Following is the full transcript of American actress Jane Fonda’s TEDx Talk titled “Life’s Third Act” at TEDxWomen.
Listen to the MP3 audio while reading the transcript:
Jane Fonda – Actress
There have been many revolutions over the last century, but perhaps none as significant as the longevity revolution. We are living on average today 34 years longer than our great-grandparents did. Think about that. That’s an entire second adult lifetime that’s been added to our lifespan.
And yet, for the most part, our culture has not come to terms with what this means. We’re still living with the old paradigm of age as an arch. That’s the metaphor, the old metaphor. You’re born, you peak at midlife and decline into decrepitude. Age as pathology.
But many people today — philosophers, artists, doctors, scientists — are taking a new look at what I call “the third act” — the last three decades of life. They realize that this is actually a developmental stage of life with its own significance, as different from midlife as adolescence is from childhood.
And they are asking — we should all be asking: How do we use this time? How do we live it successfully? What is the appropriate new metaphor for aging? I’ve spent the last year researching and writing a book called Prime Time about this subject. And I have come to find that a more appropriate metaphor for aging is a staircase — the upward ascension of the human spirit, bringing us into wisdom, wholeness, and authenticity.
Age not at all as pathology. Age as potential. And guess what? This potential is not for the lucky few. It turns out, most people over 50 feel better, are less stressed, less hostile, less anxious. We tend to see commonalities more than differences. Some of the studies even say we’re happier. This is not what I expected, trust me.
I come from a long line of depressives. As I was approaching my late 40s, when I would wake up in the morning, my first six thoughts would all be negative. And I got scared. I thought, “Oh my gosh. I’m going to become a crotchety old lady.”
But now that I am actually smack-dab in the middle of my own third act, I realize I’ve never been happier. I have such a powerful feeling of well-being. And I’ve discovered that when you’re inside oldness, as opposed to looking at it from the outside, fear subsides. You realize you’re still yourself — maybe even more so.
Picasso once said, “It takes a long time to become young.” I don’t want to romanticize aging. Obviously, there’s no guarantee that it can be a time of fruition and growth. Some of it is a matter of luck. Some of it, obviously, is genetic. One third of it, in fact, is genetic. And there isn’t much we can do about that.
But that means that two-thirds of how well we do in the third act, we can do something about. This session is called “ReBirth,” I love that, aging as rebirth. Think about that. We’re going to discuss what we can do to make these added years really successful, and use them to make a difference.
Now, let me say something about the staircase, which may seem like an odd metaphor for seniors, given the fact that many seniors are challenged by stairs. Myself included.
As you may know, the entire world operates on a universal law: entropy, the second law of thermodynamics. Entropy means that everything in the world — everything — is in a state of decline and decay — the arch. There’s only one exception to this universal law, and that is the human spirit, which can continue to evolve upwards, the staircase, bringing us into wholeness, authenticity, and wisdom.
And here’s an example of what I mean. This upward ascension can happen even in the face of extreme physical challenges. About three years ago, I read an article in the New York Times. It was about a man named Neil Selinger — 57 years old, a retired lawyer, who had joined the writers’ group at Sarah Lawrence, where he found his writer’s voice.
Two years later, he was diagnosed with ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. It’s a terrible disease. It’s fatal. It wastes the body, but the mind remains intact.
In this article, Mr. Selinger wrote the following to describe what was happening to him. And I quote: “As my muscles weakened, my writing became stronger. As I slowly lost my speech, I gained my voice. As I diminished, I grew. As I lost so much, I finally started to find myself.” Neil Selinger, to me, is the embodiment of mounting the staircase in his third act.
Now we’re all born with spirit, all of us, but sometimes it gets tamped down beneath the challenges of life, violence, abuse, neglect. Perhaps our parents suffered from depression. Perhaps they weren’t able to love us beyond how we performed in the world.