Self-realization and cultural narratives about later life Hanne Laceulle

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Self-realization and cultural narratives about later life
Hanne Laceulle

, Jan Baars
University of Humanistic Studies, Kromme Nieuwegracht 29, PO. Box 797 3500 AT, Utrecht, The Netherlands article info abstract Article history:
Received 31 March Received in revised form 19 August Accepted 20 August Available online xxxx
In late modern circumstances, aging individuals are confronted with the task of creating a meaningful individual life trajectory. However, these personal narratives are situated in the context of broader cultural narratives. It is argued that current cultural narratives about aging are often stereotyping and demeaning, being based on either a decline ideology or an age-defying ideology. This complicates the ascription of meaning to later life. We argue that narrative gerontology could profit from integrating a more cultural critical stance in its investigations.
Dominant cultural narratives need to be challenged by viable counter narratives aimed at repairing and strengthening the moral agency of aging individuals. We discuss the criteria such counter narratives have to answer to and consider how the moral discourse on self-realization can provide an ideological foundation for meaning-generating cultural counter narratives on aging 2014 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Cultural narratives
Moral agency
Aging in late modernity
Nowadays, individuals are living and aging in a very complex societal and cultural context. The characteristic features of current Western societies have been described in influential discourses in terms of a transition from a
‘traditional’ to a post- traditional, late modern era (cf.
Beck & Beck-Gernsheim, 2002;
Bauman, 2001, 2007; Giddens, 1991; Taylor, 1989; Taylor. Late modernity represents a post-traditional order that is full of uncertainties and insecurities. Individuals are confronted with multiple options and possibilities that require constant choice they are forced to continuously negotiate their own lifestyle, and thereby create and structure their self-identity.
This process takes place against the backdrop of the pervasive social and institutional structures of modernity that influence processes of identity-formation (
Giddens, Late modernity thus harbors a plurality of individually shaped life trajectories, that can no longer revert to traditional frameworks and standard orderings of the life course. Individual biographies have been transformed into personal
that are supposed to express unique lifestyles. Late modern individualization thus places new and pressing demands upon individuals, most notably the requirement to lead a
‘life of their own (Beck & Beck-Gernsheim, This, however, is not an easy task. On the one hand, the expectations regarding the scope of individual agency are being inflated to unrealistic proportions. This places the burden of realizing a good and unique life heavily on the individual.
People are implicitly given the status of free, autonomous
‘architects’ of their own life course, including their later life.
On the other hand, late modern societies are characterized by several structural characteristics and arrangements that often restrict the possibilities to exercise this free life shaping
Baars, a Dannefer, 2008; Dannefer & Kelley-Moore,
). The call for realizing
‘a life of one's own is thus deeply problematic, representing amoral ideal that is strongly at odds with empirical reality (
Baars, The considerable individualization and diversification of aging trajectories in late modernity can be expected to continue to exercise a strong influence upon the self-experience of aging individuals, as well as on the way they are perceived by others as consequences of individual choices and lifestyles (
2007; Hendricks, 2010; Hendricks & Hatch, 2009
). A related factor influencing experiences of aging in late modernity is the growing appeal to individual autonomy and responsibility,
for instance when it comes to pensions and care arrangements
Phillipson, 2009; Polivka & Longino, 2006
). Importantly,
Journal of Aging Studies 31 (2014) 34
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however, the recourse to the individual agent reaches further and deeper, since people are not only supposed to be individually responsible for the material conditions of a good old age, but also for providing later life with meaning.
Further complicating late modern aging is the fact that aging individuals are confronted with serious problems regarding their social status, such as ageism, exclusion and marginalization. These problems are related to the fact that the existing societal and cultural images and stories about later life tend to be rather negative (
Bytheway, 1995; Calasanti, 2008; Cruikshank Gullette, 1997, 2004, 2011
). As a result, aging individuals are too often deprived of access to meaningful social roles, of the opportunity to exercise free agentic choice regarding fundamental matters in their lives, or even of the basic material resources needed to secure a basic quality of life. This results in a societal and social position of older people which is hardly enviable (cf.
O'Rand, 2000; Phillipson, 1998, 2009
rightly points out that the claim that it is up to us what happens to us in old age, neglects the structural conditions that can both enable and inhibit our individual choices and experiences.
Nevertheless, despite these problems, the demand to shape our individual existence according to our own authentic choices remains strongly entrenched in late modern culture.
As Zygmunt
Bauman (observes, in late modern culture it is very hard to escape the appeal to view life as an individual
‘work of art’.
Taylor (has put together a convincing genealogy of self-fulfillment as a dominant cultural theme that gained influence during the process of modernization. Recent decades have seen the advent of an
‘art of living discourse,
based on the later ideas of Michel Foucault and his reinterpretation of classical Greek and Roman philosophical principles
Baars, a Dohmen, 2013; Kekes, 2002; Nehamas, 1998;
Schmid, 1998
). These authors all struggle in their own way with the implications of the late modern
‘life of one's own’
The narrative turn in gerontology
The emphasis on shaping one's own life, that can count as one of the typical features of late modern, Western culture,
underlying its views about the good life, has profoundly changed ideas about a good old age. Aging well has become a biographical task, searching and creating meaning in old age individually, without being able to rely on traditional frameworks. This may have been one of the causes of the heightened interest in narrative approaches within gerontology in recent decades, given their focus on individual life stories and meaning
Kenyon, Bohlmeijer, & Randall, 2011; Kenyon, Clark, & de
Vries, 2001; Randall & McKim, An important claim of narrative gerontology pertains to the fundamental role of narrative in the creation of meaning. This claim is based on fundamental assumptions in both narrative psychology and narrative strands of thinking in philosophy that also underlie many recent narrative interventions in care practices for older people (cf.
