The Children Within Us

I often hear friends talk about the child within them, as though there were a single, vulnerable, cuddly little person tucked inside, in need of protection.  That’s a very appealing portrait and speaks to the wish of even the toughest among us to be held—or to set free some of our less civilized impulses.  The more I think of these images, though, the more I see not one but a bevy of seemingly independent children gliding and crashing through our psychological undergrowth.

Some seem solid and enduring, part of our temperament.  For example, there’s the feisty child that is so prominent in some of us.  There are dreamy, turbulent, and solid children, too.  Think about the child who, from the age of three, seems like a little old man, whose earnest face, now in a 50-year-old, still startles us when it breaks through.  When they appear, these ‘children’ seem more like whole people than separate or even separable parts of us.

Like you, I have an affectionate relationship with some of my inside “children,” but not with all of them.  Let me illustrate.  Throughout my life, for example, I have been filled with a childlike enthusiasm that virtually takes me over when I have a new idea, a new project, a new friend.  When he takes charge, I am all action.  I gather people to me.  I think all the time.  Dream, too.  I have almost infinite energy.  I know what you’re thinking: This is a manic phase.  But it never gets crazy.  I don’t lose or alienate people or even overextend myself all that much.  I am just excited and purposeful.  I am always ready to give this child, when he wants to surface, the stage.

Here’s another.  I’m often rebellious, a contrarian, with hints of the two-year old or adolescent I once was. When in this state, which is often, I like to challenge conventional ideas and ways of doing things.  I don’t think I’m mean when this child emerges, but I’m probably difficult for those whose positions I take on.  Generally, my family and friends chuckle when they think of me in this mood.  So do many of former students.

I’m less entranced with others in my inner circle of children.  For instance, there’s the child who chronically fails to live up to expectations.  From the time I was an infant, my mother rarely held me and, by the time I was three, she insisted I be her “little man.” Need I elaborate here?  This little man marches along expecting to be put down.  No matter how much I reassure him, blame my mother, applaud his successes, he marches to his own tune.  No wonder.  Often, I reject him.  Unlike the enthusiast and the rebel, I treat him like an orphan.

And, of course, he isn’t alone.  There are numbers of little guys who threaten to emerge at the most inopportune times to embarrass or inhibit or frighten me.  More often than I’d like to admit, they stop me from doing what I want to do.  Often, I treat them as enemies.

As with real children, we don’t just leave this little nursery school untended and free to roam as they please.  They would wreak havoc if we did.  Instead, we manage them.  We teach the enthusiast how to “go crazy” in attractive ways.  We teach the contrarian how to be a charming rebel.  We even teach the orphans and enemies how to behave: when it’s alright—and with whom—to make themselves public.  There are kind people, after all, who are not put off my little man’s fear of failure and who might walk him right through the darkness and into a little bit of success.  We teach—or try to teach—the dependent child within us who is safe to approach, who likes to be depended on.

Here’s a slightly more extended illustration of management.  Many of us are easily shamed; when we close our eyes, we can feel ourselves blushing and hiding.  We feel like little children.  But over the years, we learn to shield this child by building armor, becoming secretive, anticipating and avoiding dangerous situations.  Paradoxically, we may become bold and brash.  If we maintain enough of the initiative in social settings, if we control what is talked about and done, then we are less likely to find ourselves in embarrassing situations.

The management strategies that we select depend in good part on what is culturally acceptable.  We are a culture, for example, that demands youthfulness and shuns age.  In broad strokes, then, we welcome the peppy, feisty, broadly smiling old person into almost any setting.  We don’t need to censor this child.  But the serious, watchful, vigilant child, the one who seems old before his time and reminds us of our needy, dependent future—this child we try to hide.

It’s not just the general culture that influences the gate keeping of our children within.  It is also our ability to find friends and communities who can enjoy those children, who don’t demand that we always be mature.  Take my friend, Alan.  He gets a huge chuckle when I rail against of any particular form of injustice: “Aha!  You can attack it, build a new organization, change the world.”  He loves to tease and I enjoy the teasing.

There are communities that encourage their members to be dependent because it serves group cohesion.  There are communities built on the style of their rebellious leaders, even those whose adolescent bravado is barely beneath the surface.  And there are communities that live off of the energy of their enthusiasts.

What the world wants most from its elders is dignity, compassion, wisdom, and even a youthful spirit—these are the prizes of aging, a far country from the most of the children we contain.  For the most part, most of us have internalized these values, too.  It’s what we want for ourselves.

But being children who act like…well, children, at least some of the time is unavoidable and, often enough, delightful. What, then, should we do with children, even the orphans and enemies, who still seem to demand attention and independence?  I have a few thoughts.

First, observe them.  Know them well.  And acknowledge them.  If they are still around when you are 60, 70, or 80, they aren’t going anywhere.  The very act of simple, factual, nonjudgmental observation will be comforting.

Second, manage them.  Look over your life and decide what your best strategies you have developed to protect and enjoy them—and emphasize those strategies.

Third embrace your whole self, those children and the adult you are, knowing that they are an integral part of your humanity.



The Poignancy of Old Age

Old age is hard, filled with pain, loss, and humiliation.  Shakespeare famously wrote, in “All the world is a stage”

” …The sixth age shifts

Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,

With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,

His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide

For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,

Turning again toward childish treble, pipes

And whistles in his sound.  Last scene of all,

That ends this strange eventful history,

Is second childishness and mere oblivion,

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”


Walt Whitman, among many others, followed suit:

“As I sit writing here, sick and grown old,

Not my least burden is that dullness of the years, querilities,

Ungracious glooms, aches, lethargy, constipation, whimpering,


May filter in my daily songs.


Worst of all, says Kelly Sherry, “It is the loss of possibility that murders us.”

