An anxious response that some folk have is the urge to scratch oneself, and I often go through this response as well. The tart red lines of my fingers across my chest, shoulders, and neck provide annals of my worries. I’ve always done this, or at least for as long as I can remember noting responses to anxiety. Though, recently, my scratching has become anxiety-inducing for another reason: when I scratch, I drag off hair. I hope to connect this anecdote about hair to themes of aging, personal improvement, and emotional growth.
I’ve come to associate the loss of my hair as one of the many prominences of my aging. Not just my head, though that’s certainly jarring in its own right, but across my chest, back, and shoulders as well. The physical manifestation of my becoming vulnerable, more aged, has struck much fear in me: is my life’s timeline shortening already? When I drive into these thoughts, my main concerns are about experiences: having not experienced enough, yet, to feel comfortable in my termination. And these concerns largely stem from a root of not feeling developed enough, not feeling like I’m living up to my potential, or feeling insecure about my accomplishments.
In this sense, personal improvements while we age, personal developments, when looked at as goals, are really less about what it is we accomplish and more about accepting that what we do in any span of time is what we did. That, regardless of our desire to have had a different outcome or our expressed perception of that conditional temporality, we can only have done what we did.
Growing emotionally as we age
While growing up, subjected to so many narratives of the coming-of-age, hero’s arc, development of power and personal empowerment, I learned deep within my core that to age was to become one’s better self. This troubled me greatly as I breached my mid-twenties where, largely, life had settled into a predictable pattern: work when I have to, relax when I can. While a simplification, this applies both in the capitalist-productivity sense, as well as in the anarcho-creativity sense (the operative difference being in how we define ‘have’ – here I mean it in the sense of ‘have’ for a paycheck as well as ‘have’ as in carrying that interpsychic impetus of necessity to do something).
What Glissant proposes is that power is more fundamental than both “self ” and “language.” These two latter categories “disguise” the reality of dominance that underlies them. The self and language come into existence because of already existing power relations, which following Glissant’s thought means that unmasterful politics will enable the formation of new kinds of selves and new forms of language.Juliette Singh, Unthinking Mastery
Importantly, I am by no means excelling at giving up the narrative that each day and each year of my life I should be markedly different than the year before, especially so in a perceived ‘better’ way. But as I age, the stress of becoming better is slowly being replaced by the stress of accepting myself. For instance, in writing this previous sentence, it took me a few minutes of staring and four different attempts to settle on ‘myself,’ as opposed to my instinct to write, ‘my failures,’ or ‘my flaws.’
I call these stresses not in the definition of acute mental-emotional plagues but rather in the sense of sources for tension in one’s life. The tautness of line across a bridge is critical to its tolerance for fatigue and its longevity – too tight and the bridge suffers from every atypical disturbance, too loose and the bridge is unruly and uncrossable. Stress, in this way, is something to balance in finite and controlled experiments throughout one’s journey rather than view it as a holistically antagonistic force. And in perceiving stress like this one begins the first and perhaps most central emotional process for contending with aging.
Vital components for accepting that to age is not necessarily to improve
I scratch myself as anxiety provokes the physical manifestation of discomfort, of itchiness, that I oh-so-unconsciously know to resolve by scratching the area that it plagues. But as a whole, learning to handle provocation is both a sign of social maturity as well as emotional maturity. Over the last five years, topics that I explore in therapy often get dissolved down to what their root triggers might be: being in a space with loud music, dozens of conversations, and high rates of interactivity overstimulates me as I try to keep tabs, organize, and categorize engagements between them all. Knowing provocations also provides you with the ability to feel more in power to choose to engage those provocations, as well as the ability to understand potential ways to situate yourself in otherwise provoking situations that do not threaten or exasperate you.
In both its vastly oversimplified as well as chaotically complicated sense, the feedback loop of existence is such that at first we encounter ourselves in a fixed and binary power dynamic: there is ourselves, and all else, and power resides in either one or the other category; however, as we grow older, the power dynamic shifts into: there is ourselves, there is all else, and there is the assumed structures at play between and amongst all else. When our perception of power dynamics are complicated, oftentimes it means an endangering of the self as splitting reconciliations of power between more than two inevitably will result in less power overall for the self.
Pushing beyond this immediate endangered response allows one to understand that ‘power’ as a response to the world is not inherently necessary. I would challenge any who read this with the proposition: what have I done to relinquish power today, lately? As ultimately this is what it comes down to: we are aging toward our death, and to die means to relinquish our earthly power unless we have understood and assembled the necessary associations to connect our affect in larger domains of existence.
In medieval popular tradition a soul was typically a miniature version of an embodied person, and thereby the limner of human exceptionalism. For Aristotelian and scholastic writers like Albertus, however, plants and animals must also possess souls as a principle of their being alive.Jeffrey Jerome Cohen
I gain peace in considering that when I die, I might plan appropriately to have my remains fertilize a particular forest or wooded area and continue its health in whatever small ways I can. In this peace, I can shift through life being plagued less by aging and all of the vulnerable ramifications therein.