Reclaimed Powers: Toward a New Psychology of Men and Women in Later Life (1987)
Back in 1987 I wrote a book titled Reclaimed Powers: Toward a New Psychology of Men and Women in Later Life. It didn’t have the impact on its main field, gerontology, that I hoped for. Orthodox gerontologists did not appreciate a cross-disciplinary approach that included Freudian insights and politically conservative ideas about the “natural” rather than the social sources of gender differences. Nevertheless, given that 76 million Baby Boomers are now entering old age, I believe that the work remains relevant.
The basic argument was that the post-parental age of life is not an ungraceful, catastrophic descent into death, but rather a time when one acquires new capacities to discern, to act and to enjoy. In other words, there is developmental growth in the final third of life just as there is in the first and second thirds. I argued, moreover, that this enrichment is not culture-specific but universal, having arisen through the slow but inexorable exertions of evolution: The powers of the final third of life have been selected for because they have helped humans to survive and prosper.
Now, what is the evolutionary advantage of such developmental advances in the final third of life? It has to do with parenting. Humans make a basic trade-off: Because our babies are born stupid and helpless, parenting (during what I called “the parental emergency”) takes longer and requires more sacrifice than it does in other species. But it pays off in the long run, because the un-programmed neocortex of the child can, while it is being reared, acquire new learning for itself and ultimately for society. This is a more effective evolutionary strategy than relying on habitual, instinctual old learning. But because the child must be intensively nurtured until its new learning comes on line, human parenting is inherently difficult. Parents need help in coping with their protracted burdens, and particularly with the personal sacrifices they must make to meet them. In traditional human societies they get this help in two interlinked ways: women rely mainly on the extended family, men on the vehicle of culture.
The extended family helps women to outsource parenting tasks to kinswomen, and to sublimate the aggression that could frighten their kids, while driving away protective males. Culture helps men accept the restrictions of domesticity and responsible citizenship. Central to both supports are grandparents, or “emeritus parents.” Grandparents, having been through the whole experience of parenting, can not only teach their own grown children how to care for their young; they can also reinforce the larger structures of extended family and culture (mainly religion) that buffer the extraordinary demands of human parenting. These larger structures have one overarching function: They keep the natural selfish instincts of individuals—their narcissism, in the language of psychology and psychiatry—from getting out of hand to the detriment of their own children. This tri-generational character of human parenting is different from that of any other species. As I wrote in Reclaimed Powers, “We do not have elders because we have a human gift and modern capacity for keeping people alive; instead, we are human because we have elders.”
Having established the basic idea in the terms of the discipline we now call evolutionary biology, I then tried to detail how the tri-generational process worked within the larger social framework. I began with the fairly obvious observation that male and female children are socialized differently in all traditional societies in preparation for their future roles as fathers and mothers. I further posited that this development, like all human development, goes through three stages: surgent, active and sculpted. In the surgent stage, where neurophysiological changes unleashed by the maturation process make their initial impact on behavior, girls for example lose their “tomboy” aggressiveness and associated appetites. They turn inward to hearth and home, becoming gentle and more sociable. Boys learn to live at the dangerous perimeter of the village. They become aggressive, calculating protectors of the domestic interior, suppressing much of their capacity for warm sentiment in the process. Females and males continue these roles in active ways once they become parents, and then in sculpted ways that fit their individual parenting roles into a larger social whole. While the behaviors of sculpted, or institutionalized, parenting vary from culture to culture, they are nonetheless universal in their inclusion of grandparental elders as legitimating authorities performing critical functions. Grandparents help females to become nurturing mothers, males to become protectors of their wives and children, and both to become role models and socializing agents for their growing progeny.
