After posting essays on aging for fifteen months, I decided to see if there is a common thread that binds them together, a set of ideas, a personal philosophy. What I discovered is a sequence of challenges. In the Eriksonian spirit, I believe that we have to meet one challenge after another in order to move with energy and integrity to the next.
Together, the sequence of challenges forms a map. The value of a developmental map is that it creates order out of our messy, complex lives. The danger is that the map oversimplifies. As Gregory Bateson insisted, “the map is not the territory.” But even though we travel in the territory in our own distinctive ways, I believe that we share a general course. That’s the idea, anyway. It will be up to you to determine if my map clarifies or muddies your own journey.
The first challenge begins before old, old age sets in. It concerns the vulnerability that is always there and simply increases with aging, the decline of our bodies, the fear that our minds will soon follow, and our uneasy place in the social fabric. The decline is inevitable. The experience of vulnerability, anxiety, and confusion almost as certain. In the face of our vulnerability, we are tempted to deny it—I’m fine, just the same as ever—or, in the opposite direction, fear it and yield to what we think are its implications too soon and too completely. The first response leads to superficiality. The second makes us old and disabled before our time.
To meet the challenge, we must learn to look at life as it is, not as it might be. We must meet difficulties without denial and with a clear, unblinking gaze. And we must meet pleasures with the same simplicity. This is the baseline for the honesty and authenticity required of aging well and to begin a journey towards wisdom. We cannot meet the other challenges until we learn to eliminate most of the distortions we have grown accustomed to.
The second challenge comes with retirement and the empty nest. These are powerful developmental passages that presage a time of unrivaled freedom and spaciousness but, almost invariably, they also demand an assessment of the life we have lived so far. Many of us are judgmental to our bones, others less so; but self-evaluation is never easy. The challenge here is examine our lives with that same clear gaze that we have learned to bring to our vulnerabilities, and to find ways to say “yes, it has been good enough.”
I may have been an imperfect parent, for example, but my children are good people and I am proud of them. That assessment means I have been good enough and I can move on. My career may have been more modest than my dreams would have had it, but it has also been “good enough” to free me from a life colored by regrets and recriminations. I might add that, whatever my life has lacked, my last fifteen years felt redeeming. During those last professional years, my focus on social justice permitted me to bring my values and my skills more closely together.
In my essay, Completing a Career, I wrote: “It was like completing a circle, from childhood to old age: living my values more deeply, more immediately, and to some effect. My parents might be proud. At last, I did too. I felt at one with myself, peaceful and fierce in my work. And ready to let it go, ready to enter the post-retirement stage of life.”
Once you have learned to see clearly and to put the past mostly in the past, the next and most enduring challenge is transform even great difficulties into positive, sometimes triumphant experience. This is the third challenge. My essays on loneliness, physical and mental decline, fear of irrelevance, and fear, among others search out pathways to such transformations.
In almost every case, I ask myself and my readers to begin by allowing themselves to fully experience their pain or confusion. The paradox here is that by resisting pain, we are stuck in it, like Brer Rabbit in molasses. The more we resist, the more it becomes an impenetrable barrier. Yielding to the pain, on the other hand, enables us to move through it into relief and joy. That was the message of “Singing the Blues,” “How Do I Know Thee: Relations With Adult Children,” and “Through the Dark and Into the Light.”
In The Freshness of Old Age, I wrote about a deep acceptance of our own, not our culture’s idea of old age. “When we slip off the strait jacket of cultural narratives and family expectations, of social prescriptions and proscriptions, even for a while, we enter a world of radical possibilities. In that world, we can experience the sunshine on our faces and the scent of the forest, the smiles of friendship and the embrace of lovers as if for the first time. That is the possibility of freedom in old age.”
You may have noticed that the map I have drawn is almost entirely about individuals, and that makes it incomplete. We are not isolated beings. Our experience of each challenge and of the entire journey is profoundly influenced by the company of others, husbands and wives, children, siblings, and friends. The experience of our vulnerability, for example, depends in part on how others respond to it. Do they worry? Do they ignore it? Do they care or not? In response, we might emphasize our ills, protect ourselves from unsolicited concern, isolate ourselves or seek the company of fellow stoics or sufferers.
So, too, retirement and empty nests take on the character of our relationships. Our ability to transform pain into triumph will depend on the attitudes of our intimates. Even dying can be as much a collective as an individual experience. Do we, for instance, let our spouses, our children, our friends know our thoughts? Will they hold us or will we insist that they “respect” our need for separateness, even as we pass away from them.
The fourth challenge, then, is, at every stage, to square away our relationships with those most important to us.
Finally, there is the fifth challenge, the great existential conundrum presented by the imminence of death, which becomes increasingly present in old age. We avoid it at the risk of becoming alienated from our selves. In the end we must make our peace with dying.
A year ago, I wrote: “That I have already lived the great majority of my life is a fact. That I am declining and, soon enough, will find myself infirm—that’s for damn sure. And I’m pretty sure that I will die one of these days. If the obituaries that I now find myself reading more closely are to be trusted, that day will come sooner than I would like.
“How I respond to these ‘facts’ though, that’s partly up to me. It’s a state of mind that can shade many ways: gloomy, sunny, ironically, matter-of-factly. I believe that I have some control over this. Victor Frankl, writing of his time in a German concentration camp, put it this way. “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 can at least try.”
There it is, then. A sequence of four challenges, each accompanied by the challenge of relationships, presenting a mighty and unavoidable obstacle course, with its pitfalls and triumphs. Do they shine a light for you? I am thinking about expanding on these thoughts in a longer piece of writing, maybe a short book, and would like to have your guidance.