Hiding in Plain Sight: Leaders in Our Midst

There are certain people who touch the lives of others, some lightly, some deeply, seemingly without effort or without concern for their own standing.  To me, they more closely resemble the flight of bees fertilizing one flower after another than the deliberations of those in search of influence.  Some are my friends.  Others are strangers who have fascinated me throughout my life.

James Agee wrote a wonderful book called Let us Now Praise Famous Men.  Instead of the famous men that the title suggests, the book is about Alabama share croppers during the Great Depression, whose humanity he captured in the most concrete yet profound way.  He said of his book that it was an “inquiry into certain normal predicaments of human divinity.”  I have something like that in mind.  I want to write about the seemingly ordinary people who serve their communities in extraordinary ways and with humility, dignity, and passion.

In the near future, I’m going to begin a series of interviews with vibrant older people who have sustained their community engagement and influence well into their old age.  I am using the word ‘community’ broadly to include actual neighborhoods but also other groupings, like the GLBTQ, religious groups, people with a hearing loss, artists, and even professional groups.

The purpose of the project is to understand and celebrate leaders, some hardly known, others with some renown, who are so vital to their communities.  By leader, I mean a person, most of all, who gets things done, usually as a catalyst, sometimes as an inspiration, occasionally as a manager, but always to the benefit of the many, a person who others look up to or admire, a person who matters to the community.

People like the Kelly’s (a pseudonym, because I haven’t yet asked their permission to use their real names), of whom my friend, Bill Walczak, a great community organizer himself, writes:  They are “an amazing couple in Codman Square, beacons of hope in hopeless times, who have been the bedrock of that community, and the couple who, through goodness and example, kept their neighborhood from blowing up in the 70s and 80s when racial change occurred in the neighborhood.  They invited new black families and couples to pizza dinners at their house to introduce them to their new neighbors, integrating newcomers of all sorts into the fabric of that community when busing was tearing it apart. Kevin started the Codman Square Health Center with me.  Kevin and May are people who continue to make a huge difference in their 80s, and maintain their optimism and hope, despite their own son getting murdered about 20 years ago.  Lots of people tell me that they “want to be Kevin and May” when they grow up/get older.”

People like Lauren Hatch, who I first met about twenty years ago when she was leading an organization that housed, educated, and found jobs for homeless women in one of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods, Dorchester, Massachusetts.  Today, Lauren is no longer heading up an organization but works tirelessly in the same arena, now happy to assist all the official leaders in the community by mentoring and connecting them.

I have put out the word to friends and colleagues to identify these industrious souls and to introduce them to me.  Already my interview schedule is burgeoning.  But I want to know about as many of these leaders as I can.  So I’m asking you, my readers, to introduce me to them, to tell me their stories—or your stories.   And, if there’s someone you particularly want me to meet, introduce us.

I will be describing what I learn in my blog and, if I can find the stamina, in a book that features the sustaining power of these aging ‘local’ leaders.

In the meantime, here are some of the qualities that I have discovered so far and that I find so intriguing.  Maybe the most remarkable quality that these elders bring to their work is a rare combination of freshness and perspective.  You’d expect the perspective.  They’ve been fighting the good fight for ages, seen ups and downs, strategies that succeed and fail, people who join and those who reject their missions.  But the sustained enthusiasm and the pleasure in the work for its own sake that they bring to their missions after all these years is so admirable to me.

Like Camus’ Sisyphus, they have learned to act well and act decisively in a world that seems absurd.  They have lived through economic depressions and natural disasters.  They face opposition that makes no sense to them.  They might may say that we need more jobs, better health care, and better schools for people and think “No one could disagree.”  How could they?  But people do—under  the banner of lower taxes or fear of strangers in their land—that’s code for people of color.  The community leaders might answer that “It will help your children, too.”  For whatever reason, the opposition can’t factor that in, and you could tear your hair out.  Even so, the community leaders that I have met move on, with less confusion and less anger than when they were younger.  They’ve seen this before.  They know how to take the high road.

