Jane Fonda: Life’s Third Act at TEDxWomen (Full Transcript)

Perhaps we still suffer from a psychic pain, a wound. Perhaps we feel that many of our relationships have not had closure. And so we can feel unfinished. Perhaps the task of the third act is to finish up the task of finishing ourselves.

For me, it began as I was approaching my third act, my 60th birthday. I realized third acts are important. This was my last act. How was I supposed to live it? What was I supposed to accomplish in this final act? And I realized that, in order to know where I was going, I had to know where I’d been.

And so I went back and I studied my first two acts, trying to see who I was then, who I really was, not who my parents or other people told me I was, or treated me like I was. But who was I? Who were my parents — not as parents, but as people? Who were my grandparents? How did they treat my parents? These kinds of things.

I discovered, a couple of years later, that this process that I had gone through is called by psychologists “doing a life review.” And they say it can give new significance and clarity and meaning to a person’s life.

You may discover, as I did, that a lot of things that you used to think were your fault, a lot of things you used to think about yourself, really had nothing to do with you. It wasn’t your fault; you’re just fine. And you’re able to go back and forgive them. And forgive yourself.

You’re able to free yourself from your past. You can work to change your relationship to your past.

Now while I was writing about this, I came upon a book called “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl. Viktor Frankl was a German psychiatrist who’d spent five years in a Nazi concentration camp. And he wrote that, while he was in the camp, he could tell, should they ever be released, which of the people would be OK, and which would not.

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And he wrote this: “Everything you have in life can be taken from you except one thing: your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. This is what determines the quality of the life we’ve lived — not whether we’ve been rich or poor, famous or unknown, healthy or suffering. What determines our quality of life is how we relate to these realities, what kind of meaning we assign them, what kind of attitude we cling to about them, what state of mind we allow them to trigger.”

Perhaps the central purpose of the third act is to go back and to try, if appropriate, to change our relationship to the past.

It turns out that cognitive research shows when we are able to do this, it manifests neurologically — neural pathways are created in the brain. You see, if you have, over time, reacted negatively to past events and people, neural pathways are laid down by chemical and electrical signals that are sent through the brain. And over time, these neural pathways become hardwired. They become the norm — even if it’s bad for us, because it causes us stress and anxiety.

If, however, we can go back and alter our relationship, re-vision our relationship to past people and events, neural pathways can change. And if we can maintain the more positive feelings about the past, that becomes the new norm. It’s like resetting a thermostat.

It’s not having experiences that makes us wise. It’s reflecting on the experiences that we’ve had that makes us wise and that helps us become whole, brings wisdom and authenticity. It helps us become what we might have been.

Women start off whole, don’t we? I mean, as girls, we’re feisty — “Yeah? Who says?” We have agency. We are the subjects of our own lives. But very often, many, if not most of us, when we hit puberty, we start worrying about fitting in and being popular. And we become the subjects and objects of other people’s lives.

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But now, in our third acts, it may be possible for us to circle back to where we started, and know it for the first time. And if we can do that, it will not just be for ourselves.

Older women are the largest demographic in the world. If we can go back and redefine ourselves and become whole, this will create a cultural shift in the world, and it will give an example to younger generations so that they can reconceive their own lifespan.

Thank you very much.


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