I’ve been thinking recently about the psychological task of simplification as it pertains to late life. I’m following the outline provided by twentieth-century theologian Lewis Joseph Sherrill, who says that simplification involves “distinguishing the more important from the less important, getting rid of the less important or relegating it to the margin; and elevating the more important to the focus of feeling, thought, and action. (from The Struggle of the Soul, p. 130)” Following Sherrill, I’ve already discussed simplification of status, of the body, and of possessions. Sherrill adds that there is a deeper simplification that occurs in many older adults, which he calls simplification of character. Sherrill summarizes what happens as follows:
“Disguises and pretenses drop away, and the self is more and more stripped bare, to be seen for what it really is.”
What is character? We often think of a person of character as having moral excellence or being authentic (Scott Adams, in the Dilbert comic strip I’ve included, does a wonderful take-down of pretentions regarding character). More broadly, though, character means the psychological make-up of the individual; in this sense it’s a rough synonym for “personality.” Sherrill seems to be alluding to this psychological make-up, particularly to some core or essential disposition of the person. He calls such a disposition a ‘philosophy of life.” He suggests there are six types of philosophy that guide adults (as well as some immature philosophies more characteristic of childhood but that in some cases persist into adulthood). The six, along with the primary focus of each, are:
• Philosophies of Dependence [focus: relying on others or resisting such reliance]
• Philosophies of Role [focus: one’s gender role]
• Philosophies of Judgment [focus: evaluating one’s goodness or lack thereof]
• Philosophies of the Psyche [focus: being a self and individuating from others]
• Philosophies of Materialism [focus: material objects and one’s relationship to them]
• Philosophies of Relationship [focus: connections with other people]
Sherrill thought that the second, third, and fourth of these foci couldn’t be sustained into later adulthood. I’m not so sure he’s right about that. For each of these philosophies I’ve known people sixty or older who had this focus as central to their character. In any event, when the older adult simplifies, his or her core disposition is no longer muddied by being mixed with other prominent dispositions, so that its essence shines forth ever more purely. Thus, to take the first of these, as they age many people with a philosophy of dependence drop all pretense that they can take care of themselves and become increasingly reliant on someone else to direct and assist them. Others, who are counter-dependent, become increasingly unwilling to accept help of any sort and adopt a lifestyle designed to rebuff any assistance or even any mutual reliance. As with dependence-independence, opposite poles can be found in each of these philosophies.
Sherrill described each of these dispositions but didn’t give actual examples of how any of them played out in adults as they age. I’ve tried to think about older people I’ve known to see whether I could identify this simplification process taking place. It took a while, but I came up with examples of simplification occurring in most of these focal areas. For example, I remember a man who was prone to be dependent but made some effort to deal with problems on his own; after he retired, he stopped trying to cope on his own and became totally reliant on his wife. A woman whose femininity had long manifested itself in being very maternal became even more so as she aged, trying to mother practically everyone with whom she came in contact. And a man who had always been quite confident in his own opinion (which I think indicates he has a philosophy of judgment) became with age someone who couldn’t have a conversation without asserting how he was right and others were wrong about something or another. Though I could think of several examples of simplification of character, some older adults that came to mind didn’t seem to have undergone such a change. As with other areas of simplification, the simplification of character doesn’t seem to be a universal feature of aging.
Personally, I would like to simplify by living more and more according to a philosophy of relationship. There’s nothing more appealing than an older adult whose very essence is to love others. One of my grandfathers was that way, and his grandchildren still tell stories of how special it was to spend time with them. Despite my manifold mistakes and failings, my life will have been meaningful if my grandchildren tell such stories about me some day.