Of course, the elder leaders have their setbacks, feel discouraged and blue.  But the ones who keep on going into old age seem to have a resilience and a capacity for affirmation that is rare.  ”This, too, shall pass,” they say.  They have learned to work through the darkness and into the light.

The role that they play most often and best is that of mentoring the young and idealistic leaders who cross their paths.  I think of people like Hubie Jones, who, in his day, built and led innumerable nonprofits but, somewhere in his seventies, called an end to formal leadership.  In its place, he set up shop in a little office in City Year, whose leaders he has supported for decades, and “receives” visitors in search of his wisdom and in the hope that he will “lay on the hands,” will give legitimacy to your efforts through association with him.  I know because I was one of those visitors, even though I was already sixty when we began to talk.

I’ve noticed in myself and others a withdrawal from formal leadership roles, which seem to have lost their appeal.  I am grateful, for example, to have Yolanda Coentro lead the organization I founded (Institute for Nonprofit Practice) and grateful, too, that Mark Rosen serves as Board Chair.  In place of those formal leadership roles, many older leaders have discovered their places in a less defined but very fulfilling set of roles: mentoring and encouraging and connecting younger people.  Isn’t that how it should be?

No doubt, there are other qualities of elder leadership that I will learn about during the upcoming interviews; but this should give you an idea about what makes them special and why we should celebrate their efforts.

 

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Letter to My Granddaughter

Dear Molly,

A couple of weeks ago, you wrote to tell me that you’re taking a history seminar on the 1960’s, that transformational decade.  You needed to do some interviews, you said.  “How about you, Grandpa?”  Naturally I loved the idea, loved that you asked, loved getting to know you better in an adult-to-adult way.  But as a relic, a remainder from antediluvian times?  A living historical archive?

Truth be told, Molly, I wasn’t outraged at all.  I have come to relish the view of myself as a man in the midst of a long, long journey, mostly with my eyes open.  As I’ve traveled, I’ve sometimes felt at home, a loving American patriot, and sometimes like a stranger in my own world.  And here’s a key point: My sense of belonging depended not so much on my own stage of personal development as on my assessment of American culture at any given point in time.

Let me give you a broad sense of my journey.  I have vague memories of people rejoicing on the streets of New York during Victory Europe (VE) Day, 1945.  I was three and the imagery from that day feels like a series of snapshots.  But by 1948, when my family moved from the Bronx to Long Island, pioneers of the urban exodus, the memories are more continuous, more like a motion picture.  As I look back  I can almost see headlines about the Korean war and the anguish of the adults who witnessed it.  I remember the McCarthy-fueled Red Scare of the early 1950’s and the first marches on Washington for the civil rights of Black people.  That was in 1956 and I traveled with a bus filled almost exclusively with African American teenagers, listening during the long rides to their songs.  And finally joining in.

I was already a grown man during the long, torturous days of the Vietnam War, then, much later, the trumped up accusations of weapons of mass destruction to justify the attack on Iraq.

And I’m just getting started.  My parents bought the first television on our block. That was 1949.  I remember when the Russians put Sputnik into space in 1957, creating an outcry of fear and anger throughout America; then being put into small, advanced math and science classes created to help us catch up to the evil Soviet empire.  We young people would have to hurry up.  Then there were the first space ships circling the earth, the first computers, which would have made typing my doctoral dissertation so much easier.  Soon there was email that my political and professional activities required, even though I fought it every step of the way.  By then, technology was moving too fast for me and I had become a stranger in my own land.

It wasn’t just the constant change and innovation that formed my generation—what they now call pre-boomers—but the way that we were steeped in the values and experiences of the 1930’s, truths that we took in from our parents like direct transfusions of blood.  The Great Depression that began in 1929 wasn’t history to us.  The financial anxiety and general prudence that it created defined our own life styles.  The Holocaust may have been stopped by 1945 but, as a Jew, the feelings it generated were still raw, the fears still live.  As the children of the generation that was formed by those events, we, much like our parents, were steeped in its wariness and prohibitions.