Kenyon et al., 2011; Tromp. Most importantly, an intrinsic relation is presumed between people's sense of self, their identity, and the narratives they tell about their lives. It is proposed that by telling stories
(in abroad sense, people order the experiences and events of their lives in a more or less consistent unity (
Bruner, 1987;
McAdams, 1993; Schechtman, 1996
). Consequently, their identity is understood as having fundamentally a narrative structure. Next, the conjunction between identity and narrative is coupled to the notion of meaning. Humans are seen as fundamentally
‘meaning-making’ beings, constantly interpreting and reinterpreting the stories of their lives in order to develop a sense of (overall)
‘meaning in life or existential meaning, as opposed to metaphysical notions of an ultimate
‘meaning of life’
Reker & Chamberlain, 2000
). This implies that human persons are understood to be engaged in a constant process of self- interpretation (Taylor, 1985
). As the experience of meaning is taken to be dependent on a sense of coherence, unifying purpose and comprehensibility, we can easily seethe importance of the narrative (self)-interpreting activity for the experience and creation of meaning in life (
McAdams, 2012; Sommer,
Baumeister, & Stillman, Narrative gerontology addresses questions about the role of life stories in the context of aging. It pays attention to psychological competencies such as reminiscence and their role in generating a sense of meaning. Despite its psychological orientation and its corresponding focus on the individual,
narrative gerontology acknowledges the fact that life stories have several dimensions. Not only the intrapersonal sense of meaningful identity is at stake, but the meaning of a story is believed to be negotiated in interaction with asocial, interpersonal dimension, a socio-cultural dimension and a structural dimension. These dimensions simultaneously exert their influence on individual lives, and thus contribute to the form and content of their stories. The interconnectedness of these dimensions draws attention, moreover, to the fact that our personal stories are always situated in a context of larger stories transcending the scope of individual lives (Kenyon Randall, Characteristically, narrative gerontology explicitly associates aging and later life with the need for meaning, in particular a deeper, more satisfying meaning connected to the individual uniqueness of our lives (Randall & McKim, 2008
). However, it is also observed that many older people suffer from an inability to arrive at this deeper sense of meaning. The result maybe narrative foreclosure, or the sense that life has nothing new to offer, the assumption that developmental possibilities have been shutdown although life has not ended yet (Freeman, The problem of narrative foreclosure is often associated with alack of narrative competence (as a psychological characteristic) or adequate narrative resources. However, it is an important question whether narrative foreclosure should be interpreted exclusively as a (problematic) psychological process impeding the experience of meaning in later life.
Ewing (reminds us of the deeply socially and culturally constituted character of processes of identity construction:
‘(…)we can observe that individuals are continuously reconstituting themselves into new selves in response to internal and external stimuli. They construct these new selves from their available set of self- representations, which are based on cultural constructs (Ewing, 258
). In other words, the meaning people can ascribe to their lives with the help of narrative processes depends heavily on how they are positioned by the external world, and which narrative resources are at their disposal. An important strand of thinking in cultural and feminist gerontology pays attention to this aspect, and interprets the notion of narrative from a
H. Laceulle, J. Baars / Journal of Aging Studies 31 (2014) 34

critical angle that provides a welcome addition to the psychological approach in narrative gerontology focusing on personal meaning.
Cultural narratives
In cultural and feminist gerontology, attention is being drawn to the often problematic — ways cultural stories and images about aging influence individual aging identities, and often impede possibilities for ascribing a positive or enriching meaning to later life (Andrews, 1999, 2012; Baars, 2012a;
Calasanti, 2008; Cruikshank, 2003; Featherstone & Hepworth,
2005; Gullette, 1997, 2004, 2011; Katz, Nelson (reminds us of an important presumption characteristic of narrative ethics who we are is always partially decided by what other people think of us. In this sense identity is fundamentally social. Our opportunities to be who we want to be, and the way we perceive and experience ourselves, are inextricably bound up with our social positioning. We are not free to tell any self-narrative we want, since the credibility and acknowledgment of our self-narratives depends on the room provided by the cultural narratives about the groups we area part of. The fact that our identities are indissolubly connected to our cultural horizons is also emphasized by Charles
. Furthermore, cultural narratives about aging also interact with economic, institutional and political factors that influence aging policies through imposing their
narratives and perspectives on time to the life world of individuals (
Baars, 2012b
These perspectives emphasize the fact that
‘aging’ is not a value-free biological process that unfolds in synchrony with our chronological age, but a normative cultural construction;
a profoundly socially constituted process (
Baars, We are being
‘aged by culture, to use the terminology of
Gullette (2004)
. As embodied, socially constituted and
‘cul- tured
’ creatures, we have internalized dominant cultural imaginaries about old age, which necessarily shape the expectations we hold regarding our own later lives, and the opportunities we perceive ourselves as having (Andrews. And these dominant discourses tend to present aging as a universal biological necessity instead of a socio-culturally constituted, alterable reality. As a consequence, the normative assumptions underlying these discourses remain hidden. The cultural narratives also called macro or master narratives that exist about aging in late modern societies are often based on a one-sided
‘decline ideology (
Gullette, 1997
). This oppresses individuals by reducing them to passive victims of irreversible (physical and/or mental) decline. Possible alternative stories challenging the dominance of the
‘decline narratives remain marginal and often unheard. They may even be actively silenced by the dominant discourses on aging.
