Composing a Further Life:
Cultural Anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson Defines Adulthood II, the Age of Active Wisdom
In the midst of a shift to a global economy, international concern over long-term health care, fear of inadequate resources for growing populations, and the collapse of political dictatorships and economies, something extraordinary is happening. For the first time in human history, women and men in the developed and developing world are living longer, productive lives.
For writer and cultural anthropologist, Mary Catherine Bateson, longevity is cause for hope and celebration. In her latest book Composing a Further Life: The Age of Active Wisdom, a sequel to her earlier bestseller, Composing a Life, Bateson emphasizes that all lives have a deep creative component to them; and that as we grow older, we have the opportunity to fully engage our creative and compassionate selves in the world. Bateson calls the emergence of the new stage of life, ages 50 to 75, Adulthood II.
Bateson, 70, the daughter of philosopher Gregory Bateson and cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead, writes from personal experience. She is a wife, mother and grandmother as well as college professor emerita who has gained a wealth of insight and knowledge from her own research and collaboration with a rich weave of friends, family and colleagues. In 2004, she retired from her position as Clarence J. Robinson Professor in Anthropology and English at George Mason University and is currently a Visiting Scholar at the Center on Aging & Work/Workplace Flexibility at Boston College. Bateson also serves as a special consultant to the Lifelong Access Libraries Initiative of the Libraries for the Future, with an emphasis on conceptualization, testing and implementation of her Active Wisdom model.
The challenge of Adulthood II, as Bateson points out, is to engage the later years of our lives in ways that will insure a viable future for our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. “It is up to us,” she says, to contribute to a future of adequate resources, peace and possibility, so that they too can create their lives with grace, elegance and wisdom.
WRR: You characterize the Adult II stage as a stage of “active wisdom.” What does that mean for you? What is its special value?
Mary Catherine Bateson: “Wisdom” is part of our stereotype of old age, where it is associated with relative withdrawal and reduced engagement. The development of a stage of relative health and energy after the completion of many of the tasks of Adulthood but before old age invites us to explore the form that wisdom will take when combined with active engagement—and what this will offer to society.
WRR: On page 22 of your book Composing a Further Life, you say, “For the great irony of our time is that, even as we are living longer, we are thinking shorter.” What remedies and/or strategies do you see as vital for us to start thinking “longer” as a society?
Mary Catherine Bateson: The first step is to become aware of the issue. For instance, we could start rating policy proposals in relation to time depth, so we might say X is a one-year thinker (next election perhaps!) on new energy resources, while Y is thinking twenty years ahead, and Z is looking to the next century. One thing I have proposed is that older adults become advocates for the future in which today’s children will raise their own children.
WRR: You are suggesting that the retirees of our society can contribute meaningfully to the kind of future we create for our children. Do you see this shift as a needed “paradigm change” or simply a shift in our priorities?
Mary Catherine Bateson: I think it is best described as a shift in awareness and attention – the future can only be protected by people living today, and only if we demand that future implications be made explicit.
WRR: Making the future “explicit” requires us to think deeply about the future of our nation, our planet. Do you have any thoughts, proposals about how to develop this perspective not only among the Adult II generation, but among younger people as well?
Mary Catherine Bateson: There are many jokes about the “natural alliance” between grandchildren and grandparents – why not strengthen that alliance and make it politically effective? Younger adults are often under too much pressure to think beyond next week’s demands, while teenagers and children feel that they have no voice. Could grandparents become spokespersons and trustee voters for their grandchildren?
WRR: If this new generation of Adulthood II individuals is to include being advocates for our grandchildren then for Adulthood II to be vital and liberating requires us to both remember our earlier stages and yet move on to acceptance and integration of this elder time of active wisdom. What are the primary “tools” or “strategies” for making the Adult II stage of life as vital and meaningful for us as what has gone before in the earlier stages?
Mary Catherine Bateson: The primary tools and strategies involve introspection, discussion, and new learning, all of which can take a variety of forms. Some of which are already taking shape. For instance, writing a memoir or some other form of life review can be a source of new understanding as memories reveal new meanings. Rereading a book that seemed profound thirty years ago can make us aware of how and why we have changed. Undertaking a meditation practice can trigger a new process of spiritual growth and greater perspective.
Each of these can be deepened by group discussion both with peers and across age groups. Most people have a treasure trove of experience on which they have not taken the time to reflect.
WRR: While it’s true that the members of the Adult II stage of life all have a wealth of valuable experiences to share, for those who are economically limited and already dealing with limiting health conditions and worried about their financial future is the stage of Adult II an option for them?
Mary Catherine Bateson: Good health and affluence obviously increase people’s choices and options, but neither guarantees wisdom and neither guarantees that people will experience satisfaction or make productive use of their time. And of course there continues to be deaths – fewer than in the past – at every age. If we are alive and conscious, we are not without options. Some of us may become sages while others become simply silly or mean spirited.
WRR: You consistently affirm a deep respect for differences among us and the power and value of diversity. You also see this diversity as intimately related to our creativity. But how do we get people to look beyond their fear and dislike and even hatred of what is different?
Mary Catherine Bateson: Well, I have been interested in making people aware of their own learning processes and of the fact that all of us in the course of our lifetimes have had to revise assumptions and expectations. Someone who can say “Once I believed x, now I believe y,” can understand how differences in belief are possible. Someone who can say “I stopped (or started) doing z when I realized it was bad (good) for me,” can distinguish between the person and the behavior. Life histories and memories can be mined for these discoveries. We can encourage granddad to acknowledge the follies (and prejudices) of his youth.
