In his classic song, “It Was a Very Good Year,” Frank Sinatra reflects on life through the lens of past romances. While the song is slow-paced, the truth is, most of us rush through our lives neither thinking of our destination nor appreciating the many phases of our journey. Nonetheless, the stages of human existence have been the topic of much analysis over the years. Here are some insights from others who have weighed in on this topic.
The founder of sociology, Auguste Comte, claims that our lives move through three stages—theological, metaphysical and scientific—as we learn to appreciate empirical causation. The father of deistic existentialism, Soren Kierkegaard, agreed with Comte’s stages but placed them in the opposite order, claiming that our lives culminate in a religious stage during which faith, not reason, dominates the individual’s personal truth.
In the East, Hindus believe that our lives are divided into four stages, each corresponding to what the spiritual self should be doing. The first stage is the preparatory time of the student. The second stage corresponds to the married householder, during which the man supports a family and maintains a responsible position in his community. The third, retirement, occurs around 50 and is witness to the end of his worldly obligations, signaling the beginning of his withdrawal from the world. Finally, in his last stage, sannyasi, he leaves his home and dwells alone in the forest. He says little and possesses only his loincloth, begging bowl, and water jar. His sole attention is directed at properly preparing himself for his journey to the Brahman or Universal Spirit.
Also in the East, Japanese folklore divides life into five phases: “At ten, an animal; at twenty, a lunatic; at thirty, a failure; at forty, a fraud; at fifty, a criminal.” Perhaps this is the reason why 60 (with rare exception) is the mandatory retirement age in Japan!
Sigmund Freud wrote about five distinct stages of human development as well: the oral, anal, phallic, latent, and genital stages. We reach the final stage at 18 years old, after which nothing much happens.
Shakespeare, for his part, envisioned eight stages, all defined with his typical theatrical flare: the infant, the whining school boy, the lover, the soldier, the man of means, the childish treble and, finally, oblivion.
All these depictions of how life progresses provide some clues into life’s journey. However, for me, the most insightful picture is the one painted by decades of scientific research. Studies have shown that there exists within us a psychophysiological timetable that gives each of our lives a predictable structure. These studies have provided a straightforward and scientifically validated overview of life’s stages from crib to grave. Here are the phases as scientifically studied:
I. Infancy to Childhood
All of science agrees that it is critical that the individual develop trust and openness during this period. Some approaches will go further, claiming that we will never be able to experience love if we do not learn to experience it in this stage. This category has subdivisions:
a) Early Childhood. The essential challenge here is to strike a balance between unbounded freedom and the control that others and society impose. While the child’s impulse to explore must not be extinguished, it must be tempered with an understanding that limits exist.
b) Middle Childhood. Our understanding of ourselves, including gender identity, begins to form during this period. It saddens me that Plato, Aristotle, and Saint Thomas Aquinas all believed that women were mistakes. Aquinas went so far as to suggest that a female only results when something goes wrong (mas occaionatum).
c) Late Childhood. This begins at age six and is accompanied by a heightened sense of self.
II. The Adolescent Years
All parents, who have raised children to adulthood, will readily acknowledge the challenge of the teenage years. Although it is natural for our children to assert themselves as they mature, it is rare for these years to be without turbulence. For the young adult, the challenge is to consolidate their sense of self while still maintaining a healthy relationship with their parents and siblings.
III. The Mature Years
Early adulthood (20-30), intermediate adulthood (30-40), and middle adulthood (40-50), are the first three of four stages of our mature years. As you may have guessed, this is the period in which we rear offspring, develop our careers, sometimes reassess our life’s direction (mid-life crisis), reach our zenith of productivity and accomplishment, and finally, hopefully, enjoy the fruits of our labor. Lastly, we come to a phase that not everyone experiences, the fourth stage. This is commonly referred to as the final phase. In this phase, we know that death is imminent. It is not just understanding that we won’t live forever but actually staring death in the face. This situation is said to make philosophers of us all!
Perhaps the best example of someone facing the final phase is one of my favorite writers, Voltaire. He was a poet, dramatist, contractor, importer, philosopher, politician, and so much more! His imminent death made him appreciate the sunlight of each of his final days. As his condition worsened, his desire for knowledge grew more and more insatiable. Yet, in the end, he insightfully acknowledged, like Plato, that he was ignorant. After a full life, he exclaimed on his deathbed, “I die adoring God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies, and detesting superstition.”
As profound as that sounds, it is still the final lyrics of Sinatra’s song that I find most compelling when reflecting on the cycles of my life:
But now the days are short
I’m in the autumn of the year
And now I think of my life as vintage wine
From fine old kegs
From the brim to the dregs
And it poured sweet and clear
It was a very good year.
In our final stage, when reflecting on our journey, the hope is that we can all exclaim, “it was a very good year.”