Of course, attempts have been undertaken to challenge and replace the problematic narratives based on the
‘decline ideology. Programs of successful, positive or “active”
aging can all be interpreted as strategies to stimulate, retain or strengthen the potentials of living a good life that older people possess. However, their aim seems to be to defy aging,
instead of exploring and embracing its potential for meaning. It has also been argued that these approaches, by presenting the image of an independent and healthy agent as its ideal,
implicitly lead to marginalization of those older people failing to live up to these standards. Thereby, they unintentionally confirm decline narratives (Chapman, 2005; Holstein, Moreover, these alternative narratives about aging seem to transfer value frameworks belonging to youth and adulthood to old age, neglecting the possibility that later life may have an intrinsic value of its own (
Atchley, 2009; Baars, a Cole Rentsch, Zimmermann, & Kruse, 2013
). Although these narratives, that also play their role in formulating social policies, set out to fight ageism and secure valued social roles for older people, they in fact celebrate a rather limited view of aging well. In the end, strategies of successful and positive aging are closely linked to economic capitalist concerns about the growing population of elderly people. This leads to a restriction of meaning-options in these age-defying narratives that equals that of decline narratives (
Biggs, Cultural master narratives are defined by
De Medeiros
(2005, 2)
‘the stories (or story fragments) told by a culture to communicate the values, expectations and attitudes of that culture. It is important to stress that cultural narratives understood in this way play a fundamental and indispensable role in the creation and interpretation of life as meaningful.
They are carriers of values, they provide the horizon against which we situate our own life narratives. They provide us with a reservoir of both narrative form and content on which to model our own stories. Other terms that emphasize this function of cultural narratives are
‘macro narrative environment (Randall & McKim, 2008
), or
‘ideological setting’
McAdams, 1996
). Cultural master narratives bear the responsibility to provide us with adequate
‘narrative resources to keep a satisfying life story going throughout the entire life course. If they fail in this task, one of the risks people face is narrative foreclosure (Freeman, 2000, 2011
). As mentioned before, this notion points to the conviction held by some older people that their life story has come to an end even if their life has not that roads to further development have been closed off, leading to stagnation. Applied to the realm of cultural narratives, however, the idea underlying narrative foreclosure could also be applied to a premature closing of certain narrative templates, solely on the ground of being placed in the category of the
‘old’ with the corresponding limited cultural narrative scripts,
social roles and expectations attached to it (
Gullette, Thus, cultural master narratives play an ambivalent role:
because of their essential role in shaping our identities and creating meaning, they can also impede meaning-generating processes, by oppressing or marginalizing certain social groups.
Nelson (focuses on the oppressive role cultural master narratives can play, leading to faulty narrative understandings of people. Following Iris Marion
Young (Nelson (conceptualizes oppression as taking five main forms exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, and violence. Of these five, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism and violence seem directly applicable to the situation of aging individuals in late modern societies, although we can certainly not rule out the possibility that they also suffer from exploitation.
It is thus important to emphasize that cultural narratives can be both enabling and disabling, both stimulating and impeding, both meaning-generating and meaning-obstructing.
Depending on its underlying concepts and values, a cultural
(master) narrative can communicate either demeaning and restrictive messages about who we are and who we are able to
H. Laceulle, J. Baars / Journal of Aging Studies 31 (2014) 34

become, or positive and growth-oriented ones. The critical and feminist discourse on cultural narratives discussed above has highlighted the problematic consequences of dominant cultural narratives of aging that are based on the notion of decline.
Such narratives restrict the meaning we are able to ascribe to later life and to ourselves as aging or older) individuals. The problem is deepened by the lack of viable alternative stories based on what
Gullette (terms a
‘progress narrative’.
Nelson (distinguishes two ways in which cultural master narratives can have a damaging influence. On the one hand, cultural master narratives can lead to a restrictive social positioning of a specific (subgroup which becomes identified with specific stereotypical characteristics. Such a positioning not only negates the possibility of individual differentiation within the (subgroup, making this socially invisible, it also limits the opportunities of the members of this group. If, for instance, unemployed older workers are seen in terms of the decline ideology this will seriously restrict their options a clear example of what
Nelson (2001, 23)
‘the harm of deprivation of opportunity
The second harm does not come from the outside, but from within persons. Being embedded in asocial and cultural context advancing certain cultural stories and images and suppressing others, one's self-image is inescapably influenced by the features that are ascribed by the dominant cultural narratives to the (subgroups one belongs to or identifies with.
In the domain of aging studies, Gullette provides illuminating examples of this in her discussion of the topic of menopause
Gullette, 2011
). Ethical discussions about age-based care- rationing breathe the same concern (Moody, 1992
). As a result,
dominant stories and images are internalized by individuals and impede their chances to distance themselves from such limiting and damaging conceptualizations of what one can be and do. These processes have severe consequences for what we may call someone's moral agency.
Nelson (2001, terms this harm
‘infiltrated consciousness’.
Full moral agency requires not only the recognition by others that one is morally worthy to perform actions freely, it also requires assessing oneself as morally trustworthy. In order to perform all the roles and activities generally associated with moral agency, individuals need to perceive themselves as accountable for their own actions. It is crucial that they feel up to the challenge of exercising their own freedom. This draws on a healthy amount of self-respect (Nelson, 2001
). The problem is that oppressive narratives may lead to an internalization of damaging images, so that the oppressive narrative affects one's self-image and in effect diminishes one's self-esteem as a full moral agent. Exercising moral agency and freely developing one's identity according to one's aspirations, even developing the aspirations altogether, maybe impeded by this infiltrated consciousness. Characteristically, the agent is not aware of this internalized restriction upon one's freedom, because it is experienced as the
‘normal’ state of affairs. However, this makes the malignant effect even more serious. Conscious awareness of this infiltrated consciousness is the first necessary step towards changing the situation.
Repairing the damage counter narratives
How can we repair the harm that is done by cultural master narratives that are oppressive, denigrating or marginalizing
(members of) the concerned social groups?
Nelson (2001, suggests developing viable counter narratives as a strategy. A
counter narrative is defined as
‘a story that resists an oppressive identity and attempts to replace it with one that commands respect. It maybe added that counter narratives should not only command respect, but also open opportunities to acknowledge and integrate components of meaning in life that were previously unavailable, due to oppressive master narratives. In
Nelson's view, counter narratives aim to
‘repair’ the malignant consequences of oppressive cultural master narratives for the identities of the people concerned. By providing alternative stories challenging the damaging identification with oppressive master narratives, a counter narrative can empower the concerning social group, generate respect and social value for the people belonging to it.
