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Interview: A Tour Guide of Life

 

I am part of all that I have met; yet all experience is an arch where through gleams that untravelled world whose margins fades for ever and forever when I move.

- A. L. Tennyson

Dr. Thomas Armstrong

Dr. Thomas Armstrong


In The Human Odyssey: Navigating the Twelve Stages of Life (Sterling), Dr. Thomas Armstrong presents an astute snapshot of the human life span. Drawing on material from a wide range of disciplines, he weaves the complexities of individual journeys with the mystery, ambiguity and poetry of life to create a fresh, beguiling and encouraging story. Armstrong is an award-winning educator, author and speaker. His books have been translated into 24 languages.

AHB reached Dr. Armstrong in Cloverdale, California

Ruth Dempsey: What sparked your interest in human development?

Thomas Armstrong: I had a number of experiences when I was in my late teens – I suppose you could call them transpersonal or mystical – that opened me up to a bigger vision of life. Also, my father experienced a major depression in mid-life. This caused me to be interested in the stages of life, and why certain people went through them with flying colors and others had difficulty with them.

In my 20s, I remember reading Daniel Levinson’s The Seasons of a Man’s Life. I used that as a map to think about my own life in relationship to the men who were profiled in the book. By my mid-30s, I had resolved to write a book that caught the wide sweep of the life cycle. It took me 15 years to write it. I suppose I think of The Human Odyssey as a kind of tour guide of life.

RD: Levinson talks a lot about “the dream” . . .

TA: That’s right. The dream emerges in early adulthood, usually in our early 20s. Think of is as a vision of how we see ourselves down the road: as a successful businessperson, famous rock star, happy homemaker, published novelist. Sometimes, a crisis in mid-life is about having to realize we will never achieve our dream, or that we have to modify it significantly. Or maybe, we have achieved it. Then, our challenge is to discover something else – a new dream, to sustain us through the rest of our lives.

RD: Carolyn Heilbrun encourages women in Writing a Woman’s Life to pursue new story lines: quest plots like men, for example. Did this theme surface in your research?

TA: This is the challenge of mid-life: to let go of the time schedules and self-images that drove us in early adulthood; and to find more satisfying ways of being in the world whether this involves social, creative, or spiritual quests, or whether it involves taking up art for the first time, beginning to meditate, or giving back to the community in some generative way.

RD: The death of parents can sometimes trigger a turning point in life.

TA: That’s right. The loss of our parents means that there is no longer any “cushion” between mortality and us.

RD: In the book, you talk about “adapters” and “rememberers,” using the industrialist Leland Stanford and the poet Emily Dickinson, as examples. Can you please elaborate?

TA: The adapters are interested in fitting into the life around them – the deadlines, expectations and tasks that press upon them from the surrounding culture. The rememberers are more concerned with being true to themselves and discovering who they really are, even if it doesn’t mesh with the cultural or social demands placed on them. Everyone has some combination of the adapter and the rememberer in them. In fact, we need to have both of these qualities in order to live a full life.

RD: Some people undergo amazing transformations in retirement. Can you give me an example?

TA: Anthropologist Joel Savishinsky studied a banker who took up Buddhism, a marine who became head of a school board, a social worker who fell in love with Rembrandt and an engineer who learned to sculpt water. These are examples, where the rememberer begins to have ascendancy over the adapter in life. With the responsibilities of job and family behind them, these people were free to search for something that better fed their souls.

RD: The research also notes declines in personal growth as people move from midlife to old age. You blame the lack of supportive social structures.

TA: We don’t have formalized rites of passage for mid-life and old age, as we do for the younger years. This makes it hard for people in later life to see themselves in meaningful contexts.

RD: Finally, the book offers a thought-provoking snapshot of aging in a northern Indian Bengali village.

TA: In this Bengali culture, the elders were concerned with finding ways to become dis-attached from the world. Elder Bengali villagers take up celibacy, give away possessions and make pilgrimages to holy sites. This is a very different approach to aging.

In Western society, the emphasis is on preserving a youthful look through anti-aging formulas and a “stay young forever” lifestyle. In the Indian society, there is an acceptance of aging, and a growing readiness to leave this world for the spiritual mysteries beyond.