It is when the children have children of their own that the post-parental, third phase of life dawns. When it does, the tendencies accentuated during the second phase or parental emergency period are reversed. As their children become independent of them and produce grandchildren, post-parental men “demobilize”, gradually becoming more withdrawn, gentle and passive, more oriented toward the present than the future. They regain the tender part of themselves that they muffled during the parental emergency. Woman become more assertive, more outward- and future-looking. They regain the aggressive part of themselves muffled during the parental emergency. In a sense, in later life men and women exchange roles, often causing no little marital stress, as anyone with eyes to see already knows. But as they do this they gain, or regain, the mental abilities that make them ideal grandparents and wardens of society.
To argue that this process is universal, set deep into our very nature as a species, I drew both on my fieldwork among the Maya, the Navajo and the Druze, and on a wide range of ethnography and folklore. As my research progressed I was surprised by the universality of certain cultural tropes. Nearly every culture, for instance, tells stories of strong older women—whether as witches and demons, or as priestesses or fairy godmothers. Nearly every traditional society also has the archetypical figure of the matriarch, an assertive older woman who holds the key to the pantry and acts through her eldest son—while terrorizing his wife, her daughter-in-law—to wield broad social power. In motherhood, this woman became expert at resource management, triage and stoical rationality in the face of domestic stress. Now, as an elder matriarch, she deploys those skills in the wider social ambit of the extended family.
I also discovered that virtually all cultures share certain folk tropes describing the occult, mystical gifts of socially rather than physically powerful old men. As with the older women, the older men expand the functions they performed as fathers during the parental emergency. Young men are creatures of the spatial frontier, boundary-dwellers who protect the village or raid other villages. Old men are also boundary-dwellers, but of the temporal rather than spatial frontier. Just as there are mysteries beyond the boundaries of the protected village, there are mysteries beyond the boundaries of mortality. The preliterate mind is all about drawing and interpreting boundaries, an insight confirmed strongly by cultural and social anthropology.
I ended Reclaimed Powers by contrasting how the tri-generational process of parenting worked in the earliest human societies with how it works in modern, Western societies. My main aim was to modify the catastrophic conception of aging as unmitigated disaster. I thought that if we gained a better appreciation for the creative functions of emeritus parents, modern attitudes held by young and old toward the elderly might improve
I began this last section of the book by asking what happens when the surgent urges of the final third of life lacked the psychosocial “space” of the traditional society in which they would stretch out into their active and then sculpted forms. That is, what happens when there is no village to house the extended family, when the historically natural kin-contiguity of the three-generational family gives way to the nuclear family and the community-sundering mobility of modern societies? What happens to older men when religious culture is devalued in secularized cities? Do the developmental surges of the final third of life still get sculpted into institutional form, or do they wither, or become displaced or distorted?
It seemed obvious that in such circumstances older people, especially older men, would tend to lose a sense of purpose, a sense of dignity, and too often their sanity as well. I suspected that senile dementia was a more complex ailment than conventional geriatricians took it to be, a condition of the troubled soul as much as a condition of the weakened body. My main concern, however, was that in societies where elders could not play the role for which evolution shaped them, everyone would suffer:
Via the elders, the mythic past and the mundane present are interpenetrated, and the climate of mythic origins is brought forward, into the here and now. . . . The traditional older man, by tending culture, serves society as much as he is served by it. He preserves culture by making its mythic armatures real and available for the larger group. Older men thereby help to provoke the experiences upon which enduring social bonds are based: experiences of automatic familiarity, of common membership in a unique collectivity. For when separate individuals hold the same ideals and ideas, they are apt to become familiars and extensions to each other, automatic comrades, even though they are not directly known to each other.
What happens in secular cities? We see examples, I argued, not of changed cultures but of less culture: deculturation. There are fewer shared, idealized understandings, for there are few if any sacralized means of producing them. Modernization and urbanization erode the conditions under which gerontocracy can perform its age-old functions:
When urban culture loses its power to bind and transform narcissism in all age groups to the collective weal, egocentricity increasingly becomes the general coinage of social relations. The aged, who depend on the goodwill and the inner controls of younger, stronger individuals, as well as on external controls that are maintained by a strong cultural consensus, suffer accordingly.