However, it is important to emphasize that for
(2001, 153
, not every alternative story qualifies as a counter narrative. For this, a narrative has to answer to a set of features 1) it has not only to resist but also to replace oppressive master narratives 2) it sets out to rehabilitate the damaged identities that resulted from them 3) it is directed towards freeing a person's moral agency and 4) it deliberately causes a shift in the cultural understanding of a certain group.
Consequently, an alternative story that is just a different story from the dominant master narrative, which can generate meaning and identity fora certain individual, does not necessarily qualify as a counter narrative. Although it might be able to
‘narratively repair deficiencies in meaning on the individual level, it does not stretch out to the cultural level. A
counter narrative should literally
‘counter something (Nelson, 153
). It not only provides identification and meaning- generating possibilities for individuals, it also has to challenge the damaging aspects of master narratives on a cultural level and thus actively present a viable alternative to existing images and stories. Bringing about viable counter narratives is a very difficult undertaking. It requires joining individual forces of resistance in order to boost the potential to challenge and transform social imaginaries about marginalized groups. Moreover, it is important to realize that such transformations also depend on political change, which adds yet another dimension to the complexity of the matter.
When it comes to aging, interventions developed in narrative gerontological research often seem directed towards
‘narrative repair on the personal level. However, as the feminist and cultural narrative discourse teaches us, we need alternative narratives about aging with a broader scope, that are able to challenge stereotyping and ageist cultural master narratives. In short, we need genuine counter narratives challenging cultural understandings of aging and providing viable alternatives. In order to succeed as counter narrative, the narrative in question has to be widely circulated in culture and become socially shared by many, not only those belonging to the social group the narrative is about.
Fortunately, narrative gerontological research has already offered some inspiring examples of counter narratives challenging the dominant
‘decline ideology of aging criticized by
Gullette (2004, 2011)
. For instance,
Phoenix (describes a research project investigating experiences of older athletes whose identities are strengthened and enriched by their efforts to challenge existing cultural images of old age. She concludes:
‘[Older athletes stories depicted notions of purposefulness as
H. Laceulle, J. Baars / Journal of Aging Studies 31 (2014) 34

opposed to stagnation, and progress as opposed to decline and deterioration. Thus, while powerful and potentially oppressive,
on this occasion, the narrative of decline appeared vulnerable and subject to subtle contestation
’ (Phoenix, 2011, Overall, however, there seems to be relatively little attention within the psychological, personal meaning-oriented approach of narrative gerontology for the ways personal narrative expressions of the aging self are intermingled with cultural representations of aging.
De Medeiros (suggests that there exists a discrepancy between the
‘cultural identities of aging individuals and the way they actually experience their aging process. Lack of attention to this distinction may lead gerontology to interpret certain narrative self-presentations as expressing something about the aging self while in fact, they are more properly interpreted as expressions of cultural master narratives about aging. It is not difficult to see how this leads to problems when an ideology of decline dominates these narratives, as
Cruikshank (2008, aptly reminds us:
‘When part of usual aging, loss becomes the whole not only does a presumption of inferiority occur, but possibilities of growth,
renewal, change, repair and healing are overlooked
De Medeiros (2005)
Hazan and Raz (1997)
, who suggest that
“narratives of elderly people, that is, interviews,
life stories, and other utterances, are too often interpreted as authentic narratives of
‘old age rather than a reiteration of the discourse of aging perpetuated by life-course and life-cycle perspectives (
De Medeiros, 2005, 7
). She suggests a conceptual model in which a distinction can be drawn between the self as externally presented and constantly negotiated in relation to cultural expectations and norms, and the
‘complementary self’,
encompassing those aspects of ourselves that are at odds with existing dominant cultural narratives, or are silenced or suppressed by them (
De Medeiros, Narrative strands of thinking in gerontology have the potential to make a contribution to the formation of cultural counter narratives about later life. These should be able to challenge problematic and one-sided decline or success stories on aging, thereby augmenting possibilities for experiencing meaning in later life. However, up to now there seems to exist relatively little cross fertilization within gerontology between both discussed strands of narrative thinking on the one hand,
the idea that narrative engagement with one's own biography can create a sense of coherence that is instrumental to the individual experience of personal meaning, and on the other hand the idea that our individual aging experience is strongly influenced and often problematically impeded by cultural narratives about aging based on decline ideology in its different guises. They seem to represent mostly separated discourses in aging studies, the first departing from a psychological disciplinary background, the second from a more culture-critical perspective. Yet, it is striking that both perspectives share the thought that narrative plays a fundamental role when it comes to infusing later life with meaning. Also, they both contend that narrative means can and should be used to
‘repair’ deficiencies in meaning, either on the level of personal biography or on the level of cultural group identity. Merging both perspectives could thus generate valuable new perspectives on aging in late modernity.
The critical and feminist discourse on cultural narratives reminds us of the fact that personal, existential meaning cannot be separated from internalized, socially and culturally constituted meanings given or denied to later life. On the theoretical level, this insight is shared by the personal meaning approach to narrative gerontology, that is guiding most interventional practices based on narrative gerontology.
But its culture-critical potential seems to be neglected in the development of these practices. The fact that giving meaning to old age may imply the necessity to criticize or actively transform existing cultural narratives about aging, adding alternative perspectives to challenge the dominant ones, is an insight from the cultural approach that seems undervalued in the psychological approach focusing mainly on personal meaning. According to Biggs, what we need is a
‘critical narrativity
’, able to probe particular aging narratives on their contribution to
‘social spaces in which a more authentic and thereby fulfilling ageing can be achieved (
Biggs, 2001, So, our task is to search for ways to challenge and transform the underlying ideology of problematic cultural narratives about aging. How can we create or revitalize alternative cultural narratives What alternative underlying concepts can be formulated, that have the potential to nourish these much needed counter narratives about aging in late modernity It will be suggested that the moral discourse on self-realization can serve as a promising candidate for such a role. But first we need to inspect more closely what is needed for counter narratives.
