Midlife Complexity to Late Life Simplicity

I wrote in an earlier post that the main psychological challenge of late adulthood is simplification. In middle adulthood, many of us had more complexity in our lives than we had ever had before. At work we took on more responsibility or became specialists who achieved mastery of some abstruse but useful body of knowledge. In our families we had responsibilities not only to those in our own generation but to generations older and younger than us. As to material goods our hoard of stuff grew exponentially from the I-can-fit-everything-I-own-in my-car days of late adolescence to homes with stuffed closets and, for many of us, stuffed garages. In church or community we became the primary doers, the ones with our shoulders to the wheel. Finances, heath, fitness–everywhere we looked, life grew more intricate. Eventually, though, time came for a reversal, for braking rather than accelerating towards more and more complexity.

For those of us who have slowed down, complexity has diminished and we find life is becoming simpler. Those who haven’t decelerated yet may decide on their own to simplify, or something may happen–a heart attack, a financial setback, a job loss–that abruptly initiates the process. One way or another, simplification is coming.

Image from theaposition.com

Image from theaposition.com

Twentieth-century theologian Lewis Joseph Sherrill, who convinced me that simplification is the main task of older adulthood, thought that late-life simplification benefits us because it forces us to put aside what is less important in our lives so that we will focus on what is more important. He believes there are several areas in which elders move toward greater simplicity. Here are the areas he lists, with a brief description of what happens in each as we discard those things that complicate life:

  • Simplification of status–we chose to take or are relegated to less prominent positions at work, in the family, and in the community.
  • Physical simplification–our bodies fatigue more easily, can do less than before, and eventually suffer illnesses.
  • Material simplification–we dispose of some of the possessions we’ve accumulated and downsize our living arrangements.
  • Simplification of character–we drop pretenses and present ourselves more honestly; the core elements of our character become more prominent.
  • Spiritual simplification–we focus less on peripheral spiritual practices and beliefs, but more on practices and beliefs which nourish our souls.

Over the next several weeks I’ll focus on each of these in turn, exploring what it means to simplify in each realm. I’ll be thinking of where I have simplified and where I still need to simplify. I invite you to do the same.

About Bob Ritzema

I am a fourth-generation American of Dutch ancestry and am trained as a clinical psychologist. In 2012, I retired from Methodist University in North Carolina to return to . Michigan to help family, and, in 2023, I started again with a move to Milwaukee to be near my children. I maintain a part-time therapy practice. I can be reached at bobritzema@hotmail.com.
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