Recently I watched Jane Fonda giving a TED Talk with the title Life’s Third Act. I’ve never thought of Jane Fonda as the kind of person I would take advice from (even her exercise videos passed me by); she’s a little too Hollywood for my liking – too glamorous, too rich, too contradictory. However, she is a feminist (which is a big plus in her favour) and, think what one may about her, she’s also very articulate and what she had to say made a lot of sense to me.
She talks specifically about how our life expectancy has increased by 30 years and refers to it as our 3rd Act, which I think is a rather nice way of putting it now that I’m approaching 60. She advocates that we shouldn’t regard these years as part of a downhill curve but rather as a chance to finish up the task of finishing ourselves. She has a refreshingly positive take on this stage of our lives, unlike Shakespeare whose 7 ages of man monologue describes the final stages of a man’s life as:
The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
One of the points Fonda makes really resonated with me; she talks about doing a life review and mentions a book called “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl in which he wrote:
Everything you have in life can be taken from you except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. This is what determines the quality of the life we’ve lived — not whether we’ve been rich or poor, famous or unknown, healthy or suffering. What determines our quality of life is how we relate to these realities, what kind of meaning we assign them, what kind of attitude we cling to about them, what state of mind we allow them to trigger.
She goes on to say:
Perhaps the central purpose of the third act is to go back and to try, if appropriate, to change our relationship to the past. It’s not having experiences that make us wise, it’s reflecting on the experiences that we’ve had that makes us wise — and that helps us become whole, brings wisdom and authenticity. It helps us become what we might have been.
I like that: “become what we might have been”. Recently however I’ve been reflecting more on my mother’s life than my own. I don’t want to sound critical but I’ve learnt a lot from her mistakes and I hope I don’t repeat them.
“What has all this to with me?” you may well ask. Well, since you will soon be completing your first 30 years of life and have probably not given much thought to what your life will be like when you have done another 30, I thought it may be appropriate to share some of my learnings with you.
As Fonda says:
Women start off whole, don’t we? I mean, as girls, we start off feisty …. We have agency. We are the subjects of our own lives. But very often, many, if not most of us, when we hit puberty, we start worrying about fitting in and being popular. And we become the subjects and objects of other people’s lives. But now, in our third acts, it may be possible for us to circle back to where we started and know it for the first time. And if we can do that, it will not just be for ourselves. Older women are the largest demographic in the world. If we can go back and redefine ourselves and become whole, this will create a cultural shift in the world, and it will give an example to younger generations so that they can reconceive their own lifespan.
So, here goes: what I’ve learned from my mother’s mistakes:
- It is critical to look after one’s body – to keep fit and healthy and nurture one’s appearance. Problems with eyesight, hearing, teeth, muscle strength, bone density – all the things that deteriorate with age – should be dealt with as they arise. I’ve seen my mother struggle with some of these issues because she either didn’t seek help at the time or didn’t continue with the treatment. Now it’s too late. As for appearance, I don’t mean disguising one’s aging. Rather, celebrate it and hold your head up high. Confidence is what it’s all about.
Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing
It ought to make you proud.
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need of my care,
‘Cause I’m a woman
- Even introverts need social contact. I’ve discovered that making the effort to be more sociable has had many rewards. I’ve met lovely people by learning to play bridge and joining a book club and it’s led to other social activities. I’ve also been introduced to books that I would not normally have chosen to read – it does one good to get out of one’s comfort zone. As she got older, Edna became more reclusive and without company, she gets quite lonely and bored.
- It’s good for one’s psyche to have a creative outlet, something that you can continue doing when in your dotage.
I want to approach my 3rd act very differently to my mother. I want to continue evolving and living an authentic life. I don’t want to have any unfinished business when I die and above all, I want to be happy and fulfilled.
Given all of that, I have a favour to ask of you. Don’t let me give up and play the age card; keep pushing me to realise my potential and not to be fearful. Call me out if I become self-pitying, complaining, negative or small-minded. I’ll understand even if it hurts – I’m sure I’ll cry and get annoyed but at the end of the day, I’ll know it’s because you love me.
I don’t think this is too much to ask you because already you have a knack for pointing out, with alarming alacrity, when I’m being foolish. And I appreciate it, honestly I do. I wish I had done the same for my mother. I let her stop trying until eventually she won’t go out, even to visit us. If I know that you’ve got my back on this, I’ll have one less thing to worry about and I can get on with my 3rd act and give the performance of my life.