Criteria for counter narratives
According to
Nelson (2001)
, counter narratives can exert their challenging roles at three levels of resistance refusal,
repudiation and contestation. Refusal is seen as limited to the individual level where somebody denies that a damaging (for instance ageist) stereotype applies to her, and forms her own story to identify with. Insofar as there is no intention of extending this alternative story to the cultural, collective level,
however, refusal stories cannot function as proper counter narratives they remain incomplete and their reach is limited.
Thus, an older woman who consciously decides not to believe the stereotype of diminished sexual activity or beauty associated with aging is refusing a stereotype, but as her resistance remains on the individual level it may still be very hard for her to shrug off the internalization of these stereotypes in all situations. Repudiation goes a step further, not only implying identification with an alternative story, but actively opposing denigrating stereotypes in public or social contexts. But insofar as this form of resistance limits its scope as a counter narrative to what
Nelson (2001, 171)
‘patchwork forms of resistance it remains a piecemeal activity. The activities of the
Red Hat Society, or the
‘Raging Grannies (
Caissie, 2011
) might count as examples of repudiation of aging stereotypes. A
danger of this type of resistance is that it results in the creation of alternative stereotypes that can be easily disarmed by ridiculing them. Contestation, finally, represents the full resisting potential of a counter narrative, by systematically and collectively challenging stereotypes in public.
Although such collective action cannot simply be brought about on a theoretical level, we can try to develop the conceptual foundation fora robust counter narrative that might guide abroad contestation.
Nelson (argues that counter narratives should be able to perform at least two tasks transforming the ways in which representatives of the
H. Laceulle, J. Baars / Journal of Aging Studies 31 (2014) 34

dominant group (the
‘others’) think about the oppressed or marginalized group, as well as transforming the ways in which members of the oppressed group think about themselves. Thus,
both the cultural (group) identity and the personal identity of people require change. In order to free one's impeded moral agency from the oppressive effects of certain dominant stories,
it is necessary that one's identity be redefined in the context of counter narratives. In order to speak of
‘narrative repair, the term used by
Nelson (2001)
, one needs to be able to identify with more adequate stories that replace the dysfunctional identification (in terms of infiltrated consciousness) with dominant oppressive or restrictive stories. This presupposes access to resources for telling and confirming the alternative counter narratives, which should come from one's social communities.
Applied to the context of aging, viable counter narratives should thus both challenge the way younger people perceive later life, as well as the way older people experience their own
‘age identity. This should enable people to disavow damaging identifications and expectations of old age that lead to excessively gloomy views about later life, resulting in
‘age anxiety, ageist policies and practices. Counter narratives on aging should provide an array of stories, images etc. that not only enable identification by individual people, but that also have sufficient strength to be communicated individually and collectively as credible alternatives to the dominant decline and age-defying narratives.
The view on counter narratives of
Nelson (lays a strong emphasis on the restoration of moral agency in the groups oppressed by the dominant master narratives. Her perspective centers on notions like respect and empowerment.
She rejects the more classical philosophical conceptualizations of moral agency (see for instance
Frankfurt, for an influential example of this view) as too individualistic, because they mainly stress the capacity to govern one's own actions by means of one's freewill and in accordance with one's reflectively established preferences, paying insufficient attention to social and cultural contexts. In contrast,
Nelson (strongly emphasizes the need for social recognition in the ability to exercise moral agency.
However, there appears to be a paradox in the work of
Nelson (and in the broader critical and feminist perspective on the oppressive force of dominant cultural master narratives that is important to mention here. On the one hand, this perspective emphasizes the deep and profound way our
‘age identity is determined by social and cultural imaginaries. It is presented as almost impossible to escape the influence of social and cultural positioning, since this process begins very early in the life course and causes internalization of dominant ideologies we are not even aware of. The picture arising here is one of a massive and multi-faced determination versus a rather powerless, indoctrinated individual. On the other hand, however, the feminist discourse on counter narratives highlights the need for resistance, which seems to require strong moral agents. How people are supposed to acquire the strength of resistance, given their determination by social forces, is a very difficult question. Nelson seems to suggest that even in the most adverse situations of oppression,
there can be seeds of change. However, it can be discouraging to realize how hard it can be to make these seeds bloom. The chances of success in transforming the dominant cultural mindset may sometimes seem very small, considering the individual, social, political, and cultural conditions that have to be met.
Wolfensberger (aptly describes the difficulties confronted in challenging stereotypes:
‘One's experiences will usually have to contradict one's expectancies and stereotypes very powerfully, and almost always very consistently, in order for these latter to be defeated and reversed. On the other hand,
it takes only few and/or weak confirmations of one's expec- tancies and stereotypes in order for them to become well- nigh irreversibly embedded (
Wolfensberger, 2013, 58
). Social,
political and cultural conditions are all too often less than optimal for enabling these positive transformations. It thus requires moral agents with virtues like endurance, steadfastness, courage, creativity and resilience to take the lead in challenging damaging stereotypes. However, the development of such moral agency is an element that remains underexposed.
In the remainder of this paper, we will suggest that the moral discourse on self-realization can serve as a promising candidate framework to remedy this omission in the cultural narrative perspective.
Self-realization as amoral concept
We hope to make plausible that self-realization as elaborated here can serve as an intermediating concept connecting both strands of narrative thinking in gerontology the psychologically oriented approach stressing identity development and meaning, and the culturally oriented approach stressing the potentially problematic role of cultural master narratives. On the one hand, it provides a model for rethinking personal development and its existential importance, on the other hand,
it can serve as a powerful cultural concept that might give more substance to the late modern emphasis on a
‘life of one's own’.