But the generation born before or during World War II were also children of the American dream.  Paradoxical as it may seem, I think we were more optimistic than any generation since.  We were defined by a belief that, if we worked hard, very hard, we could achieve any goals we set for ourselves—or any goals that our parents, who had lost so much during the Depression had set for us.  That belief was both personal and political.  We believed in progress, that, for each generation, life would get better and better—especially for poor people, Black people, and Brown people—because we would make it so.  That’s how the idea of progress ruled our hearts and minds.

Many of us lived for decades in that happy belief.  We knew that there would be set backs—like the damage of the Vietnam War and periodic economic recessions—and we knew that some benefited from progress more than others—but we saw those set backs and injustices as obstacles that we would eventually overcome.

Our profound optimism began to erode during the last couple of decades, during the presidencies of Reagan and the Bushes and culminating with Donald Trump.  It seemed that our economic largesse was increasingly devoured by the wealthy, that the idea of heroic wars in defense of freedom had fallen to cynical, imperialistic wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Panama and Yemen—to defend our material interests.  Political discourse was balkanized, racism was revitalized, and the only people who pursued what looked like an idealistic agenda were the “hard right” and the evangelical Christians, who were not so happy sharing it with people who didn’t look like them.  Our Presidents and their “bases” were willing to let our infrastructure, our climate and our commitment to basic democratic values rot.

By 2015, I found myself writing in my journal that I was “tormented by what is happening in America,” the country whose core promise of liberty, equality, and justice so closely mirrored my own, the country I had loved so deeply for 70 years.  I wondered if the damage was beyond repair. I was tempted to retreat into myself and my personal development.

But, I have to tell you, Molly, that I don’t think my despair is worthy of you and your generation.  In the midst of the current rubble there are so many seeds of hope, so many young people living into their dreams, which are the same American dreams that motivated my generation.  Instead of retreating, I formed an organization to train idealistic and very diverse young people in organizational and community leadership.  That turned out to feel redemptive to me and, I hope, to them.

Do you know that, even in retirement, I still mentor many of those young people, who make me believe that our society may be circling back to its better self.  My students work on behalf of foster children, abused children, and children who have been denied the opportunities that good educations afford.  Students work for affordable housing, immigrant rights and disability rights, and environmental protection.  They work with limited financial rewards towards goals of equality and the right of all Americans to social, economic, and political opportunity.

I have come to believe that they have the power to “bend the arc” of our tormented country back in the direction of justice.  They make me experience my own life, not as having lived under the false god of progress but as part of a cadre of people who retain their optimism and fire in the face of great odds.

I know that your heart lives in this same place and my hope, dear Molly, is that you will join us.

Love,

Grandpa

When We Summon Our Dear Ones

With glistening eyes, Lily told us this story: A friend’s mother, still lucid but dying, summoned her dear ones to share her last days with her and with one another.  I know neither daughter nor mother but found myself close to tears, choked up and unable to speak.  The same was true for others who listened to Lily tell her story.  There is something about the word ‘summoned,’ something about being summoned that is immensely evocative.

I picture an elderly woman with clear and commanding eyes and a strong, almost stern, expression on her face.  She’s resting in a large bed, covered very neatly with sheets and blankets.  She tells us that her time has come, that life has been filled with struggles and joy, with beauty and terror—just like this exact moment.  And she accepts this moment.  She accepts the finality.  She wants us to accept it too because, in its acceptance is the secret to a good life.

Of course, I have extrapolated this scene, constructing it in my own image and according to my own desires.  It’s an effort to explain to myself—and to you—what made Jenny’s story so powerful.

But my response may, in large part, be the simple awe that the word to “summon” evokes.  The dictionary tells us that it means to “authoritatively or urgently call on (someone) to be present.”  To me, it has a biblical and mythic feel to it.  Moses summons the Israelites when he descends from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments.  Jesus summons his disciples at key moments.  In Islam, the “Da’wah” of Mohammed literally means issuing a summons or making an invitation.  In every case, a summons brings you into the presence of someone or some thing that is sacred and that speaks directly to the core of your being.

