Somewhere between forty and sixty-five, people “undergo a profound reevaluation, asking themselves ‘Where have I been? Where am I now? Where am I going?’” wrote Gene D. Cohen in “The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain.”
Cohen also defined a follow-up phase – or what I like to call another “life plateau” – that often overlaps with one’s reevaluation phase, what he termed the “liberation phase.” At this point in our lives “we feel a desire to experiment, innovate, and free ourselves from earlier inhibitions or limitations,” Cohen explained. He succinctly characterized this plateau as a time when we pursue the question of “if not now, when?”
Next is the third and final plateau, the “summing up phase,” which hits in our late sixties and into our seventies and eighties, where the typical outcome includes “a desire to give back – to family, friends, and society.” This is when elders devote their time to volunteering and philanthropy.
When people get a keen understanding of these three plateaus, they become “powerfully motivated and energized,” Cohen concluded. He referred to this as “developmental intelligence.”
I’m most definitely in the throes of all three of these life plateaus simultaneously.
Reevaluation – as its names implies – places a heavy emphasis on the past. For me that means reflecting on the impressionable late 60s and early 70s, to be precise – the height of my teenage years. The Hippie counterculture of those days helped to define my attraction to the concept of world peace above all else, in concert with the “make love, not war” theme that was prevalent at that time in history, especially as related to the anti-Vietnam War protests.
The short-lived Hippie movement proved to be an enlightening and interesting pathway more closely attuned to my overall presence. Hippies, in my mind, were the generation who had it right with their “eagerness to give political dignity to the tenderer emotions, in their readiness to talk openly of love, and non-violence, and pity,” wrote Theodore Roszak in “The Making of a Counter Culture: Reflections of the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition,” first published in 1971.
Before I go any further, I should define what I mean by Hippies and Squares. Such terms are great generators for substantive discussions. Keeping this in mind, I will add one more important term to this particular discussion: Activist. My interest in this Hippie/Square/Activist thematic structure came from reading Bill Thomas’s book, “Second Wind: Navigating the Passage to a Slower, Deeper, and More Connected Life,” published by Simon & Schuster in 2014.
Here’s how Thomas defines these three generational identifiers, which he labels as “early adult subcultures,” and “the primary colors that defined the postwar generation’s passage out of childhood”:
In the 60s and 70s, Squares were everything Hippies were not. “While others (i.e. Hippies) tested the outer limits of art, music, and fashion, Squares were content to stay well inside established norms,” Thomas wrote. He added that Squares “were the people who knew how to make the world work. Clarity of purpose and responsibility were more than just ideals. These young men and women did their jobs, they went to war, they went to school, largely without complaint.”
Hippies, on the other hand, were what Timothy Leary defined as “persons whose lives are tuned in to their inner vision, who are dropping out of the TV comedy of American Life,” Thomas explained, adding that Hippies embodied a rejection of the “responsible, capable adulthood,” so “immutable” to the Squares.
Activists were in the middle, “suspended between the fervent idealism [of the Hippies] and a genuine grown-up taste for opportunity and success [of the Squares].” Activists were, and still are, ambitious folks unafraid to display their opinions. “They were eager to take power and to set aside conversational approaches to organizing in favor of inflammatory rhetoric and dramatic action,” Thomas described.
A Unification of Sorts
When I contemplate these three identifiers from my personal point of view, I see clearly how I was first a Hippie, became a Square in my late twenties, and an Activist currently in my early sixties. So, in effect, I have become an amalgamation of all three.
On the Hippie side of things, the thought of becoming the prevalent image of a man in the proverbial gray flannel suit steered my attitude toward non-conformity. Part of the reason why I felt this way relates to my educational upbringing, which put me inside an all-boys Catholic high school. Here I was forced to wear a sport coat and tie daily and listen to mostly ill-informed teachers who, metaphorically speaking, repetitively pounded the Hail Mary and Act of Contrition into my easily influenced brain. By the time I graduated in 1971, I had broken away from their overtly disciplinary methods of teaching so predominant back in those Catholic high school days. I vividly recall two incidents that certainly helped move me in that direction. One was when I was talking in class during a lecture, and a Franciscan priest, who must have been having a bad day, decided to flat out punch me directly in the mouth. The second incident had me kneeling on my hands after school for an hour as a form of punishment for a fight I got into with another student during lunch period.