As such, self-realization discourse can guide us towards a view about
‘living and aging well that is based on attention for human growth and flourishing throughout the life course,
rather than suffocating aging persons in a decline- or age- defying narrative.
We need, however, to be cautious because the term
‘self- realization has been used to defend approaches to aging that are quite opposite to what we are trying to achieve. In the debate on the
‘Third Age, it has been suggested that later life is particularly apt to harbor an engagement with the goals of realizing one's best potentials, an idea that forms a genuine part of most views on self-realization. Being past the stages in life where one is mainly preoccupied with labor and raising one's family, individuals in their
‘Third Age are thought to be in an excellent position to work on self-development and engage in meaningful activities contributing to their self-realization. As they would still be relatively healthy and vital (as opposed to individuals having entered the deplorable state of the
’), they are perceived to have time, energy, resources and opportunities to further their own fulfillment (
Laslett, 1989;
Moen & Spencer, Several authors have pointed out, however, how the striving for self-realization characteristically attributed to the third agers in late modern culture has been captured by consumer society. Thus, self-realization is reduced to identification with the role of consumer of the products and services of the (anti-)
aging industry, thereby creating asocial role expectation for older people as enablers of economic growth in the context of
H. Laceulle, J. Baars / Journal of Aging Studies 31 (2014) 34

consumer capitalism (
Gilleard & Higgs, 2000, 2005; Katz, As such, this conceptualization of self-realization can be argued to contribute to maintaining a stereotypical cultural narrative of later life which associates
‘aging well one-sidedly with consumption and leisure. This implicitly excludes many older people lacking the material resources and/or the physical capacities for such a lifestyle. This version of self-realization thus undergirds a potentially damaging oppressive cultural master narrative, rather than the viable counter narratives that we are looking for. The history of moral philosophy, however,
offers a deeper and richer notion of self-realization that is capable of inspiring such counter narratives. We will first discuss some general features of this interpretation of self- realization, before presenting in the next section more specific arguments about its value in the creation of counter narratives about aging.
Self-realization as amoral concept has ancient roots,
reaching back to the Socratic ideal of
‘knowing yourself and the Aristotelian concept of self-fulfillment. It has known a rich development throughout the history of modern philosophy,
absorbing such influential ideas as the Romantic quest for self- expression or the Nietzschean requirement of
‘becoming who you are (Taylor, 1989
Gewirth (has defined the traditional philosophical meaning of the term as follows:
‘[self- realization is a bringing of oneself to flourishing completion,
an unfolding of what is strongest or best in oneself, so that it represents the successful culmination of one's aspirations or potentialities (
Gewirth, 1998, The classical conception of self-realization, to be found in
Aristotelian virtue ethics for example, is based on a teleological framework. This means that human beings are regarded as naturally striving towards the optimal fulfillment of their inherent potentialities, aiming to reach what is regarded as the ultimate goal of life, namely eudaimonia or happiness. This happiness was interpreted in terms of
‘flourishing’, or optimally functioning in accordance with how it was
‘meant’ by the cosmic ordering that was supposed to form the context of human life. Importantly, flourishing qua human being was always perceived as situated in the wider context of the social community and tradition, contributing to its optimal and continued existence (
MacIntyre, The metaphysical biology and anthropology underlying this original version of self-realization ethics has of course been discarded during the course of modernization. The teleological framework and its promise of ultimately reaching a
‘unified selfhood
’, completion or narrative integration have also been problematized. In late modernity the individual striving fora good life cannot rely anymore on a self-evident cosmic framework (Taylor, 2007
); conceptualized as a
‘life of one's own, the good life has become the sole responsibility of the individual. The evolved moral discourse on self-realization emphasizes, however, not only human potentials for growth and development but sees them as deeply connected to amoral perception of what it means to lead a good life. In the development of moral thought, self-realization discourse has therefore often (implicitly or explicitly) provided the legitima- tion for presenting the individual agent as the foundational category in ethics (
Gerhardt, 1999
). Contrary to neo-liberal,
atomistic perceptions of this individual, however, the moral discourse on self-realization we defend stresses the fundamental socio-cultural embedding of the individual, as well as its embodied nature. In its emphasis on the importance of authentic individual value-orientations, self-realization discourse stimulates us to negotiate age identities that are antithetical towards stereotypes. Its corresponding claims regarding the value of individual particularity and diversity,
however, intend to avoid sliding into a mere individualism.
Three important aspects of self-realization discourse need to be elaborated a bit further (a) search for meaning, (b) temporal orientation, and (c) social and cultural engagements.
(a) Search for meaning. The focus on realizing a
‘good life’
leads to an intrinsic connection between self-realization and a search for meaning. In its classical conceptualization, self-realization is perceived as a fundamental expression of the deeply human quest for an experience of life as a meaningful
‘whole’, an integrated unity expressing one's fundamental values (Taylor, Evidently, the circumstances of late modernity, characterized by insecurities, fragmentation, and pluralism have highly complicated this undertaking (
). The most fundamental assumptions fueling late modern worldviews seem to negate the possibility of
‘integration’ or a narrative unity of life that were traditionally seen as conditions of meaning in life.
However, it may well be that the late modern striving towards a life of one's own still indicates a continuing appeal of self-realization as amoral ideal, though its operation remains inadequate and unsatisfactory as a longing for more deeply satisfying experiences of meaning. The complexity of human life, and the multiplicity of possible narrative perspectives, make the traditional expectation that narrative unity or integration are possible unlikely and simplistic (
Baars, 2012a,b
Nevertheless, the moral discourse on self-realization we advance does uphold the view that experiences of severe fragmentation or disruption are likely to pose threats to meaning. This implies that at least some sense of coherence in one's life narratives is perceived as conditional for experiencing this life as
‘good’. Rightly rejecting traditional notions of narrative unity as nave and simplistic should not blur our view at the importance of the underlying longing for meaning that originally fueled the concern for these themes.