When God calls Moses, Moses answers: “I am here.”  He’s not talking about mere physical presence; not even normal attentiveness.  Moses signals that he is entirely present, with all of his senses.  Every fiber of his being is prepared to receive the word of God.  Here, then, is one of the keys to understanding a summons.  It isn’t just the august quality of the summoner.  It is, equally, the quality of our response.  Our response creates or fortifies a relationship, like no other in its intensity.  The connection is profound.

In all of the Western and Middle Eastern traditions, the connection is first initiated by a prophet, then built into a covenant between the prophet and his followers.  In its simplest sense, a covenant is an agreement among people.  But it isn’t the same as a contract, a quid pro quo among people that says “I’ll do this if you do that,” and can be severed at each person’s will.  It is stronger because it involves a third party — shared principles, or revered witnesses, and, in some cases, God.  Leader and followers are bonded together to serve, not only themselves but a higher purpose.

And it involves what Jews, the “people of the covenant,” call chesed, or loving kindness, which means that all transactions among the covenanted people must be infused with this spirit.

Among the most distinctive qualities of the covenantal relationship is that it is freely chosen.  Yes, there is compliance.  Lily’s friend complies with her mother’s powerful summons.   There is even submission.  We submit to the will of the summoner.  So, too, will the people of Israel, Jesus’ disciples, and Mohammed’s followers. This speaks to a powerful human urge, not often articulated in contemporary society, to submit to someone or something that is more knowing and more powerful.  There is relief.  Ah, we don’t have to struggle.  We don’t have to find our own way, at least not alone.  And there is an almost luxuriant pleasure in the surrender.

Yet, the compliance takes on its special meaning because it is chosen.  We are not required to surrender.  We can take another path.  But we don’t.  We choose to submit to the will of another.  And the act of choosing is exhilarating.  We want to leap and yell and laugh with the freedom of the moment.

For some of us, joining these two ideas, freedom and submission, seems confusing.  But living this paradox is at the heart of most religious practice.

So far, I’ve been talking about the person who responds to the call, but what about the person who summons others.  It may be the image of Lily’s friend’s mother summoned her flock that first drew me into this subject, but what does she feel and what might I feel in those final moments?

There she was, in her last moments, not even a religious person, not a person who believed in the afterlife.  In the spirit of dust-to-dust, she is about to disappear.  And, at that moment, she chooses to summon family and friends.  She is powerful enough to do so.  She believes in herself enough to do so.  Imagine: even as she departs, there is efficacy and dignity and the freedom to choose her way to die.

When my day comes, I want to be like this woman.  I want to be lucid and I want to love and be loved by family and friends right up to the end.  But there’s more.  I want to believe that I can summon them to my bedside, not to offer last words of wisdom, but to be with them: to laugh and cry together and to hold one another.  For me, that is a breathtaking image, as vivid and poignant as any afterlife could offer.

 

Alive, Alive! Reflections on a Long and Beautifully Observed Life

The support of friends has been vital to my blogging journey.  Recently, my friend Michael sent me a poem by Stanley Kunitz.  The poem is called The Layers, and Kunitz wrote it during his late 70’s.  It speaks with the wisdom of years and a beautifully observed life.   At the end of these notes, I have copied The Layers  in its entirety.

When I admire a work of art or philosophy, I often begin a conversation with it, partly to understand it better and partly to understand myself better.  Since I so enjoy these internal conversations, I thought you might, too.  So I’ve written them down for you to listen in—and to join into the conversation with your own responses.

The Layers, by Stanley Kunitz    https://www.amazon.com/Collected-Poems-Stanley-Kunitz/dp/0393322947

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,

These opening lines are so resonant for me that they feel like my own, except that they are so much more beautifully crafted than anything I write.

I’m a reflective person and, like Kunitz, virtually “see” myself as both an insider and an outsider as I travel through life.

My life has been so intertwined with others—friends and family and the many, many lives of clients, mentees, and students who have enlivened my days—that it’s sometimes hard to distinguish whose life I’m thinking about.  Their stories and mine intermingle.  That’s especially true when I tell stories aloud.  Standing outside, I can see that I sometimes include images and words that may have first belonged to others.  I can’t entirely tell. That makes my journey not so individual, not just mine but some kind of amalgam.  It makes my individual story, somehow, more universal.

and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.

