Gill: Finding life’s meaning in final stages

Posted 5/20/22

According to neuroscientists such as Norman Doidge, MD, mainstream science traditionally held that brain anatomy was fixed and there was a long slow process of decline as we grew older.

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Gill: Finding life’s meaning in final stages


According to neuroscientists such as Norman Doidge, MD, mainstream science traditionally held that brain anatomy was fixed and there was a long slow process of decline as we grew older.

Scientific discoveries, however, found in recent decades that the brain changed its very structure with each difficult activity it performed, perfecting its currents. If brain cells or circuits failed other circuits could sometimes take over. These scientific observations led to a more optimistic, yet grounded, view that aging was not always a static series of neuroanatomic events and that we could prolong the quality of our lives assuming good health and a healthy lifestyle. The human brain was found to be more than a machine that once it breaks down, we slowly, naturally decline.  

The realization that our brain and central nervous system were dynamic and changeable led to at least the possibility of an enhanced quality of life as we age. Neuroscientists proposed the term neuroplasticity, which referred to the brain as changeable, malleable and modifiable. In 1900, the average American lived only 47 years. But now we are likely to live longer if we can maintain our good health and maintain a healthy lifestyle. Yet, aging may also lead to experience depression, cognitive impairment, dementia, heart attacks and strokes. The emphasis here is to attempt to identify what constitutes the likelihood of a quality of life as we get older. Longevity experts, such as David Sinclair, PhD, emphasized individuals that are represented using measures such as biological age vs. chronological age. Clearly, the healthiest among us have a younger biological age relative to one’s chronological age.

Concerns continue to be expressed in this environment regarding the maintenance of our memory and cognitive function as we age. Certainly, there is humor that can act to sustain us. Consider that some people say that a clear conscience is merely the result of a bad memory! According to the philosopher Neitzche, the advantage of a bad memory is that one can enjoy several attempts accomplishing good things for the first time! One’s secrets are safe with friends because they can’t remember them either. Did You know that as a senior one’s supply of brain cells is finally down to a manageable size? The easiest way to find something around the house is to buy a replacement!

But perhaps the most important aspect of living longer lives is that it raises the specter of what our life’s meaning and purpose is to new heights. Since most of us are living longer than our parents, it gives us time to think about what we have experienced and what matters most to us now. As we move back home in a house we have never left, we are reminded that age is a threshold, an essential stage of life. Do we have the passion and the commitment to heal what has hurt or damaged us? Are we even aware of the light that shines within us? I would argue that we have a calling to resolve and transfigure our painful past. For there is urgency to address our legacy and what we will leave behind for our family and friends. It is a blessing to wash away the painful past with open eyes to see. The lesson is for us to accept what is so and to finally and truly wake and grow up to our life’s purpose and mission? The philosopher Kierkegaard’s famous quote is that Life must be lived forward but can only be understood backward. Now is the time to discover that understanding with love, self-care, compassion, forgiveness and a deep sense of gratitude and appreciation. For it is never too late for we are not yet done. 

Carl Jung, the famous psychoanalyst, emphasized the concept of individuation. Individuation simply means that as we develop there is a purpose to our lives that is individual to us and not to anyone else. Many of us have lived other people’s lives: e.g., our parents, our teachers, our mentors, etc. Many of us discovered along the way that we cannot live someone else’s life; that we have a calling to pursue what is suited for us alone and that this calling is subjective and has been alive and well within us from birth. But these messages are often not heard or well understood. The tendency is to put such thoughts aside because they were seen as unrealistic or inconvenient or untimely.

Some of us ignored these unconscious or semiconscious messages altogether. But these deep currents still abide within us and it is essential that we pay attention to their meaning for us now. We may be critical of ourselves because such messages were ignored and never carefully considered. It is very important that we heed these communications now to free ourselves and let go of what has previously been agonizingly burdensome and unresolved. Any success we experience in this process may yield a personal peace while acknowledging that we fell short or simply were not paying attention.

We cannot undue the past or the mistakes we have made, but we can find solace in our efforts to find meaning and belonging at this most important stage of life. If we can move forward with grace and aplomb, we may discover what has been missing for us that has been available for us from the very beginning.

   Editor’s Note: Stephen Gill is a Sun City West resident, who holds a doctorate in clinical psychology. Although currently licensed, he is semi-retired. He conducted a private psychotherapy practice by history in Los Angeles and Sedona/Prescott. He also specialized in psychological and neuropsychological assessment.


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