Commissioned by The Times
A QUESTION OF SURVIVAL
Turning 60 represents both a biological achievement and a psychological threat. On the one hand you realise you are a survivor. Several of your contemporaries will already be dead. Perhaps a lover with whom you once enjoyed the greatest pleasures is among those lost. So far, you have continued to live and breathe. But now comes the threat. At sixty you morbidly read the obituaries because you realise the world with which you are familiar is closing down.
WHY THIS BIRTHDAY IS DIFFERENT
Your 60th remains a rite of passage. In the 1950s this presaged the start of old age. Today baby-boomers think 60 is the beginning of ‘middle-youth’ although in their heart of hearts they must have doubts. But if we are not dead yet, nor thinking of dying tomorrow, we do need to confront our unconscious fear of death. At 60 we are running out of decades. Retirement’s looming. So are illness and fragility. Our muscular strength declines at the same rate as eyesight and memory. This tends to cause “what the hellism” whether planning an excessive party or letting the waistline slip. The great psychologist Erik Erikson suggested the task at this stage of life is in effect to find the resilience to relinquish the levers of power.
SO WHY HOLD A SPECIAL 60TH PARTY?
When confronted by the unavoidable, we resort to defiance. We want to bluff the world into believing we feel splendid regardless. For a couple of nights we try to dispel feelings of helplessness in a process of creative transference. It’s like a rain dance to the muse of extra time. The internal dialogue goes: I’ll drink like Dionysus and flirt like Casanova in the hope that behaving young will keep me young. In the most endearingly irrational fashion we beg the gods to let us off the hook. Especially as a member of that bulge generation whose sense of cosmic entitlement probably does encompass immortality.
Phillip Hodson is a Fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy www.bacp.co.uk