One sees great things from the valley, only small things from the peak.
While aging is inevitable, arriving at a healthy perspective about its meaning and potential is not. In our youth-oriented culture, middle age more often than not is portrayed as embarrassing stage of life that is in desperate need of enhancements to stave off the signs of being older. But Botox® and hair transplants can not hold the line forever and at some point thoughts and feelings about aging have to be sorted out at a deeper level, a realty check on what it really means to be older. The outcome of this “aging moment of truth” will have a profound influence on the quality of life for middle age adults. It will either reframe the journey as a continuation of growth and learning filled with unique potential, or see a darker landscape riddled with loss, regret, and limitations. This vantage point from which baby boomers will judge the aging process is called perspective.
Perspective provides a “filter” through which life experiences are assessed, organized, and ultimately judged. Youth has its own filter typified by an optimism found in the first half of life that keeps the metaphoric glass half full. It is a perspective that always sees another opportunity, another deal, or a fresh start that is not limited by health, family, or time. The first half perspective quickly converts setbacks into opportunities based on an unshakeable faith in the magnitude of possibilities that lie ahead. Middle age changes the filter.
Ushering in an era of external and internal upheavals, middle age introduces a different reality that undermines the sustainability of earlier optimism. What appeared unlimited now has restrictions and complications. The unspoken and yet pervasive cultural shame that sees aging as pathology leaves middle age adults holding a glass that is suddenly half empty. In this new environment, the first half perspective can undergo a rapid deterioration leading baby boomers to buy into a more cynical future. Without reframing, this is the anticipatory reality they are stuck with to manage being older. Ironically, this cultural anxiety about aging has no basis in biology or psychology. Growth and learning do not wane in middle age, and creative capacity is at an all time high. But the media’s slight of hand trick that obsesses over youth as the ultimate consumer class delivers a convincing message about the downhill trajectory of the second half of life. This dysfunctional perspective is a trap for middle age adults pointing them developmentally backwards to a phase that is over while distracting and devaluing the rich and immediate next phase on which so much is riding. Avoiding this unhealthy entrapment requires a different type of inquiry into being older. We call this inquiry The Perspective Inventory™.
As a reframing tool, The Perspective Inventory™ allows middle age adults to “test” the critical questions that ask themselves and others about the aging process. As Dr. Marilee Adams succinctly argues in her book Change Your Questions, Change Your Life, questions are the raw material of how individuals size up themselves and their world. They are the building blocks of perspective, the framing tools that either discover hope and opportunity or perpetuate endless cycles of conflict and despair. From a developmental perspective, questions are an ideal vehicle to examine and change concepts. They have the right linguistic packaging to emotionally override long-standing beliefs. They are receptive to the right brain, which has proven to be the informational gatekeeper for middle age and beyond. They are also emotionally generative and as such quickly alter cognition and change behavior. But the benefit of The Perspective Inventory™ is not simply to arrive at a better set of questions about being older, as valuable as they may be. The Perspective Inventory™ offers baby boomers a way to build a new filtering ritual so they can habitually reframe the experiences of aging to facilitate their developmental journey.
First and foremost The Perspective Inventory™ is an inquiry tool. It is allows middle age adults to organize and evaluate the quality of the questions they ask about the aging. It is based Dr. Adams’ premise that most people simply adopt a “questions style” without giving much thought to the impact it has on quality of their lives. Once internalized, these core questions become the ingrained filter for looking at people and experiences. With middle age, the impact question style intensifies in either a positive or negative way. Negative questions such as “Who’s to blame?” and “How can I prove I am right?” extract a heavy price on individuals and family systems. They negate prior success, shut down communication, and close off avenues of collaboration and growth. Even more concerning, they have the lethal potential to undermine confidence at a time in life where confidence is already in jeopardy. In contrast, aging friendly questions such as “What’s useful about this?” and “What’s possible?” lighten the emotional load on everyone. Not only do they facilitate communication but open up new channels of creativity, possibility, and growth. They help restore confidence and optimism to individuals and family systems.
The Perspective Inventory™ is also valuable resource for baby boomers as they engage the predictable dilemmas of their aging parents, experiences and situations that can leave both parties feeling frustrated, guilty, and anxious. Reframing questions surrounding the monumental family tasks of determining the right health care, sorting out living options, coping with the death of a spouse, untangling financial decisions, and coming to grips with the final goodbye can create a more effective and nurturing perspective. Developmentally tuned questions such as “what are the control issues here?” and “what other ways to look at this situation?” can help middle age adults keep their bearings in the midst of an emotional family landscape.
Finally, The Perspective Inventory™ reminds middle age adults that they can make positive alterations in the second half of life; they can opt for a radically different approach from the one they used in the first half. Moving into the upheaval of middle age asks two primary developmental questions:
1. How am I going to manage all this?
2. What is it I really want?
Successfully addressing these questions requires a perspective that is both personal and collective, is about self-fulfillment that is wrapped in a nurturing community of meaningful relationships. This is the heart of the need for authenticity. It is about finding personal clarity and not simply searching for another twenty years of approval or more of the same. For baby boomers that understand this potential, it comes as a welcome relief and an extraordinary opportunity to leverage their experience and education into an unlimited universe of choices and possibilities.