(b) Temporal orientation. Self-realization is seen as a lifelong process, the result of which could, according to
Aristotle, only be assessed when life had reached its completion. To attain a sense of meaning, we need to be able to accept and morally legitimize our past existence and selves, as well as imagine and pursue valuable purposes for the future. Also, we need to be able to balance somehow these two temporal orientations in the present. In light of this temporal dimension of self- realization, we should stress that the self to be realized is a complex and multilayered phenomenon, with a dynamic character and a constantly developing nature.
Through time, we are constantly becoming another
(version of our) self, ideally growing towards a self which is more in accordance with our ultimate aspirations about who we want to be.
Gewirth (emphasizes how the temporal stages of the developing self tend to influence how one deals with different life
H. Laceulle, J. Baars / Journal of Aging Studies 31 (2014) 34

stages. He states:
‘At their best these stages are processes of growth in which one develops one's freedom and well-being at each stage and also prepares for the next stages. In this process one must accept oneself for what one is in this way one can age gracefully, as against a neurotic longing for one's past youth (
1998, c) Social and cultural engagements. Self-realization discourse situates the individual in a dynamic interaction with his or her social and cultural surroundings. The human being engaged in the process of self-realization is perceived as an embodied, socially and culturally constituted being, who is embedded and engaged in a context of concrete communities and practices
MacIntyre, 1984
). Self-realization is thus not a narcissistic undertaking of isolated individuals, as might be concluded from some strands of neo-liberal thinking.
However, self-realization discourse does uphold the fundamental moral value of personal autonomy. Ultimately, the individual is presented as amoral actor making decisions and appropriating values, developing itself in dialogue with others towards full moral agency. Thus, self-realization discourse as presented diverges from neo-liberal assumptions about the self- determination of an atomistic individual.
Self-realization as foundation for counter narratives on aging
We can argue that several connections exist between the moral discourse of self-realization and later life. These connections provide a further underpinning of the argument that self-realization discourse can provide a possibly fruitful foundation for counter narratives on aging in late modernity.
First of all, the fact that self-realization is perceived as a lifelong developmental process suggests a certain
‘completion’ to be approached evermore fully with the climbing of age and the accompanying deepening of experience and individual uniqueness. It thus draws attention to the fact that development is not something reserved for young people,
but a potential to be realized throughout life.
Bauer and Park
show that, contrary to what cultural narratives based on the decline ideology might lead us to expect,
‘growth’ is a recurring theme in life narratives of older adults. Characteristically, life narratives demonstrate that people are not solely focused on maintenance and affect regulation as would be expected according to the Selection
–Optimization–Compensa- tion model (
Baltes, 1997; Freund & Baltes, 1998
) or the socio- emotional selectivity theory (
Carstensen, Mikels, & Mather but also on personal meaning-making and prosocial development (Bauer & Park, 2010, 62
). As Bauer and Park argue,
‘the aging self maybe especially prone towards growth narratives despite the mounting losses that come with age as the older adult increasingly recognizes the finitude of time and increasingly places meaning on psychosocial life instead of extrinsically meaningful concerns. Not only do older adults goals seem at least as likely to focus on gains as on losses, but older adults also seem especially capable of interpreting themselves as having grown in the past (Bauer Park, 2010, Second, there is an influential tradition of thinking in both philosophy and (developmental) psychology, represented for instance by Erikson or Jung, suggesting that later life is the phase in which we may ultimately fulfill ourselves, become
‘who we really are or attain ‘ego-integration’. As mentioned before, the suggestion of
‘ego-integration’ is very problematic,
when interpreted inline with its traditional connotations of unified selfhood and
‘wholeness’ of the person. In our view,
however, this does not have to rule out an interest in amoral striving for deepening one's self-knowledge and realizing one's fullest potential.
Chapman (has shown how this idea of an integrated self has implicitly informed many influential perspectives on aging in recent decades. Spiritual perspectives on later life have similarly emphasized the importance of an authentically integrated self, adding the idea that the most ultimate self-realization may paradoxically result in self- transcendence (
Atchley, 2009; Moody & Carroll, 1999
). In accordance with this, self-realization can be interpreted as an instance of what
Randall and McKim (have termed
‘actively growing old, as opposed to the process of passively getting old that is implied in the decline ideology. Their poetics of aging may count as a narrative illustration of what we define as self-realization. Other examples in gerontological literature can be found in theories about spiritual aging, such as the theory of gerotranscendence of
Tornstam (2005)
. The paradox of self- realization by means of self-transcendence suggested by the spiritual perspectives mentioned above also accords with several philosophical reflections on aging (
Hillman, 1999;
Manheimer, 1999
). These stress the enriching possibilities to relate to one's own finitude by letting goof a narrow view of one's life and broadening one's perspective beyond one's individual existence. Generally, spiritual perspectives in gerontology are valuable as they draw attention to the potential of later life for enriching meaning and deepening self-awareness in the face of existential vulnerability and finitude (
Laceulle, Third, in contrast with the
‘consumerist’ perspective on the role of self-realization in aging discussed earlier, the moral concept of self-realization does not restrict its appeal to those healthy and wealthy enough to perform the
dictated by the corresponding ideology. It acknowledges the fact that many elderly people are being confronted with issues of frailty, vulnerability and finitude while still leading a good,
fulfilling life. Self-realization discourse is eminently prepared to articulate the specific values and unexpected sources of meaning later life has to offer and may therefore serve as a basic concept for viable counter narratives. As
(2003, puts it:
‘The ultimate countercultural stance is forcefully to declare one's worthiness in the face of irreversible physical decline. To do so requires setting aside the belief that aging is falling from grace. Instead of leading to age anxiety’,
the discourse of self-realization shows a possible road to
‘age embracing, because it offers the possibility to extend the growth and development perspective usually associated with youth over the entire life course, integrating fragility and finitude in one's biography in a meaningful way.
