When I was in my early twenties, I wrote a really bad poem about climbing trees at different points in my life: as a little kid, and then projecting all the way into my imagined eighties. The poem was terrible, but its attempted imagining of what I would be like at 83 is what intrigues me now. The last lines of the poem read:
And when I’m 83,
I hope I will at least
want to climb a tree.
Terrible internal rhythm, but the “at least want to” tells me now, at 76, that I had some inkling of what my ebbing strength and agility might be at 83. My picture of this was also shaped by what I heard and saw around me in regard to “aging” at that time—the early seventies. Older people were mostly written off in that era.
“Does who you are at your core as a young adult remain the same throughout the rest of your life, or does it shift as you develop and mature?”
But I’m also now aware that early adulthood is not a time when most of us give a lot of thought to what or who (two very different things) we will be when we reach our elderhood years. It’s difficult to imagine that, and why would one even try? There are so many other things needing one’s attention in early adulthood. The elderhood phase of life, or the run-up to that phase, is actually a more relevant time to think about one’s identity and meaning as an elder.
I remember a comment made by the late film reviewer Roger Ebert in a talk he was giving on films that portray older adults. He pointed out that older adulthood is the only age that gives one a dual perspective–the ability to look both forward and back–a long way back. (This is actually one of the often-overlooked benefits of aging!) An intriguing question that comes up for me when I think about this ability to look both ways is this: “Does who you are at your core as a young adult remain the same throughout the rest of your life, or does it shift as you develop and mature?”
I am struck by how seldom this question is explored in films about the experiences of aging. A film that does explore this is The Sense of an Ending. Produced in 2017, it has remained a somewhat obscure film, never reaching a wide audience in theaters. It is, however, now available through several streaming platforms. The film has a strong cast of well-known actors, including Jim Broadbent and Charlotte Rampling, who give depth to the characters they play.
The film has a complex plot involving events that happened to Broadbent’s 70-something character (Tony Webster) when he was a college student. A mysterious letter from the mother of one of his college friends triggers for Tony a re-examination of who he was in his college days. One remarkable scene in the film has Tony wandering as his older self through the same college party in which we saw him earlier in the film as a young man—as if searching for clues to make sense of who he was then compared to who he is now. It is a striking visual conceit that brings into sharp focus the dual perspective of looking back while living forward.
In my review of this film, I noted that:
The Sense of an Ending is the kind of film that could readily engage students because of its intriguing interplay of intrapersonal-intergenerational perspectives. By that I mean it triggers one to reflect on the interplay of self-identified personas at two different points in one’s life. Students could have a rich discussion, based on this film, on “looking ahead to looking back”—that is, an exercise where young adults project who they will be 50 years from now when they will be able to look back at themselves 50 years earlier. Who will you be in fifty years? How different will you be from who you are today? What will have been involved in that development? This is a deeper question than “What will I do and what will my life be like?” It is a “Who will I be?” question.
Back to my tree-climbing ruminations. Did that inner propensity to enjoy climbing a tree remain or fade in my now much older self? It’s still there but it’s now accompanied by another voice—one that says, “Weigh the consequences of falling out of a tree!”
– Jim Vanden Bosch