You are never too old to learn and grow – intellectually or emotionally

For many years there was an assumption that learning is what children do – libraries had plenty of material about child development and education, but relatively little on adult education. Then along came the ‘lifelong learning movement’ which argued that we need to stop associating learning with children and recognise that everyone has the potential to keep learning and to keep benefiting from that learning throughout our lives.

However, it is unfortunately the case that the ageist assumptions that are so firmly embedded in our society often mean that it can so easily be forgotten that this applies to older people just the same as it does to anyone else. The idea that ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ is not borne out by the evidence (consider, for example, the success of the Open University in working successfully with learners right across the adult age spectrum). Older people can not only continue to grow and develop, but also thereby stand as excellent sources of learning for everybody else.

The problem partly stems from the work of Freud, as he assumed that the main part of human development takes place in the first five years of life. While these early ‘formative’ years are clearly extremely important, it would be a mistake – and a serious one at that – to assume that we are fully formed by the age of five. There is no shortage of evidence that we continue to develop throughout our lives – indeed, life can be understood to be that very process of development itself. The idea that ‘learning is for the young’ is therefore a dangerously misleading one, and one that can be unnecessarily obstructive and disempowering. The old idea that education is wasted on the young has some degree of merit, as it is often the case that people returning to education later in life do much better than they did first time round. I have met very many people who flourished at university, even though they may have struggled at school years before.

And this doesn’t just apply to intellectual learning, of course. Emotional growth and learning are lifelong phenomena too. Indeed, the older we get and the more we come under pressure to face our own mortality, the more emotional challenges we will face. It would be naïve to think that we would ever reach a stage in life where there are no more such challenges to contend with – and every such challenge brings opportunities for personal growth and development. The more life experience we have, the more raw materials we have from which to learn and grow.

In my career I have also worked with many people who have been struggling with depression and have felt that they were ‘stuck’, as if emotionally paralysed. Helping them to get past this and to get them learning and growing again has brought me a lot of job satisfaction over the years. Seeing that ‘spark’ come back is an incredible sight. Depression is a complex matter, but the sense of no longer growing or developing is often, if not always, a part of it.

So, if your work, or indeed your private life, brings you into contact with older people, don’t make the mistake of assuming that lifelong learning does not apply to them. Likewise, don’t assume that once you reach a certain age you can forget about learning and growing. Lifelong learning means precisely that – lifelong. Don’t let anyone (or any misguided ideas) tell you any different. Personal growth, development and learning are far too important to allow that to happen.

Seek out awe and wonder

The demands of everyday living mean that we need to spend a fair amount of time doing fairly mundane things like earning a living and managing a household. These can be quite enjoyable, of course, and offer us some degree of fulfilment, but we have to be wary of the danger of allowing all the mundane stuff to squeeze out opportunities for those things that go beyond the day-to-day basics.

The literature relating to spirituality (whether religious spirituality or not) uses fairly obscure terms like transcendence, exaltation and the numinous, often without offering any explanation of what they mean. It’s worth considering each of these in turn because, despite their obscurity, they are important ideas.

To transcend literally means to go beyond. It is therefore used in a spiritual sense to refer to going beyond the everyday, to finding something more meaningful than day-to-day activities and concerns. It is linked to the idea of ‘connectedness’, the notion of connecting with something bigger than ourselves, whether that be a cause, a belief system, a set of people or whatever. Such connectedness can be an important part of what makes our lives meaningful.

Exaltation refers to the experience of joy, a sense of stepping beyond (transcendence again!) our everyday feelings, rising above them to a higher plane of happiness. The reason I am mentioning this here is that getting bogged down in everyday matters can stand in the way of any such exaltation. We can become so focused on our mundane challenges that we lose sight of the things (and people) in our lives that can bring us joy.

The numinous is used to describe those experiences that are distinctive and meaningful in some way, things that stand out as very special and awe inspiring. It could refer to natural phenomena, such as a splendid sunset, a beautiful forest, a magnificent mountain range. But it would also include a wider range of experiences, such as giving birth (or being present at a birth) and other special, emotionally intense moments where we feel our humanity acutely. For religious people this could be equated with those aspects of life that are thought of as ‘divine’, but experiences of the numinous are not restricted to people of faith.

The theme that unites these three ideas is that of not allowing day-to-day pressures (however important and pressing they may be) to leave little or no room for the more special aspects of life. And, underpinning that is the importance of awe and wonder – the ability to rise above what the textbooks call ‘normalcy’.

It is important to emphasise that I am not advocating that we should abandon or neglect our everyday concerns. Rather, it is a case of not limiting ourselves to those concerns and to make sure that we are open to the many opportunities for awe and wonder that are around us if we know how and where to look.

Awe and wonder can arise at any time, sometimes when we least expect them, but there is no need to sit back and wait for them to happen – it is also possible to seek them out. You may struggle with this at first, but it is worth persevering with what is involved, as the longer you do it, the more successful you are likely to be. You can also learn a great deal from seeing how other people make use of awe and wonder, how they manage to rise above the daily grind and get the benefits of doing so. Or perhaps you are already very good at it, in which case you can perhaps help others to learn how to do it.