Fourth, the temporal perspective underlying the discourse on self-realization makes it an especially interesting candidate to support viable counter narratives on aging, challenging decline ideology. To avoid both individual and cultural
‘narrative foreclosure, stories and imaginaries concerning aging should be flexible and open towards the future in order to realize this,
curiosity and hope are important virtues. The temporal perspective on a continuous identity-formation that characterizes self-
H. Laceulle, J. Baars / Journal of Aging Studies 31 (2014) 34

realization discourse stresses the importance, not only of acquired insights from the past, but also of striving for further growth and development in the future. It also emphasizes the importance of engaging with both temporal directions in one's present existence. A limitation of some approaches and interventions in narrative gerontology is that they are often heavily oriented towards the past, focusing on reminiscence,
deriving meaning from a narrative (reconstruction of events that happened in one's life and retrospectively creating a coherent order. This, however, neglects the future-oriented and change-directed approach that is also potentially part of the narrative view. In order to create alternative cultural meanings about later life that people can positively identify with, we need not only attention for the past, but also for the future. The objection that older people in fact have the most important part of their lives behind them neglects the moral importance of being able to imagine a future purpose which may even extend beyond one's own life (
Baars, 2012a,b
As a result of its affinity with later life, self-realization discourse presents a promising case for challenging problematic cultural narratives about old age, based for instance on decline, anti-aging or consumption ideologies.
‘Learning to be old maybe the last emotional and spiritual challenge we can agree to take on. While aging is shrouded in denial or shame, it will be seen simply as defeat. (
…) The promise of other ways to age is exhilarating, though, if we can imagine late life as the time when we are most fully ourselves (Cruikshank, 2003, Being (or rather becoming)
‘most fully ourselves is a purpose very much akin to what is at stake in the moral conceptualization of self-realization.
The decline ideology of aging most of us have inevitably internalized throughout our lives, by consuming cultural narratives, may offer resistance to the thought expressed here:
associating aging with flourishing and fulfillment seems at odds with our usual views. Self-realization is not per se easy:
(1997, 239
; quoted in
Nelson, 2001, 85
) rightly says that
‘it takes a conscious effort to become aware of and to criticize ubiquitous figurations, especially those that are integral to a cultural worldview, and it takes a great deal of assiduous self-monitoring to begin to extricate one's thinking from these figurations
’. The successful creation of counter narratives requires a self that is capable of (self)reflection and (self)criticism.
However, as a result of resigning to the seeming inevitability of decline, other possibilities, as suggested by the discourse of self-realization, can become
‘unthinkable’ or invisible options for us. Since they are at odds with the
‘age identity’
dominant cultural narratives expect us to express, these potential elements of ourselves cannot be directly part of our externally presented, culturally negotiated selves. Instead, they belong to what
De Medeiros (calls our
‘complementary self. It maybe in making people aware of their complementary selves, the elements escaping the age identity presented by dominant master narratives, that we can awaken the critical narrative potential in individuals needed to create viable counter narratives of aging.
In this article, we have argued that aging in late modernity is highly complicated by alack of viable cultural narratives regarding later life. As a result, people are devoid of the sources they would need to experience their aging existence as meaningful. Although in a very different and possibly less visible manner, the lack of
‘morally compelling social practices and existentially vital ideals of aging, to quote
Cole (1992, influences the experience of aging as profoundly as deficiencies regarding income or care provision, both key themes in critical and social gerontology. The narrative turn in gerontology has made us aware of the fundamental importance of life stories (in abroad sense) in the human search for meaning. The critical and feminist discourse on cultural narratives highlights that the creation and maintenance of a viable, meaning-generating life story is not self-evident and highly dependent on the socio- cultural positioning of older people. Margaret Urban Walker,
for instance, emphasizes how a marginalized social status also leads to restrictions in the
‘epistemic’ position that is granted to the members of the group. This means that some narrative identity options are simply not open to them due to their inferior position in society (Walker, 2007
). Thus, the problem at stake foraging individuals can be summarized as follows while on the one hand there exists a strong recourse on the individual to infuse his/her life with meaning, expressed in the characteristic late modern emphasis on a
‘life of one's own, on the other hand the lack of cultural narratives that are individuating instead of stereotyping deprives them of meaningful frames of reference.
Narrative gerontology and the interventions based upon its ideas could and should pay more explicit attention to the often problematic mutual interaction between cultural and personal narratives about aging and the meanings they express. The perspective of self-realization makes us aware of the fact that successful counter narratives require enhancing the capabilities people possess to create, cultivate and further develop their moral identity, expressing who they are and who they want to become, instead of seeing them merely as representatives of a marginalized social category. This requires moral reflection both on the individual and on the socio-cultural level about which values are worthy to strive for in life. In this sense, a
‘critical narrativity perspective based on feminist gerontological thinking may profit from insights from the psychological approach to narrative gerontology, regarding the development and fruitful uses of relevant capabilities, such as reflection or other narrative competencies.
Conversely, however, the psychological approach to narrative gerontology should pay more explicit attention to the way in which the stories people tell about their lives interact with cultural meaning frameworks regarding aging. They should problematize the way people's identities and the narrative resources at their disposal maybe implicitly limited by an internalized cultural decline narrative. Possibly, a greater awareness of
‘silenced’ aspects of the self could help us practice what
Cruikshank (2008)
‘age resistance (as opposed to age denial, working towards creating cultural (counter) narratives about aging which stress progress and opportunities for growth and flourishing, instead of loss and decline. The moral discourse on self-realization presented in this article can offer valuable insights grounding such cultural counter narratives.
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Document Outline

  • Self-„realization and cultural narratives about later life
    • Aging in late modernity
    • The narrative turn in gerontology
    • Cultural narratives
    • Repairing the damage counter narratives
    • Criteria for counter narratives
    • Self-realization as amoral concept
    • Self-realization as foundation for counter narratives on aging
    • Conclusion
    • References

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