In other words, the phrase “urban jungle” is not just a metaphor. Despite the apparent thickness of civilization in an urban environment, in a decultured city individuals are limited by fewer, not more, social constraints.
When cultural rules are not ratified by some sacred principle, they come to be regarded as arbitrary restrictions or power games rather than legitimate routes to power, personal significance and self-esteem:
Soon enough it becomes apparent, particularly to the young, that honor and conformity are incompatible, and that power is to be gained through antisocial rather than prosocial acts. As the rebel and psychopath acquire glamour, the social order of the city, which depends on automatic trust among strangers, is increasingly compromised.
By the time James Dean and then Charles Manson became objects of emulation and fascination, something had changed in America. But at the time, few had any inkling as to what had changed.
Deculturation had other broad social implications. I initially narrowed my speculations to the effects of narcissism on society. Under conditions of deculturation, it seemed to me, narcissistic preference would come to dictate lines of affiliation:
I can extend the awareness of familiarity and selfness only to those who are like me in the most concrete, asocial, immediately sensible respects; those who share my skin color, the same body conformation, the same genitalia, the same sexual appetites, and the same age group as myself. In effect, with deculturation, the principles of association are no longer based on shared standards but instead become racist, ageist, sexist and homoerotic.
In short, I feared that the rise of a more “progressive” culture had ironically set the stage for a less liberal society. The relativization and democratization of value production in a society bereft of empowered elders would lead not to a more tolerant society but to a more atomized one. What appears to be tolerance in such a society is instead a function of mutual disengagement. The penchant for many Americans to describe themselves as hyphenated-Americans in one way or another—still a novel practice at the time I wrote—was both a symptom of deculturation and a source for it.
Finally, it seemed to me that while the aged suffer particularly from deculturation, becoming victims instead of heroes, the “Aged” rather than the “Elders”, others suffer as well. The revolution against gerontocracy, I wrote,
intended to liberate the young, ends by putting children at risk. The two great social structures, extended family and culture, that protect and generate strong elders, are precisely those that protect human parenting and underwrite healthy children. By providing meanings that compensate for deprivation, culture helps make the human family and adequate human parenting possible. . . . But as culture loses the capacity to endow deprivation with significance, children . . . are among the first to suffer from the primary narcissism and aggression, released by deculturation, that the elders once helped hold in check. . . . Ultimately, children are the major victims of the indulgent, revisionist, relativistic games that we play with our culture. . . . In our haste to be modern, in our revolutionary rage against tradition and gerontocracy, we have brought down the fathers and humbled the aged. In so doing, we are also bringing down the culture that sustains us all.
How do these concerns seem to me now, more than two decades later? Understated.
As I suggested in Reclaimed Powers, culture, whatever else it is and however else others define it, acts to convert potentially antisocial narcissism (selfishness, voluntary isolation, egocentricity, grandiosity) into enduring prosocial bonds. Let me now elaborate a bit about what I mean by that.
By providing symbols and associations though which individuals can identify with others, a functioning culture abets the conversion of infantile narcissism into healthy self-esteem. In short, culture protects the social order against unchecked predation, against the rule of the ruthless—Orwell’s “boot stamping on a human face—forever.” Further, by enabling the conversion of infantile narcissism into shared values, culture protects the individual against the consequences of hectic, unrealistic demands and fantasies—in sum, against a whole menu of behavioral addictions. Culture thus functions as the immune system of the social order. It ensures continuity and homogeneity, hence predictability, in the face of potentially destabilizing changes, whether those disruptions originate from within the social body or from outside it.
A culture’s power to provide individual security and social stability is accrued from multiple sources. Chief among these is the mythic womb from which culture itself emerges. Every viable culture has legendary beginnings, captured in a dramatic narrative that tells how unordinary beings, gods or heroes, intervened in human affairs to rescue a people in crisis. Whether that being is George Washington at Valley Forge, Mohandas Gandhi in India, or God himself taking Israel out of bondage in Egypt, the mythic womb, though originating in the past, functions as a powerful presence in the present around which a whole culture condenses itself.
