty-five years old, around a sixth of the population, with that number likely to double over the next few decades. The figures in the U.S. are equally arresting, where around forty million people are currently over sixty-five, some 13 percent of the total population, with that number also predicted to double by 2030, accounting for nearly 20 percent of the population. Yet this greying of the population has not only been largely either disregarded or deplored, it has also amplified rather than diminished social antipathy towards the elderly. Tellingly, in his parting statement to the British House of Lords as Archbishop of Canterbury at the close of 2012, Rowan Williams suggested that negative stereotypes of the aging population are fostering attitudes of contempt and leaving them vulnerable to verbal and physical abuse. There is thus aversion towards the very topic of aging.

Aging encompasses so much, and yet most people’s thoughts about it embrace so little. Against the dominant fixation, for instance, I write not primarily about aging bodies, with their rising demands, frequent embarrassments, and endless diversities—except that of course our bodies are there, in every move we make, or sometimes fail to complete. I have little to say, either, about the corrosions of dementia. It is telling nowadays how often those who address the topic of aging alight on dementia—often, paradoxically, in criticism of others who simply equate aging with decline, while doing just this themselves. For the faint-hearted, I need to point out that although the incidence of dementia will indeed accelerate in the age group now headed towards their nineties, even amongst the very oldest it will not predominate—though this information hardly eliminates our fear of such indisputable decline.

Conversely, I do not make, or not in quite the usual way, an exploration of those many narratives of resilience, which suggest that with care of the self, diligent monitoring, and attention to spiritual concerns we can postpone aging itself, at least until those final moments of very old age. On this view, we can stay healthy, fit and “young”—or youngish—performing our yoga, practicing Pilates, eating our greens, avoiding hazards and spurning envy and resentment. It is true, we may indeed remain healthy, but we will not stay young. “You are only as old as you feel,” though routinely offered as a jolly form of reassurance, carries its own disavowal of old age.

Aging faces, aging bodies, as we should know, are endlessly diverse. Many of them are beautifully expressive, once we choose to look—those eyes rarely lose their luster, when engrossed. However, I am primarily concerned with the possibilities for and impediments to staying alive to life itself, whatever our age. This takes me first of all to the temporal paradoxes of aging, and to enduring ways of remaining open and attached to the world.

As we age, changing year on year, we also retain, in one manifestation or another, traces of all the selves we have been, creating a type of temporal vertigo and rendering us psychically, in one sense, all ages and no age. “All ages and no age” is an expression once used by the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott to describe the wayward temporality of psychic life, writing of his sense of the multiple ages he could detect in those patients once arriving to lie on the couch at his clinic in Hampstead in London. Thus the older we are the more we encounter the world through complex layerings of identity, attempting to negotiate the shifting present while grappling with the disconcerting images of the old thrust so intrusively upon us. “Live in the layers, / not on the litter,” the North American poet, Stanley Kunitz, wrote in one of his beautiful poems penned in his seventies.

Many people are likely to mourn the passionate pleasures and perils of their younger life, fearing that never again can they recapture what they have lost. Yet, one way or another, for better and for worse, there are devious means by which we always live with those passions of the past in the strange mutations of mental life in the present, whatever our age. We do not have to be Marcel Proust to recapture traces of them without even trying, though it will surely be harder to find just the right words, or perhaps any language at all, to express our own everyday time-traveling.

Thus, on the one hand it can seem as though the self never ages; yet on the other we are forced to register our bodies and minds in constant transformation, especially by the impact we make upon others. As Virginia Woolf, always so concerned with issues of time, memory and sexual difference, wrote in her diary in 1932, just before reaching fifty: “I sometimes feel that I have lived 250 years already, & sometimes that I am still the youngest person on the omnibus.” This is exactly how I feel.

“I don’t feel old,” elderly informants repeatedly told the oral historian Paul Thompson. Their voices echo the words he’d read in his forays into published autobiography and archived interviews. Similarly, in the oral histories collected by the writer Ronald Blythe, an eighty-four-year-old ex-schoolmaster reflects: “I tend to look upon other old men as old men—and not include myself… My boyhood stays imperishable and is such a great part of me now. I feel it very strongly—more than ever before.”

“How can a 17-year-old, like me, suddenly be 81?” the exactingly scientific developmental biologist Lewis Wolpert asks in the opening sentences of his book on the surprising nature of old age, wryly entitled You’re Looking Very Well. Once again, this keen attachment to youth tells us a great deal about the stigma attending old age: “you’re looking old” would never be said, except to insult. On the one hand there can be a sense of continuous fluidity, as we travel through time; on the other, it is hard to ignore those distinct positions we find ourselves in as we age, whatever the temptation. I have been finding, however, that it becomes easier to face up to my own anxieties about aging after surveying the radical ambiguities in the speech or writing of others thinking about the topic, especially when they do so neither to lament nor to celebrate old age, but simply to affirm it as a significant part of life. This is the trigger for the words that follow, as I assemble different witnesses to help guide me through the thoughts that once kept me awake at night, pondering all the things that have mattered to me and wondering what difference aging makes to my continuing ties to them.

"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>This essay is adapted from the introduction to Lynne Segal’s Out of Time: The Pleasures and Perils of Ageing, published this month by Verso Books.

Lynne Segal is Anniversary Professor of Psychology and Gender Studies in the Department of Psychosocial Studies at Birkbeck College. Her books include Is the Future Female? Troubled Thoughts on Contemporary Feminism; Slow Motion: Changing Masculinities, Changing Men; and Straight Sex: Rethinking the Politics of Pleasure. She co-wrote Beyond the Fragments: Feminism and the Making of Socialism with Sheila Rowbotham and Hilary Wainwright

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