The Healthiest People Are Age-Androgynous
The healthiest people are age-androgynous.–Robert J. Ackerman
Age-androgynous. What does this mean, and why is it healthy? Being age-androgynous means that you are able to act and feel any age up to and including your current chronological age. And it is healthy because it indicates that you’re “comfortable in your own skin,” as the 12 Steppers say. Or put another way, it means you like and accept all (or at least most) aspects of yourself.
The Zen Buddhists say that we must re-learn to “see the world through the eyes of a child.” A more Western philosophy along these lines is the advice to “stay young at heart.” Being age-androgynous is really what these ideas are about. This is important to understand, because if an adult only sees the world through the eyes of a child or always stays young at heart, it is psychological regression, which is pathological, not healthy.
Rather, being age-androgynous means that you retain the best traits from all of your previous ages, and are able to access them when it is appropriate and enjoyable to do so. You have the wonder, joy, and spontaneity of childhood, the bright-eyed cynicism and the desire for justice of adolescence, and the sense of responsibility and circumspection that blossoms in adulthood. If you’ve lost the joyfulness of childhood, or any of the other parts of yourself along the way, then you’ve lost something crucial to your vitality. But you can’t hang onto these wonderful traits by avoiding the responsibilities of adulthood–quite the opposite. Thus, the healthiest people are age-androgynous.
I think people often make the mistake of attributing characteristics to children, and youth in general, that aren’t really there. It’s a romanticizing of sorts to think that children are whole and perfect because they don’t have the burdens of adulthood. Yes, children are already whole, but only in the same way that every person and every thing in the Universe is already whole. They lack the weight of adulthood simply because they haven’t yet experienced it and cannot fathom its complexities. Their joy and spontaneity is real, but their ability to express it so freely comes from the uncomplicated nature of their lives, from a self-consciousness that does not yet exist–and not from some magical power that we lost somewhere along the way to maturity.
It might be easier to remember this if we remember, too, that children’s spontaneity can also mean temper tantrums, cruelty, and impulsivity. Furthermore, if we make the mistake of assigning a wisdom that isn’t there, we might deprive a child of the adult guidance and protection so critical to her development (a bit beside the point, but worth mentioning, I think).
When we wax nostalgic over the joys of childhood, we must always remember that we do so through the eyes of an adult, and that what we’re feeling exists only in our adult minds. Because the truth is that childhood was just as hard as every other stage of life; it’s just that it was hard in ways that seem easy to us in retrospect. What we admire or yearn for isn’t a return to childhood, but rather, the capacity to express ourselves as simply and as openly as we once did. Being able to do so is the real challenge, and the real mastery, I think, of adulthood.
The good news is that this is very possible, even if it might make you hopeless to think about, even if you believe you buried your childlike joy and innocence long ago in a far away place. But whether you are in touch with them or not, I promise you that every aspect of yourself still exists within yourself. Every stage of your life lives within you for your entire life. You haven’t lost your childlike abilities to feel awe or be spontaneous, you’ve merely forgotten how.
So, how do you go about remembering? The answers are many and varied. If you had a difficult childhood, you may need some form of counseling to help you reconnect, as there may be some disowning of self going on (a normal reaction to a painful environment when you have few other tools available to you). But if you’ve merely become too concerned with all your adult responsibilities, too identified with your “adult” persona rather than the deeper self that craves adult strength and childlike awe, then you need only make time for fun and joy in your life, and let the magic happen on its own. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, having issues to come to terms with and some stoic unwillingness to allow ourselves light-heartedness (god knows why, but we all seem to have this to some degree).
People are like forests. From a distance, it looks like a homogenous whole, but at close range, we see that it is made up of hundreds, maybe even thousands, of species of trees, grass, shrubs, flowers, berries, mushrooms, fungi, and more. Like forests, we can mistake ourselves for a single entity, which we never really are. We are never one thing or one mind or one idea, ever. Rather, we are an amalgamation of everything in our present, our past, our thoughts, our feelings, our relationships, our environment, and our actions, and we are constantly moving and changing. The more parts of ourselves that we can identify with, accept, and include, the more whole we will be. Thus, being age-androgynous is about the ongoing migration toward wholeness (which is constant and continuous whether we partake of it consciously or not), and, while embracing our healthiest childlike qualities, is not childlike at all.