Obviously, the credibility of foundational legends varies with the times. One doesn’t need a belief in supernatural agency to credit George Washington or Gandhi; one does to believe the narrative of the Book of Exodus. Many will jump to the conclusion that belief in supernatural agency presupposes superstition and unreason, while the more “modern” absence of that belief presupposes their supersession through science and reason. That conclusion would be quite wrong.
Adult humans exist simultaneously in two domains: the busy, pragmatic world of markets, politics and domestic concerns that are the provinces of society; and the numinous borderland of preconceptions, emotions and dreams that defines the outer reaches of culture. These domains carry different logical and emotional syntaxes. We do not call our cultural domain a religious one in the secular West, but it nevertheless operates in a fashion similar to religion. We do not readily credit this because our language supports an assumption of difference, not similarity, between traditional religious cultures and our own way of navigating what cannot be explained by material science and reason.
People in traditional societies are not inhibited about speaking of the spiritual essence of things. South Sea islanders (and their ethnologists) use the word mana as the catch-all term for such essences. We can borrow that term—for we lack one of our own in English—to refer to the special aura that derives from and inspires reverence toward gods, heroes and all narratives, places and things associated with them. Our American mana may be found, for example, when we gaze upon the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. It may be found on historic battlefields, in antique shops or in the collective remembrances of heroes past. It can also be found in anything that can inspire superstitious dread instead of awe: the dead, their cemeteries, undertakers, the insane, even the ultimate stranger, the enemy.
Why do secular cultures still preserve mana even after the “death” of God? Because human beings, while reasonable, are not merely reasonable. We all have a psychic hinterland that is pre-rational that conceives of the gods and their taboo powers. Culture is the establishment in which such numinous experiences are preserved, and coordinated into art, legend and literature, as well as into systems of thought and belief. Hence, a culture will collect, transmit and preserve mana, whether its representatives understand and acknowledge what is being done or not. Otherwise, cultures cannot sponsor the idealizations that underwrite social bonds. People bond with co-believers to whom they are not literally related not because they reason that they should; they do so because—like charged particles in a magnetic field—they cannot do otherwise. Put differently, society is what, for practical reasons, you grudgingly pay taxes to and whose laws you prudently obey; but culture is precious; culture is what you will die for, or send your sons to die for.
It follows that deculturation, if allowed to go far enough, will have very unpleasant consequences. And in modern society it has gone very far indeed. Even more than was the case in the mid-1980s, the “high culture” of American intellectuals and academics makes its living by attacking the foundations of the common, core culture. It is dedicated to deconstructing American origin myths and their derivatives. More so than was the case when Reclaimed Powers appeared, today it is taken for granted in “high culture” that Christopher Columbus was a predatory colonizer, the Founders were land-grabbing slaveholders, Lincoln was a closet racist, and the Indians were all peaceful, highly spiritual, ecology-preserving peoples whom we destroyed (along with the buffalo). Indeed, to bring this anti-myth up to date, America does not seek to protect free societies from terrorism but is itself the leading terrorist nation. In short, the project of the revisionist historians and their associates is to empty America of its mana, and to convey that powerful stuff to those whom they see as America’s victims.