WRR: What in your experience allows/enables people to work together to pursue worthwhile goals and projects without blurring the differences that are inevitably part of any group working together?
Mary Catherine Bateson: I guess everyone has had some experience of organic vs. mechanical solidarity – the working together that depends on difference and complementarity vs. the working together that depends on identical performance. Again, bringing these things into awareness can make people aware of the value of differences.
WRR: You suggest that people can make their differences worthwhile to each other rather than a stumbling block to working together. Has there been a central pattern or recurrent challenge to what your life has been oriented towards as it has played out? Is this also true for those you see coming to the Adult II stage of their lives?
Mary Catherine Bateson: I wrote an earlier book called Composing a Life about the way in which women, including me, have had to deal with multiple commitments that sometimes conflict with each other, while also dealing with interruptions and discontinuities.
My solution is contained in the word “composing” which challenges the reader to see her (or his) decisions as in some sense aesthetic: how to combine the elements of a life so they are mutually enhancing, so they fit together with grace and elegance. When we decide what to pursue in Adulthood II we are in the position of a storyteller who knows that the ending will affect the meaning of the entire story.
So I find myself asking, am I doing something that makes good use of my experience (i.e. shows that even the unpleasant parts were meaningful parts of the whole)? Am I doing something that affirms my basic values? And finally, am I doing something that challenges me to continue to learn?
It strikes me that this way of thinking includes both continuity (meaningfulness, basic values) and change (learning), which seems to make the most sense. There are people who say I want to go on doing what I have been doing until I drop. And there are people who say, forget about meaning and values, I just want to be entertained. But I think these are short-term formulations from people with old-fashioned expectations about their health and longevity. We need to remember that Adulthood II may last a surprisingly long time into our eighties and nineties.
WRR: Your emphasis on the way we live is clearly on our option to “create” our lives as we live them. One such factor that you strongly emphasize is the importance of a kind of integration in our lives. Could you expand on this statement from your chapter on wholeness: We compose our lives in time, improvising and responding to context, yet weaving threads of continuity and connecting this whole as we move back and forth in memory.
Mary Catherine Bateson: The statement is a summary of my examples, with a special focus on the actress Jane Fonda, her career and her relationships. I suppose it would be more modern to say that we compose in real time. I am saying that memories of the past are always a part of our decisions, even decisions involving starting something new in a new context, so there is always some relationship with the past (even if the relationship is one of repudiation).
WRR: You mention Jane Fonda’s use of the word “countenance” in relationship to others. That seemed to resonate with you. What triggered that response?
Mary Catherine Bateson: I’m always interested when I notice an individual oddity of language that seems central to someone’s thought. Jane is misusing a word because she wants to say something about recognition and acceptance that is important to her. Recognition has always been an important concept to me – what does it mean to recognize that a place or a person is important to me, and how does this come about? I quote the Bible here (thru a glass darkly) but the more important reference for me might be John 20:16. Jane had a rough childhood, and has encountered many people who project distorted images on her. It’s really important when she can say someone (especially her father) really sees and accepts her as she is.
WRR: What we do with our past brings to mind the distinction between “heritage” and “legacy” that you make in your chapter “What We Pass On.” Would you comment on these meanings for you and the weight they have for the Adult II stage?
Mary Catherine Bateson: I think people sometimes confuse the two concepts and it is useful to see them separately, and sometimes worth thinking about each. Often, of course, my most important legacy will be something that I myself inherited.
WRR: At the end of the chapter “What We Pass On,” you say: In other words, go towards the future with a plan that you’re willing to let go of. What do we have to do to live with both intense purpose and genuine flexibility?
Mary Catherine Bateson: As my GPS says (ruefully): “Recalculating.” A plan is no more than a means.
WRR: I’m sure many of us share your hope for such insight. In your final chapter you say, “It may be helpful to think of wisdom as a process rather than a possession.” Would you expand this to our learning to perceive all of our experience within this notion of process, not just our wisdom?
Mary Catherine Bateson: Yes, but it takes some tweaking. I’m starting to criticize the notion of having wisdom. All perception is process. I would say that the connection of experience to wisdom involves the processes of perception followed by the processes of reflection and integration. And then maybe the processes of articulation and drawing of analogies (relevance, application).
WRR: Ultimately, if we are to create our lives, we must use our ability to move across the whole spectrum of time. You mention how Alfred Korzybski’s “time binding” pinpoints our human capacity to reach from our present to both the past and the future. This is one of our truly remarkable and undervalued capacities. Do you think the people in Adult II will enhance our awareness of this remarkable skill?
Mary Catherine Bateson: I hope so.
William Cole-Kiernan was a full time philosophy professor at St Peter’s College in Jersey City, New Jersey for thirty-three years before he retired. Now a Professor Emeritus at the College, he continues to teach part time. The main goal in his teaching has always been to teach philosophy as a context for students to expand their consciousness and learn to think for themselves.
His undergraduate work was at New York University, where he completed a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering. After college, he served three and a half years in the United States Army as an officer and a pilot flying reconnaissance and light cargo aircraft.
Returning from the service, he switched directions from engineering and started his study of philosophy. He has a Master’s and a PhD from Fordham University, and specialized in American Philosophy, especially focusing on the thought of William James and John Dewey.
He lives in Lambertville, New Jersey with his wife Barbara, and has four grown children and six grandchildren.