My life now and the way I view it is different than it was in the past.  I see events, both contemporary and historic, differently.  I see myself differently.  This is both a liberating and a frightening way to see the world.  But it is also frightening.  I want there to be a me that has also been constant.  Without that constancy or core, what Kunitz calls “a principle of being,” I could hardly claim a self.  Like Kunitz, “I struggle not to stray” too far from that core.

Kunitz struggles with dualities as I do: the changing and the constant or eternal self; the present and past self; a steady journey, as if towards a predetermined destination, and an indeterminate journey, marked by chance and discovery.

Even as Kunitz touches on the most intimate subjects, the poetic voice that we encounter in this poem lacks specificity.  Who is the speaker?  We don’t know who he is, or even if it is a ‘he’ talking to us.  This also lends a universality to the poem.  The voice is casual, like that of a friend but it also comes to us from on high or beyond our lives.  Again, I identify.  When I have insights about human nature, part of me knows they are just my own but, as with Kunitz, they feel distinct and universal at the same time.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.

This is a beautiful evocation of a future whose time is narrowing.  All of us who have passed the 60 or 70 year mark feel this.

And the “dwindling” of milestones?  I understand that it helps to gather the lessons of the past in order to move ahead more knowledgeably, more confidently.  But it also seems true that many of the great events of our past—the real and psychic places we camped—lose some of their potency with the distance.  They are fires still but dimmer than before because they have lost their fuel, thus are not as likely to animate our present.

Even our most personal past has been picked over by others, as if our identity could be taken over by our children, our students, our friends.  When we are gone, it is the stories they tell about us that will be what is left of us.  To the extent that others have absorbed our stories, they will have, metaphorically speaking, absorbed us.  They will be traveling through our lives, picking and choosing what they need and want complete their own identities.

Why “heavy wings?”  I can only think that the absorption into others weighs heavily on Kunitz.  I imagine how we play in our children’s lives, in the stories they tell about us—mostly in terms of how we have influenced them.  It is their lives that are important, and that’s as it should be.  Our stories may be, will be, meaningful to them, dynamic to them, but not as dynamic as the stories are to us.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!

I love this line.  It has a double meaning.  I have brought others into my life, creating a tribe within me.  I include all the others.  I have no self that is not influenced by them.  They are an integral part of my very being. They are me.  At the same time, they are outside of me.

People who have been important to me are scattered all over.  No one else could or would care to see the unity of the ‘tribe,’ since it only exists in relation to me.  This is true for all of us.  We have a network, a tribe, of others, most of whom have no relation to, maybe even no knowledge of, the others.  Yet I only walk the earth in relation to them.  They are my tribe.  What an image!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.

I retain the members of my tribe but I have also lost them.

I cannot know myself, for example, without knowing my father and his relation to me and his relation to my mother, brother, sister, uncles, aunts, and to his work.  But he is also gone, his loss in 1968 the single greatest trauma of my life.  There have been many losses.  At times, they gather and dance around me, then flee like leaves blown randomly, stinging my face.  Both keeping them and losing them is terribly painful, even now.

There’s a paradox, though: the losses also represent a feast.  The people we have lost represent the greatest riches of our lives.  The course and meaning of our lives are nothing without them.  I am reconciled to the losses by embracing them.

Other civilizations find better ways to keep the dead close, and those who still join in traditional mourning rituals, like Judaism’s eleven months of daily prayer for the dead, know how to hold their dear ones close, even as they let them go.  But, by and large, modern American society lacks ritual and ancestor worship.  Most of us must find our own way to mourn and treasure our past.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.

Without denying the importance of my tribe and those who are gone, I move forward with spirit, exultation even, and with great anticipation of each new experience.  I even keep adding to my tribe.  There are new friends, new companions.  I know that life’s fires are mostly behind me.  I know that for every person and experience I get attached to, there will be pain in leaving them—or in being left—but, still, I look forward to all the new experiences that I will encounter.  It is possible that, because I know how many fewer they will be, I will find them even more precious that those of the past.

