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Spring 2013

February Current Thinking Column

Monday, February 24, 2014

Facing the Troisième

by Leslie Dashew 

The French have a concept called "Le Troisième." It refers to the third stage of life. If we anticipate that we may live to be 90, that third stage refers to the years between 60 and 90. (On the other hand, if you think you only have 75 years, it would be 50-75). Where the first stage may be one of building capacity and gaining competence, the second chapter may be one of fully utilizing that capacity and accomplishing our greatest achievements.

What of the 3rd stage, then? Is it one of decline? As our bodies lose some of the hormones that keep us youthful and vibrant, are we destined to become marginalized as younger, sharper colleagues (or the next generation) replace our roles? Does our focus inevitably shift from making things happen to merely making our bodies function by shuffling from doctor to doctor? Or are we too consumed with grief from the loss that we unavoidably experience at this time of life?

Like so many other challenges, opportunities, and transitions in our lives, much of this appears to be a function of attitude. Do we look at past generations who lack the longevity expected of today and assume we will be gone at a young age and therefore retire? Do we have a sense of grace that suggests we can move through the next stage with security and acceptance, allowing us to enjoy what comes? Or do we "take it on" by optimizing our health, staying engaged, and using our wisdom and relationships to continue to make a difference? Or, rather, some combination of the three?

Erik Erickson, the famed developmental psychologist, referred to these later years as one of "integrity vs. despair.” Can we look at our lives and feel that we have lived by our values and thus have a sense of integrity? Or, do we feel a sense of despair that we have not accomplished what we should and our legacy is not one for which we feel pride? The resolution of this question manifests in how we choose to spend the later years of our life. Can we make a difference by using the "capital" we have accumulated to have an impact? The capital to which I refer is not only financial or material assets, but also spiritual capital, relationship capital, intellectual capital, etc. We are able to leverage these resources towards that ultimate sense of integrity.

There may be a lesson from the opposite end of life that could be instructive as we consider how one comes to terms with this final stage. In the 1970s, researchers investigated why some youngsters growing up in impoverished, obstacle-laden conditions became very accomplished, while others fell victim to drugs, crime and/or disease. The "invulnerables" had more positive self-esteem and a sense that they could impact the world, while the others felt constrained by the world and powerless against their circumstances. The concept became known as an "internal locus of control" for those who felt they could have an impact, while those who felt victimized had an "external locus of control.”

If accepting aging is in part accepting that we may not be able to do things we once could with the same physical prowess, the question becomes: Can I make a difference? Accomplish some "bucket list" items? Enjoy some activities that I did not have time for in earlier years? I recently heard of a man who was a master scuba diver, completing thousands of dives. He was still diving well into his 80s, and he only started in his 60s! The Peace Corp is another example where elders are able to actively participate and make a difference in programs all over the world. Mentoring, consulting, and sharing one's caring, concern, and wisdom all add value as well. 

I also believe there is a parallel to how we address health issues: do we feel doomed and just accept a dismal diagnosis? Or do we engage as partners in our health with a team of medical professionals/friends to explore the range of options to address the challenge? Are we defined by a diagnosis or do we see it as a challenge and opportunity to learn? I do not think we can minimize the impact of pain, disability, and loss as reckoning with them is undeniably difficult. However, we have seen people move through them to function in new and inspiring ways.

Just like we do not have to allow a diagnosis define us, I do not believe we need to let our age define us either. My 80-year-old neighbor still trims her trees in a dress. My 92-year-old grandmother helped implement activity programs for the elderly known as "The Tigers' Den." My father started his sixth business at age 90. My 70-year-old friend just bought a catamaran and sailed down the east coast for nine months with his wife. The reality is that statistically we will continually live longer and also in better health. Defining ourselves in the troisième is key. Recognizing that we may have 25-30 years beyond what used to be called "retirement age" to work with in our lives means we have the opportunity to decide what is important and how we use that time.

If integrity means living according to our values, what defines our "values?" The best way to determine someone's values is to look at how they spend their time. If they value financial security, they work hard to earn and save money. If they value helping others, they spend their time volunteering or working in the helping professions. If they value beauty, they are artists, frequent museums and/or organize their worlds in an aesthetically-pleasing manner. If they love recreation and reading, but providing for their family took precedence during one's working life, then spending their time in the troisième playing golf and reading is what is important.

So perhaps the resolution of the "integrity vs. despair" dilemma is to define that which is most important at this stage of life, believe that you can make it happen, and spend your various types of capital to do so. The so-called "Serenity Prayer" may be applicable here: “God grant me the serenity to accept what I cannot change, the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

And with any luck, we have harvested much wisdom as we move into the troisième. 


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