It wasn’t difficult for me at that time to become a bona-fide dissenter of the Square lifestyle.
The tie and sport coat were tossed away in favor of jeans, a tee-shirt and shoulder-length hair. Plus, my reading habits changed dramatically. Instead of the catechism I was forced to carry with me at school each day, I started reading authors like Herman Hesse and James Joyce’s Portrait, for instance, as well as philosophically spiritual Asian tomes like the I Ching Book of Changes. New readings catalyzed an easy and quick shift away from religious dogma to a keener interest in the creative arts and man’s search for meaning. I became a contemplative type and am still very much so, actually more so today.
I did, however, over my life, as I grew older and more responsible, succumb to putting on the coat and tie now and then in my personal, half-hearted attempts to look conservative for an interview to possibly garner gainful employment as well as for a few weddings I had to attend. It never really worked out though. I always came back to the tee-shirt and jeans where I felt more authentic. In short, I would never make it in politics or TV broadcasting because I would never wear a suit. Today, in fact, I rarely even wear pants that are not jeans. Whenever I am forced to put on a dress pair of slacks, which is rare by today’s common standards, I feel extraordinarily uncomfortable. Regarding the long hair, I’m now pretty much bald in a Larry David kind of way. Today, fashion wise, I’m like Steve Jobs but favor relatively expensive, colorful, long-sleeve, beach motif tee-shirts or blue-colored work shirts.
I would also never fully become a Square, at least as it relates to conforming to what are often considered workplace norms. I recall, for instance, when I had a marketing specialist job that put me inside a cubicle for a manufacturing company, I jokingly posted a picture on my cubicle wall of a man digging a hole into the floor that looked similar to an attempt to escape prison. Co-workers would come into my cubicle, and you can feel their obvious discomfort – not exactly a team player.
To be forthright and honest, however, as an avid Hippie, I became a risk taker and extreme wanderer, and because of that, I obviously really had no clear direction in life until I adopted more Square-oriented habits in my late twenties. In that regard, the Squares were right, and they still are. One’s gotta eat, as they say.
Because of my late entry into Squarehood, I made a lot less money than my Square and Activist counterparts in the world of work, but, if serendipity would have been more beneficent, I may have become financially well off, as many baby boomers who first self-identified as Hippies did eventually become wealthy middle to upper class citizens when they morphed into more responsible adults, just as many of their Square and Activist equals did. I like to say, however, that Hippies had a much better time reaching their financial plateaus, whether high or low.
I am still opposed to the Type A philosophies that Squares have always had a strong tendency to adopt. My Hippie self still emphasizes freedom to do whatever life brings my way based more on may authentic self. My inner travels are still excursions into the unknown surprises of life, as opposed to chasing the status quo. And, perhaps it can be said that I am more of a philosopher than anything else.
In reality, however, I am chasing meaning that is unfindable. What has this meant for my overall journey into finding my place in life? I think it has taught me that chasing the fulfillment of psychological, philosophical and spiritual wellbeing, regardless of whether I discover anything substantial, is still the most vital energy-giving force I can follow. To use a cliché, it is the journey, not the destination.
At the same time, the three directional impulses of reevaluation, liberation, and summation continue to power everything I do, while the Square lifestyle sitting in the background continues to warn me – or ground me – in the reality that I cannot enjoy even the simplest of earthly comforts without funds that come from work. So, I am a good worker bee, but I have learned how to temper that proclivity and be what Squares – and their conservative counterparts – would consider as having too strong of a penchant for unproductive philosophical idleness. I would, to the contrary, however, refer to this temperament as the pursuit of happiness.
Regarding the Activist angle, the current state of politics has jump-started what was a dormant activist mindset into a mindful one. I recently wrote about this in an article about the Peace symbol.
Finally, dear reader, if you made it this far, I’d love to hear what you think. Are you a Hippie, Square, or Activist?