How Full is Your Circle?

I know, I know. I should be blogging about the current impeachment trial, but please ... I just can’t bring myself to add more ink or voice to the pile of reports, as well as talking heads out there pronouncing their views morning, noon and night. I have my strong opinions, but for now, I’ll just keep them to myself and a small circle of friends gathered ’round as we lift a glass and hope for the best!

So, let’s talk about losing our minds instead ... or at least our working memories. You know, there’s an old joke that goes something like this: As we grow older, we tend to think more and more about the Here After: As in walking into a room and asking oneself, “Now, what was I coming in here after?”

We make light of what we fear about aging, laughing at ourselves as we can’t recall the name of that restaurant just down the street or the name of some parishioner who just came through the reception line five minutes ago. Case in point: See the lead photo, a cartoon I found in a recent issue of The New Yorker (Jan. 20, 2020).

This is why a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times caught my eye – written by Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist, scholar, and musician to boot, and one of the endorsers of my most recent book, The Fiction of Our Lives. The title of his article is “Memory Need Not Fail Us” (Jan. 12, 2020, see second photo below). It’s an excerpt from his book, Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives. Dan begins his article by admitting that at 62, like many of his friends, he forgets names that he used to remember easily, and when packing a suitcase he will find himself walking to a closet and not remembering what he was going there looking for.

Dan’s basic thesis is that such short-term memory lapses are not necessarily age-related in the sense that we all fear. That is, as we grow older, our store of information has grown exponentially. While short-term memory holds content that is useful right now, it is easily disrupted by a phone call, a text message ding on our cell, or a sudden thought that breaks through consciousness. This kind of forgetfulness happens to young folks too. They just don’t tell themselves that this is the first sign of coming dementia, but rather think they should have gotten more sleep the night before.

But Dan’s major point is that absent brain disease, even the oldest adults show little cognitive memory decline until after age 85 or 90. In fact, some aspects of memory appear to get better with age. This is because one’s memory store is simply larger based on life’s experiences. He writes:

Our ability to extract patterns and regularities, and to make accurate predictions improves over time because we’ve had more experience. ... If you’re going to get an X-ray, you want a 70-year-old radiologist reading it, not a 30-year-old one.

So how do we account for our subjective experience that older adults seem to fumble with words and names? First, there is a generalized cognitive slowing with age – but given a little more time, older adults perform just fine. Second, older adults have to search through more memories than do younger adults to find the fact or piece of information they’re looking for. Your brain becomes crowded with memories and information. It’s not that you can’t remember – you can – it’s just that there is so much more information to sort through.

So while it may not be the case that every day, in every way, we are getting better and better, as I have pointed out so often in my books and blogs, there are in fact some real advantages to growing older. These advantages include developing some wisdom along the way as we amass life’s lessons, and becoming clearer about priorities and what matters – family, friends, church (for many) and whatever else remains important to you in your life’s journey. Staying interested, staying connected with community, with those you love – matter a great deal. In fact, one of the points that Dan makes toward the end of his article is the importance of staying open to new experience. He writes that “experiencing new things is the best way to keep the mind young, pliable and growing – into our 80s, 90s and beyond.”

Let me end this little think piece with a poem written by my South African friend, Isobel de Gruchy. In it, she images a full life, filled with memories ... some regrets but much to also be grateful for ... coming full circle. In fact, that’s the title of her poem. So let’s see:

Full Circle

As we journey on
we tend to journey back.
Life is not a straight line from start to finish,
like a race, eyes fixed on the tape.
It is more like a circle,
a snake trying to swallow its tail;
the longer the snake,
the easier to touch
the beginning.
Not just Shakespeare’s second childhood:
no hair, no teeth,
being led by the hand,
but the mind stretching back,
searching its dark recesses,
remembering, remembering,
sometimes reliving,hopefully restoring.
The further on we travel
the clearer the view;
the more we see.
Does God grant us this
so that we can grab our tail
and gobble up the regrets,
and the bits that hurt,
and end life complete,
whole, a full circle?

(Isobel de Gruchy, Between Heaven and Earth: Poems, Prayers, Pictures, Resource Publications, Eugene, Oregon, 2015, p. 36. See third photo below.)

So yes, “the further we travel, the clearer the view: the more we see.” And so we give thanks for the full circle we have come, and for those who have traveled the journey with us.

Can you remember to do that? Sure you can!

And now, back to the impeachment news. ...

Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
I am a clinical psychologist, Episcopal priest and author, and I currently serve as Priest Associate at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia.