What do actress, exercise instructor and activist Jane Fonda, and the newest member of my writing class have in common? They’re living in what Ms. Fonda calls the Third Act — the last three decades of their lives — or as my new Spanish friend Ana says, the Third Age. And both have something to share about the topic.
A friend alerted me to Ms. Fonda’s TED conversation, in which she said that instead of viewing aging as so many do, as disease, she has chosen to describe it as a period of “upward ascension of the human spirit, bringing us into wisdom, wholeness and authenticity.”
She accepts that all older bodies are deteriorating, but believes that despite this the human spirit can still thrive. What do we do in this final act? she asks. Her answer is to undertake a life review. According to the website growthhouse.org, a life review, “in hospice care and in many nursing homes, [is] the process of thinking back on one’s life and communicating about one’s life to another person.”
Research shows that life review is an effective treatment for older, depressed adults. Ms. Fonda suggests that reflecting on the past and coming to terms with it has value for everyone living Act 3, and that it’s not necessary to wait until we’re receiving hospice care. Whether or not we’re depressed, the point is to be able to forgive others, forgive ourselves and alter our relationship with the past. Ms. Fonda believes that “reflecting on past experiences can make us wise.”
My second example of someone who is bound to become an Act 3 legend if she hasn’t already is Elena (not her real name), who arrived late to my novel-writing class, very late, since the program began in October. Nevertheless, her timing fits her goal. She has a manuscript of her memoir and wants to learn how to get it published, which is what we’re studying this quarter. She introduced herself to us, described the span of her book — from the time her mother left home in Italy at age seven until Elena turned eighteen in the U.S. — and started to sit down. However, before making it to her chair she turned around and faced us again. “One more thing,” she said. When she finished this reflection, she made another attempt to sit down. “Something else I need to tell you,” she announced after cutting short her third attempt to land in her chair and offered us one more piece of her history. She didn’t make it into her seat the fourth time either. “I thought of another point,” and she whipped around again. Throughout each of her introductions she was energetic, enthusiastic, and articulate. The whole class applauded. From the big smiles on my classmates’ faces, I sensed that no matter what their ages, they wanted to be like Elena in their third Act.