About the Co-Founders
My connection to The Third Act Project comes by way of a lifelong fear of old age and death — a fear that has an especially punishing edge to it when I lie down to sleep. I don’t know how it came to be inside of me, or how to make it go away – even now. But I keep hoping it will.
My father died when I was 40. He’d been wrestling with Alzheimer’s for years and finally leapt from his living room on the 22nd floor. I lay awake for a long time after that, wondering what was going through his mind when he was going through the air.
At 50 nothing much changed in the sleep department for me. Nor had anything much changed in the way I imagined getting older, that gloomy winding down toward death.
But when I came into my early 60s, and both true aging and the idea of actually dying became impossible to hide from anymore, I found myself hoping that some fundamental shift in my psyche would turn my terror to acceptance, the way one fine morning an enduring phobia up and disappears, like putting a stake through a vampire’s heart or exposing it to sunlight.
Getting to the heart of the problem meant dealing directly with the devil, taking him by the horns, and by such courage undo him. I immersed myself in the works of men who’d stared unflinchingly at the terrors of aging and death. There was much to celebrate in old age, they reported; and much to dread in the narrowing of possibility, in loss, and in sad farewells: Beauty and wisdom on the one hand; pain and sorrow on the other.
If I’d hoped that ingesting the wisdom of the ages would reconcile me to the inevitability of my own decline, I had another guess coming. Quite the opposite, in fact. It was as if I’d kicked a hornet’s nest and was now swatting wildly at a million stinging realities of imminent decline. But you know how it is sometimes when things backfire on you. You tell yourself that with all the hullabaloo you must be onto something; that the demons are jumpy and they’re doing their damnedest to scare the shit out of you to maintain their place.
Keep going, I told myself. Keep going.
Then an idea appeared. What had I been searching for but the sort of secret-of-life wisdom that might ease my troubled mind, allow me at long last to surrender peacefully to the truth of my own mortality? Exactly what other men would want!! My job would be to hit the road, search out American sages, interview them and record their words. I’d get in my station wagon and travel to towns and villages and cities in every region of America and talk to all sorts of older men: Farmers, miners, army generals, submarine commanders, astronauts, captains of industry and cruise ships, writers, artists and other explorers, cabbies and capitalists, politicos and stage performers, tradesmen and traders. I’d stream my interviews online. Maybe write a book. My mind spun with the possibilities.
Then there was the call from my dear friend Steve who wanted to know if I’d be interested in joining a group of men to discuss getting older. Are you kidding? The same group that Bill Davis calls Oldies But Goodies, has been meeting and getting older for ten straight years.
And that gave birth to the idea for The Third Act Project, an online meeting place where men could come together to share their experiences of age – as our group has done for a decade. It appears to be working. Steadily, we’re building a library of great ideas about aging from literature, philosophy, artwork and photography. And we’re generating lively conversations about every facet of the experience of growing older. Our audience has widened, the exchanges have deepened, and we are drawing men away from potential isolation into active engagement.
If there’s a silver bullet in all of this for me, it lives in Wayne Booth’s editorial narrative in his brilliant collection, The Art of Growing Older. Here the critic in his seventy-first year lays out the essential and hopeful paradox of the third act: That, even as our bodies decline, our minds, spirit, and imagination remain free to soar!
After all of this, have my sleep patterns shifted a bit? Yes. I am sometimes able to sleep five or six hours at a stretch. The middle of the night is no longer the terror it once was. As editor, curator and contributor to The Third Act Project, my business of searching out fresh sources of provocative material makes my life as a seventy-something quite fresh. Although I still long for a cross-country journey to meet older men and schmooze with them about the experiences of their third acts, it turns out that The Third Act Project is actually bringing the schmooze to me through the auspices of cyberspace.
As for a full night’s sleep, that’s what eternity’s for.
As I started to work on The Third Act Project I spent a lot of time reading about aging and getting old. I investigated a great many websites developed especially for seniors, looked at some of the available scholarly research and sampled the enormous body of literature devoted to the experience of old age. I enjoyed doing this, and was intrigued, particularly, by the contemporary emphasis on the notion that old age is, in fact, a separate state of adult development, with its own unique joys and sorrow, challenges and accomplishments. I learned that, in effect, old age can be, perhaps should be, reconstructed, as nothing to be ashamed of or depressed about; instead it should be understood, even heralded, as an opportunity to reframe your story, and in so doing connect with a new and different set of aims and motivations, satisfactions and strivings.
Altogether, I liked and appreciated these new ideas about becoming elderly. They seemed nourishing, replenishing, re-energizing. And yet, at the same time, I felt like I was struggling with the entire conception. After a while I stopped reading so much about getting old. I think that’s because the whole thing became very personal, that is, very much about me and my body, rather than a sort of neutral view of all the old guys out there. The show stopper was this: at 73, it was really me who was becoming elderly, me who was getting older, and me who was, presumably, in this new state of adult development. Whenever I started to focus on this fact I suddenly wasn’t so interested in going on, to discover more and more about what’s likely to happen to me as I age.
I guess some of this was due to the rampant ageism of my life and our times. In my culturally conditioned head, getting old has pretty much always been associated with weakness, fragility, and illness, in an increasingly relentless manner. When I started to connect with my own body, and my own well being, it was more and more difficult to keep up my intellectual attraction to the concept of a “new age” for old age; on the contrary, my off and on gut reaction was to stumble off into frightening images of inability and incompetence, and dire medical straits.
I’m sure my ambivalence about aging is going to continue. On the one hand I really do want to learn more about the process and the content that goes with getting old; but I’m not sure I can truly resolve or redirect my emotional associations with the last part of life. That old age is undeniably, the “last part” is the root of my quandary. In my experience of life, there’s always been another chance. If I was depressed, I bounced back; defeated, I figured it out; sick or injured, I got over it. I’m proud of this, that somehow, someway, I’ll get around to a solution, or a recovery, or a second wind.
But in old age you just don’t get better. The finale is absolutely guaranteed. This absolutely upends, tears apart, my deep conviction that whatever else, with some time and effort, I’ll be ok. So, what to do? And what can others do, those who experience my same blackness when they glance at the end of old age, who flinch at the same “nothingness” that seems to accompany dying?
Well (no surprise here)…one way to manage the struggle that goes with getting older, and deal with the haunting threat of increasing years is to participate in The Third Act Project. TAP provides an opportunity to talk to old men about being old and getting older, and then, about whatever else comes up. I think this opens a window on doing something really different about aging. It means a chance to join an engaging, enjoyable, thought-provoking community of like minded men. If lethal sickness and death are, ultimately, isolated, alone experiences, TAP represents, however temporarily, a life affirming connection, a safe haven inspired and maintained by the phrase, “don’t die ‘till you’re dead!”
I hope you decide to join us.
William N. Davis received his PhD in Clinical Psychology from Harvard University, and a Certificate in Psychoanalysis, Psychiatry and Psychology from the William Alanson White Institute in New York City. He spent much of his professional career studying, treating and writing about the eating disorders anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Dr. Davis was Founder or a Co-Founder of The Anorexic Aid Society, The Center for the Study of Anorexia and Bulimia, The National Eating Disorders Association, Academy of Eating Disorders, and The Renfrew Center of New York City. In addition to writing several books and numerous scholarly articles on eating disorders, and maintaining a private practice of psychotherapy, he was also Clinical Director of The Renfrew Centers, Inc.