Anti-clericalism is probably the chief motivator of those who attack the common culture. Because origin myths typically derive their power, their mana, from their association with divinity, these have inevitably come under hostile secular and scholarly review. Of course, committed as it is to rationality as a form of faith, the academy has always been skeptical of religious myths. But our current culture wars have provided fresh political incentives to escalate the attacks. Because most religious authorities oppose abortion on demand, assisted suicide, homosexual behavior and gay marriage, religion is now seen as reactionary as well as irrational. If God does not exist, then all references to His role in American history by prior generations must be treated as vestigial superstition to be deleted from contemporary mention and, in essence, museumized. The point is to desacralize American history, to remove its mana so that the rituals of the American civil religion decay into mere ceremonies that lack the power to remind the people of their shared heritage. Except for a few parts of the nation and within the military subculture, that is certainly what Memorial Day, to take a prominent example, has become. It’s a day for shopping sprees and the opening of swimming pools—a day symbolic of our hedonic priorities, the very opposite of sacrifice and honor.
Rationality also enthrones technology, and the nature of modern technology is not conducive to preserving and sharing mana. The new technological marvels of the IT age overshadow our nation’s formative “miracles”: steam locomotives, covered wagons crossing the continent, and Yankee Clippers sailing around Cape Horn. Moreover, unlike the past, the average citizen today is only a witness to, not a participant in, most modern technological marvels. They overshadow a past in which people often literally shared significant and extraordinary experiences. This, too, drains mana from the people and cedes it to a faceless scientific elite.
For all these reasons, deculturation is far advanced in America, but it has not won overall. There are pockets of resistance to the desacralization efforts of the high culture in the military subculture, as already noted, and in less urbanized and more traditionally religious parts of the country. One also sees an odd new manifestation every once in a while: The Tea Party movement, whatever one may think of its program, is composed in large part of elders who, true to their culture-preserving role, draw inspiration from the Founders. Not for nothing is the battle cry of 1776, “Don’t tread on me”, the most popular slogan among them.
But these manifestations are rare. Contemporary aged do not usually reference the gods; they come from the first generations of Americans who separated themselves from positive traditional mana. Most carry negative mana that provokes revulsion rather than awe, and so their power to invigorate traditions, to refresh social bonds and to stem deculturation has been largely effaced. When the Baby Boomers reach their seventies and eighties things will probably get even worse. This demographic procession will cause far more, and far more serious, trouble in our society than the imminent pressures they will put on Medicare and Social Security.
What are some possible consequences of the process of deculturation? A major one concerns the diffusion of personal identity.
Identity forms at the intersection of culture and society. By displaying a menu of enduring first principles, culture provides possible answers to the question, “What do I stand for, what can my life mean?” Society teaches us how these powerful principles can be enacted in the pragmatic world. Our identity thus becomes a compound of our highest aspirations folded into our quotidian reality.
In more traditional societies, adolescents might go on solitary vision quests to encounter their totemic sponsor. Upon reporting their vision to the elders, they would be assigned their place in society—for example, their totem lodge. Their identity, the gift of their divine sponsor, was thereby matched to its social rank and appropriate task. In this conversion, the “identity” declaration, such as, “I was born to be a hunter” is given social articulation: “I will hunt with the Antelope Clan.” There is not much potential distance between what culture offers and what society ratifies.
What about us? Until recently, one high-status American vision quest typically led to the university, where post-adolescents were exposed to the major disciplines and their greatest exponents. Having found a calling they felt “identity” or personal equivalence with, the young candidates majored in that discipline and prepared to assume the roles that enact that identity in society. In both the preliterate assemblage and the university, the iconic principles and their associated disciplines are the gifts of culture, while training and certification in the chosen profession is the business of society. The university’s mission was on the whole prosocial; again, there was not much distance between what culture could offer and what society could ratify.
But in our time, the young rarely enter society via culture as it is presented to them in the universities. The universities now aim, tacitly at least, to secede from American culture as it was understood only half a century ago. This leaves ambitious young people with society alone against which to orient themselves. It is hardly any wonder, then, that they are at sea in the unceasing bustle of anonymous masses chasing fads, fashions, celebrities and riches in the here and now. Whatever figments of idealized history are still available derive not from the American founding myth and its mana, but from the prevalent anti-myth of victimization (of blacks, women, Latinos, indigenous peoples, blacklisted communists, homosexuals and so on). It should not surprise us, then, that contemporary identity politics and identity quests are based on the heated rhetoric of victim constituencies as these elbow for a place at the reparations trough.
