Growing Old

Reflections on my 83rd Birthday

March 14, 2017

Reflections on Aging

While reflecting on aging, sensible living may have played a role, but genetic endowment and luck were more important. Contrary to what I have read other ‘seniors’ to have said, I am not proud, but instead grateful for having lived so long. I still enjoy much of life, although I miss the long walks my creaky knees now prevent. My slight hearing loss has not impaired my enjoyment of music. My old friend, the late Richard Lazarus, advised in his last book Coping with Aging, that we focus on what we still enjoy not on what we can no longer enjoy. It is easier said than done, but doable.

Gaining Perspective

Only by living so long do we have the opportunity for perspective on our life, and sometimes on life itself. It is both short from one vantage point, and if you live into your eighties it is also a long journey. For me it was long enough to accomplish what I most wanted:

• Acquiring knowledge that could help people deal with the ups and downs in their emotional lives.

When my mother sought my help hours before she took her life, I didn’t know what to do. Now I know more; perhaps not enough to rescue those who are so desperate, but sufficient to give rescuers a bit of help; at least increasing their understanding of the nature of emotions and why an overload might drive desperate acts for relief.

• Countering my father’s cruel wish: “I hope when you grow up your children will make you as miserable as you have made me.”

On the contrary, my daughter is one of the great joys of my life. I am very proud of her. Although I take no credit for her nature and important accomplishments, I believe she is my greatest gift to the world. I have been a loving father whose confidence in her was helpful to her, I hope.


I also take some satisfaction from being capable of participating in a marriage that has lasted more than thirty-seven years. I resisted the need, earlier felt strongly, to seek a mate who needed to be rescued. Instead in my fourth marriage, I chose a very capable, independent, and loving woman. I recognized that she would be a good balance to my overprotective impulses if we were to succeed in having a child.

I have been very successful in my chosen work, generating new information from areas of knowledge mistakenly abandoned by prior academics. Becoming an expert on the mechanics of facial expression and the messages that the expressions signal, has been more fun than work. And it has taken me into so many arenas: the theatrical, the political, and the artistic, to name just a few. It has been exciting, filled with adventures from hiking in the Highlands of New Guinea so I could examine expressions in what was then still a stone-age culture, to working with actors in the TV weekly show “Lie to Me,” loosely based on my life. Who would have thought?

As the saying goes, ‘knowledge is a double-edged sword’. While not my intention, the knowledge and technology I produced is being used not always to help people, but to invade their privacy for commercial or political reasons. My hope is that the good applications that flow from what I have generated outweighs the negative uses of it; but I have no control over what is done with the knowledge and tools I discovered. I admit my motivation has largely been the joy of discovery or invention.

And, it is not over yet. I eagerly wait to explore what I will find around the next corner. Onward!

Paul Ekman is a well-known psychologist and co-discoverer of micro expressions. He was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME magazine in 2009. He has worked with many government agencies, domestic and abroad. Dr. Ekman has compiled over 50 years of his research to create comprehensive training tools to read the hidden emotions of those around you.

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