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I, Gestalt!

David Cowles

Aug 15, 2023

“…We owe our adulthood to others…our species…our families, our sources of income, our communities. Adulthood is being-for-others; childhood and seniority are, potentially at least, being-for-ourselves.”

We’re all familiar with the concept of Gestalt. Sensory inputs coordinate to form a single image. Our brain massages those inputs until they suggest (or support) a pattern. In this way, a World emerges that includes our familiar objects, actions, and events, set in relief against a background consisting primarily of ‘qualia’ (colors, sounds, smells, etc.). Our world comes to resemble a 19th century landscape painted by Millet…or Corot.

We do this throughout our lives, all day every day, probably two or three times every second. It is so effortless that we hardly ever notice it…until we do. Rarely but strikingly, sensory inputs suggest two equally viable but totally inconsistent patterns. This dilemma is what we conventionally, if imprecisely, refer to as a ‘Gestalt’.

Check out the image above: it is the Mother of all Gestalts. Do you see two faces staring at one another across an abyss…or do you see Keats’ Grecian Urn? Once you ‘train your brain’, you’ll be able to see both images, but not at the same time. Your mind will toggle back and forth between the two ‘Gestalts’.

May I suggest we apply the same epistemological technique to the matter of an individual human life. Imagine that a certain man or woman lives to normal life expectancy (normal for a 21st century member of the Atlantic community). Beginning as a helpless infant and ending as a helpless husk, the body (including the brain) goes through stupendous changes over 85 years.

It is conventional to conceptualize the lifespan of such a person as a kind of Gestalt. In the foreground is adulthood (the vase) and in the background (the faces) childhood and seniority. According to the Bard, all the World’s a stage on which we actors play our scripted parts. If so, adulthood is opening night, childhood the dress rehearsal, and seniority, well, curtain calls… followed by the striking of the set.

We imagine that we live for ourselves, and perhaps in some respects we do, but for the most part, we live for our species, for the survival and propagation of the human genome (Richard Dawkins). That species sustaining activity is normally ‘concentrated’ in a period of about 40 years, smack dab in the middle of our life span.

This is the time when we may form a lifelong attachment to a significant other. This is the period when we may have children and a job…not necessarily in that order of priority. Now we are society’s ‘producers’…in more ways than one. Prior to this, we were in ‘learning mode’ – how to read, how to compute, how to hot-wire a car. After this, we will be ‘composting mode’…also in more ways than one!

Our language says it all:  First it’s ‘what will you be when you grow up?’ Then it’s ‘what were you back in your day’ (i.e., ‘when you ruled the world’ - Coldplay). We hold on tight to our precious subjectivity, but the world sees us as nanobots on an assembly line.  

Virtually everyone in our culture goes through these three stages, but not all at the same pace. For some of us, childhood ends at 16; for others, 35. For some of us, ‘retirement’ begins at 62; for others, 80. Either way, the productive period, the period that counts, the figure in our Gestalt, typically runs around 40 years.

This is not all bad. There’s a lot to learn these days, and the human body (including the brain) develops slowly. Likewise, ‘aging’ can and should be a gradual process, allowing time for adjustment and reflection, summing-up and coming to terms with one’s life.

But it’s not all good either! Childhood is a frustrating and frightening experience for most. We came from ‘nothing’ (quite literally) and apparently, we’re going ‘nowhere’. No wonder risky behavior, delinquency, substance abuse, self-harm and even suicide are so common among young people. I blame René Descartes!

Why not? Everyone blames everything on this genius; his endurance in the cannon of philosophy is testimony to his broad shoulders. Somewhat unjustly, Descartes is blamed for the dualist notion that human beings are ‘ghosts in a machine’ (Gilbert Ryle), spiritual souls ‘trapped’ in physical bodies.

While Descartes’ model falls short in many respects, it is apt here. Children are like ageless ‘souls’ trapped inside infantile bodies. In this one very important respect, we are ‘the same’ at age 3 as we are at age 30. Imagine you’re 30 today, and then suddenly you find yourself (once again) with the body of a 3-year-old. A terrifying prospect now…a terrifying reality then! 

But we’re talking about Gestalts. So what if we could reverse the image? What if we make childhood/seniority the figure and adulthood the ground? After all, we ‘owe’ our adulthood to others: first and foremost, to our species; then to our families, our sources of income, our communities. Adulthood is ‘being-for-others; childhood and seniority are, potentially at least, ‘being for ourselves’. 

Psychoanalysis gave us the notion of a ‘latency period’, the 5 to 10 years just prior to puberty when our sexual curiosity is naturally depressed. Suppose we apply that same notion to adulthood, a ‘latency period’ of c. 40 years when our natural curiosity is artificially suppressed.  

Society gives us c. 25 years to ‘become all that we can become’; then we give back! But if we’re lucky (and many aren’t) we get to resume our journey of self-discovery on the flip side (upon retirement).


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