A substitute culture whose font is an anti-myth based on victimization narratives spells real trouble. It does allow for a limited form of shared experience among victims of this or that sort, but its character is not based on virtues and strengths that the developing individual discovers in his heroes and hopes to mature in himself. Instead, such “identities” form when the candidate, having discovered a history of victimization that matches his own sense of grievance, indulges twin delusions: that virtue is linked to persecution, and that, as a consequence, victims can do no wrong. Thus, the accredited victim has a clear license to collect injustices and entitlements, and, at the extreme end, to move from guilt-slinging to gun-slinging.
Then, too, the victim can only hold the moral high ground (and the attached license to violence) by preserving the conditions that first gave rise to his victimization. For example, do black militants really expect reparations for slavery, or do they instead need—at a time when we have elected our first black President—a fresh reason to feel victimized? Victim-based identities add little to society; in fact, they require a reliable supply of enemies and are therefore socially toxic. They are the stigmata of deculturation, the life rafts thrown off by a sinking culture, the last resort of the drowning.
But as a culture sinks, many individuals don’t make it to the life rafts and in effect drown in the reflux of their own raw narcissism—the noxious humors released by deculturation. These survivors fall back to cramming their emptied selves with pleasures that give fleeting relief, but turn into obsessions and addictions precisely because they are capable of only temporary relief. There are the drugs and liquors that feed the temporary illusion of omnipotence, the sexual athletics that satisfy loveless lust, the worship of manipulative gurus, and the homosexual practices of those who can only desire those whose physical form mirrors their own. These narcissistic indulgences are the igloos built in what Arthur Koestler called the “Moral Ice Age”, where the banner on each igloo proclaims that it alone houses the pre-eminent solution to the problems of existence.
There is another way to think about the effects of deculturation. We can infer what would be the case if deculturation were happening, and then inspect the data to see if the inferences are borne out. Unbridled narcissism would predict to demographic decline, financial imprudence, higher rates of divorce and single households, substance abuse and child abuse because these are all markers of selfish and present-oriented behavior, precisely what a culture based on shared mana is supposed to restrict. So what do the data say?
Nearly every Western culture, all of them highly urbanized and secular, is failing to reproduce itself, and the exceptions, like the United States, are doing so only through the vehicle of immigration. The stock scholarly explanation for this cites the dour economics of raising children in cities. But parenting in the secular West is not only expensive; it is also very emotionally difficult when attempted by the socially unbuffered nuclear family, or by parents who give first priority to their own desires.
We know that, at least until financial disaster struck two years ago, most Americans had come to undervalue thrift and savings. We have financial and economic elites who generate chaos because they have forgotten the difference between getting rich and producing wealth, between patient long-term investment and the “flip-it” mentality. Our urban dwellers in particular suffer from very high divorce rates and from large populations of singles living alone (now above 25 percent, the largest proportion in history). Our substance-abuse contagion is getting worse, as are problems with obsessive gambling, Internet addiction, obesity, STDs and, with some degree of poetic justice, chronic loneliness. And what about the rise in just the past several decades of so many people who think of abortion as a form of casual birth control? Might this too be a sign of narcissism?
Could it be that at least part of the explanation for all these symptoms is that we have shattered the conveyor belt of gerontocratic authority by which basic values are passed down in sharable form and narcissism is transformed? Have we perhaps fallen for the biggest self-administered lie there is—indulgence masquerading as personal “liberation”—because we vanquished the senior men and women who once dared tell us “no?” These are very uncomfortable questions to pose, because if the answers are “yes” there is not much that government or social policy can do about it. Even a competent government could do no more than ameliorate symptoms of far deeper pathologies.
I was unable to pose these questions so pointedly 23 years ago. Now that I am an elder, I seem to have reclaimed the powers to do so.