Still, some of us hope that these trials will be balanced by the achievement of wisdom through extensive meditation, contemplation, study, and just plain experience.  To me wisdom means keeping the world and our own experience in perspective and being able to accept both as they are.  And, with that acceptance, finding a greater sense of calm and contentment.

Erik Erikson, the great psychologist of human development, characterizes the last stage of life as a battle between Integrity and despair.  We generally enter this battleground when we confront our own mortality, often following the death of a spouse or close friend or the onset of our own illness, or, more mundanely, with retirement.  The entrance can be sudden and terrifying or gradual, an ineluctable movement towards death’s door.  For some, the time to wrestle with this challenge is brief; for most of us, it may begin in our 60s and extend for decades.

Faced with our mortality, we review our lives; and if we can find a way to affirm the totality of it—without ignoring problems and failures—then we may achieve a sense of wholeness and well being and wisdom, which Erikson describes as “informed and detached concern with life itself in the face of death itself.”  Failure to resolve this final life crisis manifests itself as a fear of death, a sense that life is too short, and a fall into depression.

I remember a moment, 15 or 20 years ago, when my friend David and I, steady, if desultory, meditators in search of wisdom, decided that it wasn’t coming quickly enough and wasn’t likely to be ours.  Instead, through nervous laughter, we imagined an old age closer to adolescence, filled not with calm, but with intense and fluctuating feelings about almost everything in life.  Just the other day, after yet another meditative moment, we recalled that day and concluded that we may have been right.

It seems that my journey towards the shores of wisdom has been just that: a journey with great hopes and enough glimpses of the promised land to keep us working, but almost no chance of making a lengthy landing.  That has been disappointing.  But, to our surprise, we don’t find ourselves in despair.  Instead, we find ourselves fully engaged by the continual challenges that confront us in our 70s.

While our own culture generally paints old age in tones of gray, I have discovered vibrancy.  While poets write about the invasion of lethargy and despair, I have discovered a period that is alive with challenge. There is an intensity and urgency about it.  It is a time when many of us try to find the sense in, or meaning of, our lives.  We wonder how our children and grandchildren will turn out, whether we have made a difference to others, whether we might still be able to repair personal and social wrongs.  It is a time to be brave and as independent as possible in the face of difficulties.  All of these experiences command our attention.  We are alert.

Here’s how my friend, Harry, put it in a note he shared with me recently:

“The integrity pole pulls me toward self-scrutiny, sometimes regret for omissions and commissions/sometimes pride of experience if not of accomplishment. The feelings associated are more rounded: luck, love, sadness, patience, perspective, and good stories to tell. The despair pole brings the realization that no one wants to listen! I think a lot about identity these days (big topic), and realizing how much age is as core an identity as race, gender, and all the rest. Despair feelings are much more pointed: anger, hopelessness, suffering, and dark humor. Of course mortality is the energy beneath both.”

When I wrote about the vibrancy of old age, my brother challenged me, thinking that I was painting too rosy a picture.  Fair enough…so let me clarify.  I don’t mean that life is always good or easy.  There is pain and sorrow and fear, galore.  I do mean that so much is new, and in its newness offers opportunities for excitement, increasing depth, further understanding.

Take retirement.  Suddenly, you have lost your crowd—the people who surround and hold you, even if not always comfortably.  Your identity  is challenged.  Who are you, separate from your professional roles?  How will you fill your time?  Are you at ease just resting, not doing things that are productive?  Will hobbies suffice?  Will volunteering fill your need to “repair the world?”  Where does family come in?

If retirement brings on the chaos of new freedoms, the loss of a spouse brings another, more devastating kind of freedom.  Virtually everyone I speak to tells me how the loss tears their world asunder.  They don’t know who they are, how to spend their time.  For some, not just the future but the past become cloudy.  There is no one to hold them, comfort them, make them feel part of something beyond themselves.  And yet the struggle is also animating, bringing out the resources of these survivalists, bringing some of us relief, even liberation.  The fight to survive is far from fun but it is possible that you get to know yourself better and, with pluck and luck, come to respect yourself, at a deeper level..

Almost all relationships change during old age — sometimes dramatically.  Take the relationships that are forged with one’s children.  I am thrilled that my children have found their way, glad for the pride and freedom that development has brought them, and yet I also hate that I am not closer to the center of their lives.  I have had to absorb these new terms.  I have to stretch to embrace them.

Then, of course, there is the nearness of death itself.  The idea that we live in the shadow of death is nothing new.  Philosophers have spent lifetimes in this precarious place, seeking ways to live well within it.  Almost all of us have premonitions of the end and think to hurry our work and pleasures while there is still time.  Bucket lists, simple as they are, attest to this urgency.  For those who don’t want to be defined by decline and depression, the urgency to make something of these last years tends to increase exponentially when we reach our 60s and 70s.

Dylan Thomas urged his father not to “go gently into that good night.”  Instead he advocates rage “against the dying of the light.”  I don’t think it’s rage that most moves us but a strange combination of fear, urgency, and defiance—the sense of urgency that propels us to squeeze what we can of the life that remains.

Here’s how my friend, Pat, evokes the impact of impermanence:

“I distinctly remember when I was in my mid-20s and my children were around 4 and 2 years old.  They “were as fresh and lovely as the morning dew. I felt the desire to freeze the frame and hold onto it.  I also knew that I couldn’t.  Instead I said to myself ‘be with this as deeply as you can because this precious time will never come again.’  There have been many times since then when the same thing has happened but I notice that I am having many more of them now that I am older.   When I was younger it had to be something extraordinary or amazing that made me super aware and able to stretch out my presence.  Now just ordinary events bring on the inner voice saying, “This is it!”   I am increasingly aware of the poignancy of impermanence.”

And I am increasingly aware of the need to embrace this poignancy.