Phases of life

We can allow ourselves to go with the flow, and many do. The result then is that we live by the day. Those who allow themselves to go with the flow do not ask questions. Such a person always participates in the group. Such a person always says “we” but the moment does not come when the person says “I”. Saying “I”, in a sense, means taking a stand. Saying I means saying “but I!”. You have listened to the others, but you are no longer going along and therefore you go against the current.

You did listen to the others: indeed, the first phase of life consists of listening and going with the flow and living life as if it were a game. You are young and unconscious and you are led by others. That is not entirely true, perhaps, but to a great extent it is.

But you also get old and later you become the oldest, – what does that mean? Here I follow Rosenstock-Huessy in his the distinction between life – love – spirit as an indication of the three phases of human life. He in turn points to a quote from Goethe “Denn das Leben ist die Liebe und des Lebens Leben Geist”, because life is love and the life of love is spirit. Freely paraphrased: love is the core of life. And the spirit? Love must also keep moving and participate in a story. This is indicated by the word “spirit”. Difficult thought maybe, I’ll come back to it later.

Young: Life

A person’s name is a remarkable thing. At the beginning of life you have received a name. What is a name? A name does not indicate your body, that is, not a what, but a who: the person you are. That is something exceptional. By your name you become someone. You can be called now. The name works as an imperative. When you hear your name being called, you turn around before you even think. That is how strong that magic is. You are addressed. The first seven years of your life are full of that. A child wants to participate.

In course of time, as a child, you will also discover the world around you. You go to school. You will not only listen to the people around you anymore, but you will also explore the outside world around you. You want to know how it is and what it is.

In the subsequent years of puberty and early adolescence you still listen to adults, but you are no longer overwhelmed by their orders. The one says this and the other says something else. You are the one that is assessing and discerning what is true and false authority. It is important that you are part of a group of peers and participate in this phase. As “we” you are also available for service. You want to show what you can do, you do that as a member of a group, you do it for a good cause. This is how you are trained, how you are ready for social work and possibly for conscription – although that is more a thing of the past. The service that goes with this phase of life has been left largely vacant. That is a problem of our culture and our time.

The fourth stage of youth is “singing”. I could also say enthusiasm. What your heart is full of, the mouth flows over from. You can be completely lyrical about something.

These four stages are all under the category of life, learning, play.

Old: Love

When do you start to grow old, or perhaps mature? That starts for the first time when you doubt the rounded worldview you have been brought up with. Then the mythical experience of unity of the child has come to an end. Reality might be different from your ideas about it, and perhaps less beautiful. Doubt leads to criticism. You have your own judgment. And you may not express that easily, and certainly not in public, but you do develop your faculty of judgment. Until the moment comes that you also speak out in public and you commit yourself to a clear judgment. You say how you feel about it and you stand for your word. This gives your proper name a meaning which it never had before. A certain publicly expressed standpoint is now attached to your name. If you forget it yourself, you will be reminded by others. It sticks to you. You stand for a certain value or truth and whether that is always completely correct or not, that truth and value is your contribution to reality. It is your attempt to get reality on a different track. Once, sooner or later, you say “but I” and with that I, if you mean it, you make yourself a reputation. The truth you stand for is now getting its fulfillment in your person. You embody that truth. If your life indeed is innovating compared to the past, it is not to be expected that people will go along with it immediately. Leadership usually does not mean that you have everything under control, but that you are ahead of the group. That is also where you may become a target and where the resistance is. You have endure that resistance, experience it for some duration.

So here too there are four phases, this time not under the sign of playfulness, but of seriousness: doubt, criticism, protesting, enduring.

Oldest: Spirit

The oldest is the priest. Priest is derived from presbyter and that is simply the Greek word for elder. But this name for the old age immediately changes into a kind of official title, “elder”. The family heads convened in the tribal council in ancient times represented their family members as “elders”.

The difference between old and oldest/elder consists mainly in the fact that the one who has grown old and mature, typically has to make an important point that has not yet been sufficiently articulated. The person concerned attaches his or her reputation to this, the name in the community that he or she acquires. The oldest, however, is beyond that point. He or she is too much aware of the finite nature of life to find it still important to put a certain contribution in his own name. That makes him / her a true priest, a link between past and future. The elder is also a link between play and seriousness.

Anyone being a leader, this time not in the sense of being ahead, but in the sense of being in control, must be able to transcend self-interest. Self-interested authority provokes resistance. When someone can reach that level, the person concerned acts as a legislator. Such people may propose solutions and get them accepted because of their selflessness. On the basis of his own life experience, such a person also has something to say and can function as a teacher between generations. Such people can tell what should be learned from the past for the sake of the future and what should be forgotten because it has not anymore any meaning to us. Such people are also prophetic in the sense that they often have a better eye for what is really necessary and can therefore shape and “predict” the future. Finally, such people can also be founders, that is to say, they themselves become an embodiment of the future they foresee.

Again four phases, also for the priest: legislator, teacher, prophet, founder.

Coming back to Goethe’s quote: we all want to live. But without love, life becomes boring, mere repetition, obsolete. So love must save life, by making it exciting and give it quality. But in turn love must also be saved, because love is always one-sided. Love selects and singles out. For that reason love must also be saved. Those who only want to make their point lose sight of the bigger picture. The priest has an eye for the different forms that love can take. Love has to learn to speak multiple languages, so to speak. One can learn to understand the old and somewhat forgotten word spirit if it is first identified with language. A spirit is a certain language. One would use the word discourse nowadays. In this way perhaps one can understand what Goethe meant. At its core, life is love and the spirit keeps love alive. A particular love sometimes has to be replaced by a new love.

In summary:

  1. Life / play / young:
    1. name
    2. learn
    3. serve
    4. sing
  2. Love / seriousness / old:
    1. doubt
    2. criticism
    3. protest
    4. endure
  3. Spirit / wise / oldest:
    1. legislator
    2. teacher
    3. prophet
    4. founder