For me, these lines represent the major turning point in the poem.  Not only do we face forward but we do so with excitement and pleasure.  This is one of the great discoveries of old age: the surprises at every turn.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.

Here is the poem’s title so I know that these lines are important.  Kunitz alerts us by naming a voice from above, a nimbus-clouded voice.  It instructs us to focus powerfully on what is most essential—maybe referring back to “the principle of being” at the beginning of the poem.  Be true to ourselves and to our values.  Live where there is greatest nurturance.  Live where we are most alive. We may consist of many selves but there probably is some sense of self that is deeper, more enduring, and more alive than all the others.

With time dwindling it becomes ever more important to spend our energies on what is most important, most essential to our being.  We need to forget the litter of failures and false leads and superficial satisfactions—and focus, as intensely as we can, on the deepest, arterial flow of our lives. Our life blood.
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

This is easy to identify with.  Even as I communicate with Kunitz, I know that I lack his art, and I know that I lack the ability to articulate the most profound lessons of life—even those I sense, even those I can almost describe.

What could he mean by “already written’ though?  I have long loved the notion of imminence, a present, partially known sense of what is about to happen, what I am about to become.  It is as though I can feel the future, which is already growing very strong within me.  And yet, it is also mysterious.  I can’t know the future fully.  That is the magic of life if you look closely.  You are always yourself yet always changing, always new—transformed.  In that way, life is always a creative act if we take care to see it.

I’m not done with my changes, either.

 
The Layers, Stanley Kunitz

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.”
 

 

 

 

 

 

Mature Adaptation: It’s Not What It’s Cracked Up To Be

Franny and I just returned from a trip to the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where we walked and walked in the Yosemite Valley, gazing in awe at the granite monoliths, El Capitan, Cathedral Mountain, and the Half Dome, soaring 3,000 feet above.  Sometimes we dared a little more, climbing 1,200 feet to the source of the Vernal Falls, where water rushes with terrifying beauty to the Valley floor.  Then we moved on to the Eastern Sierra, where trail heads begin at 10,000 feet, permitting us to hike into the back country, above the tree line and into basins filled with lakes and fields of flowers and rimmed by snow covered peaks.

For more than thirty years, until 2007 or so, I had relished grueling, week-long backpacking trips with my friend, Carter, and my brother-in-law, Steven.  This is where I had been most peaceful.  The mountains, huge and uncaring, dwarfed me.  I felt insignificant, a speck in a world too large to comprehend.  At first, this was frightening and I wanted to flee.  But then I grew absorbed in the vast silence.  I became nothing.  And in that moment of alpine magic, I would emerge on the other side, somehow part of it all and at peace.

I know that one of the keys to this feeling of peace is the exhaustion that is achieved by hiking, generally with fifty pounds on my back, with brief moments of rest, from seven in the morning until three in the afternoon.  The effort quiets my body and I am happy to be still.  It is in that stillness that my heart opens to whatever transcendent inclinations dwell in my soul.

Now, at seventy-five, my expectations are more modest.  Leading up to the trip, I had wondered about that left knee which I have been planning to replace.  I had been convinced that my conditioning, honed on flat walks and the slight ups and downs of Lexington streets, would not prepare me for anything rigorous.  I had feared that I might lose the beauty of the mountains to dull and repetitive reflections on aches and aging.  I’d pay more attention to the pain of the day pack on my shoulders and the panting of my lungs than the Ponderosa pines and the reflection of the mountains painted in pastels on the lakes.

But I was wrong.  Even if I can’t’ be as absorbed as I was before, I can walk with pleasure and enjoy the beauty that is all around me. Much to my surprise and delight, I felt healthy; and I began to contemplate greater challenges, trusting that my body would hold up to the exhaustion that opens my heart.  At least I could take that chance.

