To be fully and freely ourselves is one of the most joyful and hard-won gifts of later life. The primary psychological tasks of the first half of life are establishing an identity and making a place for ourselves in the world. Outer-focused, we take cues from family, friends, and societal standards; we play games, keep up appearances, and pretend a little, or a lot, in order to feel accepted, to belong.
But in the second half of life, fitting in and pleasing others become less important than being at home in our own skin. The joy of being and trusting ourselves is heightened for women because traditionally we have been socialized to value relationships and others’ needs ahead of our own. After decades of living for and through others, belonging to ourselves, at last, is an especially precious gift.
As we work free of the need for others’ approval, we move toward becoming our own authority and the author of our own life. The French have a wonderful term—women of a certain age—that reflects the growing ability in the second half of life to know who we are and to live accordingly. In “Indian Summer” author and activist Paula Gunn Allen describes a similar trend in the Native American world. “Middle age frees a woman for making choices congenial to her experience, circumstances, and nature. There she can choose who to be, now that her learning, practicing, and nurturing tasks are accomplished.” What emerges as women grow older, says Allen, is the “ever-more-evident being of just who they are and who they always have been.”
Many women report liking themselves better in midlife, as the youthful hope of perfection gives way to a mature contentment with being good enough, as they are. And winter affords the opportunity to deepen our relationship with the authentic self and to become more attentive and faithful to her promptings. Decreasing demands of childrearing and career in later life allow greater freedom to discover our preferences and follow our own rhythms. Lessening social pressure to look and act a certain way brings a sense of liberation and a daring to live by our own lights, regardless of what others think. And growing awareness of our limits and mortality heightens the desire to devote the time and energy we have to what genuinely matters. Authenticity deepens in the winter of life, bringing with it a refinement of power and greater freedom to be ourselves, even to the point of audacity.
Refined, Authentic Power
Power is a natural outgrowth of living from the inside out, rather than in terms of others’ expectations and standards. As a woman comes to know, trust, and honor herself, she grows more effective, more powerful. As she gives herself permission to focus on what matters most to her, she becomes a force with which to be reckoned. Refined power is not bullying, nor self-serving, however. Tempered by compassion and wisdom, it is practical, discerning, and, above all, concerned for the greater good.
Due to its abuse and negative connotations, we have lost a sense of the true meaning of the word power. Its root is related to potential, suggesting that power is something natural and latent within that enables us to be effective. As we become more authentic, we can harness our power to do what we must and to deal effectively with obstacles that arise. And as we grow more at home with who we are, we can stand firmly with ourselves, rather than stridently against others.
As we grow into knowing, trusting, and honoring ourselves in later life, we give ourselves more permission to be audaciously and unapologetically who we are. In a sense, we come full circle with age, recovering an uncensored way of being, like young children who have not yet learned to hide parts of themselves and to pretend to be other than they are.
One of my deepest delights is spending time with my grandchildren. The two youngest, Lona and Lukas, were three and one when I was first writing a piece on late-life audacity for Winter’s Graces, and I was struck by how clearly they expressed their authentic preferences and emotions, using very few words. There were moments, of course, when their curiosity and delight carried them into territory that was dangerous or destructive, and it was necessary to set limits, lest they hurt themselves or someone else.
In a similar way, the audacity of late life is not simply self-indulgence or the reckless acting out of personal whims without regard for others. It is the freedom to be and express ourselves in authentic and unconventional ways, balanced and tempered by the recognition that we are not the center of things, but part of the web of life.
Gerontologists, anthropologists, and others have observed that this late-life “license for eccentricity” is often expressed in ribald humor, unselfconscious dancing, and forms of play such as climbing trees and jumping rope with children. Regardless of gender, perhaps as you’ve aged, you’ve noticed yourself feeling freed up to do or say certain things that you might not have dared to do or say in your younger days?