I’ve been thinking about aging a great deal these days. No surprise, of course. This month I’ll turn seventy-four. It’s a subject that almost everyone over fifty thinks about. Some with trepidation, some with pride, some with foreboding, others with a sense of having come a long way.
When you add death to the mix, the numbers rise exponentially. Everyone thinks about death. Everyone wonders what happens after death, if anything. There are many psychologists who believe that our attitude towards death shapes our lives. For instance, if you think about and fear death, you might live cautiously. But another way to adapt to death’s inevitability is to become a risk take, a daredevil. Why not? You’re going to die anyway. If death seems like a friend in hard times, your might court it. And if death seems far, far away, then you might live your life a little more freely.
When you get older, death almost always becomes more defining, more front and center. My friend David and I have meditated and contemplated together for twenty-five years. As time went by, we found ourselves wondering and complaining about aging and dying so frequently that we gave it a name, George, and assigned a big old chair as death’s representative. George has become both a warning and a friend to
Don’t expect morbid ruminations from me or, likely, from my friends. Aging is the pond I live in, and my life has a great deal of variety to it, much of it very satisfying. There’s no doubt that I am preoccupied with the gnarling of my fingers, my inability to play tennis or run four miles each day. I loved doing those things. No doubt that I read the obituaries, feeling relieved to see a death at eighty-seven—coincidentally the age of my mother’s death—and nervous about those who die at a younger age. But proud, too—as if, by living longer, I have accomplished something. Just yesterday, I was exhilarated by a two hour hike up and down a mountain side in France. I retired a few weeks ago and I’ve begun blogging, which I find as exciting as a child finds a new toy. I’m probably just as silly when I play with or talk about it.
I’m not seeking any universal truth about aging. People experience aging in a great variety of ways. I resent people trying to impose their meaning onto my experience. I’d rather they listen to my distinct experience, then share their own.
I’m not writing a self help manual. I’ll be trying to describe and ruminate on my own experience. I don’t believe we can make ourselves over. To some extent, we are who we are. But I do believe that we have the power to shape our experience somewhat. In his story about life in concentration camps, Victor Frankl puts it this way:
“The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. … Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress….Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
I’ll be writing about aging, not from the perspective of a researcher, though there was a time when I was pretty up on the research. I’ll be a participant observer. I’ll be noting what I see and what I experience and trying to make meaning of it. For instance, when I walked the hills in France this month, I surprised myself. The surprise isn’t in the act itself, but against the backdrop of my virtually giving up such walks. So I have my experiences, my expectations—the stories I tell myself in advance—and my efforts to reconcile the two.
Let me give you an idea about what I mean. I have an idea about what I can or should be able to do at seventy four. Does chronological aging move in lock step with lost capacity? Not exactly. It is too easy to conflate age with all that ails me. I’ve had problems before. I had problems when I was young. I’ve not just begun to be anxious about my ability to do this or that. I am always interpreting my actual experience—so much so that it’s hard to just observe myself in anything like an objective way. But, that day, I could see that I could hike more than my fearful story had led me to believe.
Here is the sequence of mental activities. First, there’s the story I have before an experience. Second, there’s the experience that I actually have. Third, I measure myself against these both the story and the experience. In this case, I was pretty pleased with my climb. Then, fourth, I had to adjust by expectations, change my story about myself. “I shouldn’t give up so quickly,” I told myself. “I need to try hard before accepting my limitations.” There is so much I have to reconcile and to keep reconciling in order to be up to date with myself. It takes a lot of work being me. I suspect you work just as hard.
There are so many themes that take this form: am I thinking as clearly? Do I matter to people as much, now that my children are grown and I’m not working at a productive job? How productive should I be? How relaxed is too relaxed? Everyone tells me I’ve earned my relaxation but I find some work more relaxing than laying around. To that end, I began a blog just as I was retiring.
Here’s another typical theme that gets played out all the time: what should I resign myself to? Resignation seems negative, pessimistic. What should I accept so that I can move on to other things? Declining physical prowess, for instance. Unlike resignation, acceptance, even of very hard things, like the death of a spouse, seems liberating. There is a great, almost magnetic pull towards resignation, and there is no doubt that I have resigned myself to many physical limitations. But it may be that resignation is a stage, a sour stage, that comes before acceptance, which is more peaceful. Maybe I need to feel the pain of loss before I can move into the peace of acceptance. And with acceptance, I can find new ways to feel good about life. Probably I’ll need to keep both strategies at the ready.
I hope you’ve got the feel of these letters and I want to suggest how we can build a relationship around them. My intention is to tackle themes that readers can relate to—little things like making a new acquaintance or being discouraged by aches and pains, and big things like exciting discoveries or terrible losses.
I would love you to participate: either actively by writing back to me or privately in your own mind or with your own friends. With your permission, I’ll publish what you write to me. With luck, we’ll get a dialogue going that many of our contemporaries can identify with and connect around.