Artfully Composing a Life: A Conversation with Mary Catherine Bateson

By Meltzer, Barbara | Aging Today, November/December 2011 | Go to article overview

Artfully Composing a Life: A Conversation with Mary Catherine Bateson


Meltzer, Barbara, Aging Today


Writer and cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, daughter of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, is the author of six books, including her most recent Composing a Further Life: The Age of Active Wisdom (Knopf, 2010). For more information about Bateson, visit www.marycatherine bateson.com.

Bateson will be the keynote speaker Dec. 7 at the Fifth Annual International Conference on Positive Aging. For information, visit www.positiveaging.fielding.edu.

Aging Today: Could you define Adulthood II and active wisdom?

Mary Catherine Bateson: Increased longevity is not an extension of old age, but a new developmental stage that has been inserted before old age. It is a second stage of adulthood. As we reach any new stage, we can develop a strength and resilience from meeting the challenges of that stage. Wisdom is the most positive trait that we associate with old people. We now combine the long experience that, with reflection, can lead to wisdom, with many years of continuing energy and health. You might call active wisdom 'wisdom on the hoof.'

AT: You are on the Advisory Council of the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Can you comment on a role for elders in helping to stave off climate change?

MCB: Environmental issues are created by human behavior and supported by human attitudes. The challenge is to make people of every age realize that they have an investment in the future beyond their own lives, and their choices make a difference. Our relationship to the planet is more like the relationship of parents to a child-a child who will live on beyond the parents into an unknown future, but who, in the present, requires loving and responsible care to make that possible. Of great relevance is the possibility of an alliance between grandparents and grandchildren, who are often the ones who educate their parents about conservation!

AT: You use the word 'compose' as a metaphor for how we continue to shape our lives and describe it as an art form. In what way do human lives mirror the process of creative work?

MCB: Back when everyone was using the word 'juggling' for all of the multiple simultaneous commitments women had to take care of, I found 'juggling' anxiety producing, and came upon composing. When people talk about reinventing themselves it often means, 'I have stopped being one thing and started being something different.' But, as we compose our lives, we do not become something totally new-we combine. People can mine their past experiences for the skills and knowledge and interests that are going to support the next thing they're going to do. …

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