As I opened myself to this possibility, I wondered whether, in the name of mature adaptation to the “realities” of aging, I had been giving up too soon.  Had I let my ideas about age dominate me, misreading aches and pains as signposts to premature resignation?  Could I have been hiking for the last ten years?  Playing tennis, even as my knees and back yelp?  Couldn’t I have let them yelp and moved on?  At a lesser pace to be sure but without stopping?  Did I retire too soon last year when I could have simply worked half or quarter time?  Could I dip deeply into a new craft like photography or painting?

Mature adaptation sometimes represents an excuse for yielding to many of the doubts and fears that have been there all along.  During my younger hiking days, for instance, I was also afraid of injury.  During the nights, awake in my tent, I was often frightened—bears or snakes or unknown creatures might invade—and counted the hours to morning’s light.  During the last decades of my working life, I was afraid that I had not accomplished enough, that I’d end my work life feeling like a failure, and that it would be easier to simply stop working in order to make the doubts go away.

I looked forward to retirement, when I could make a final assessment of work, accept it and put aside my doubts.  I could grade myself and let it be.  I could stop asking myself whether I was somebody or nobody, a good or bad person, a resource or drain on society.  Mature adaptation has partly meant “parking” my doubts.  It has also meant yielding to some of the darker forces that have been there all along.  I think we do that in old age—maybe because we are naturally more anxious and more “realistic,” but maybe, too, because we are following a cultural prescription that has led us astray.

The problem with parking my doubts is that it also requires me to park the daring and adventure that have provided the spice of my life.  Even when we venture forth into new activities during our later years, activities like writing, painting, photography, meditation, and deep study, we tend to do so in the spirit of hobbies and without the passion, the sense of importance, that we might have brought to new ventures earlier in life.

Don’t get me wrong.  There is virtue in mature adaptation to aging.  It has permitted me to focus on what I can do—reading and writing and good relations with family and friends—instead of what I can’t.  It has, in fact, allowed me to be less judgmental about myself.

And I’m not advocating defiance, alone, as an alternative to adaptation.  It’s alright to “rage against the dying of the light,” but not as a steady diet, not if it distracts you from the joys and the distinctive pleasures of old age—like wisdom and relaxation.  However romantic, a steady diet of defiance can be a bore.  Resistance, alone, blocks the sun.

I do want to resist the easy forms of resignation that the cultural narrative of old age has prescribed; but I don’t want to become consumed by resistance to that narrative.  I don’t want to be silly, either, like wearing clothing meant for young people or seeking bars and restaurants that overwhelm me with their noise.  I’m not interested in technical climbing on high cliffs or training for the Ironman Marathon competition.

So what’s the best compromise between stretching yourself and maturely resigning to your limitations.  You’ll never know if you don’t keep trying to move beyond your fears, beyond the lowest level of effort and daring.  I like the idea of extending myself before pulling back, and then drawing conclusions.

 

 

 

Resolving Competing Desires Within Ourselves

During the early summer, I decided to begin a conversation group to explore the meaning of aging.  Lots of people responded to my announcement and, before I knew it, two groups of ten had signed up to meet for ten sessions, one consisting of individuals, the other of couples.  My aim as facilitator was in good measure selfish.  I wanted to learn how people were thinking about the concerns that have absorbed me for the last several years.  This Wednesday, we had our first meetings.

Almost everyone was in their seventies, with a few outliers in their late fifties and early eighties.  They entered my living room eagerly, with few signs of the jitters that generally accompany the beginning of groups where people are asked to share private and often unresolved feelings.  The quality of respectful and deep listening was extraordinary, frequently balanced by moments of humor that helped to maintain a protective early distance from some of the deeper feelings.  We got right down to business.

The discussions ranged broadly between people’s hopes and anxieties, between practical and idealistic goals, between observations and resolutions.  I was struck, in particular, by each person’s wish—or need—to resolve certain core and competing desires.  It seems to me that the way that we explore and resolve these competitions will shape the way we live the rest of our lives.  Here are three of those pairs.

Vulnerability versus the strength to explore.  Virtually every group member commented on his or her increasing vulnerability, mostly due to physical decline and, at the same time, the desire not to be dominated by it.  At a certain age, almost everyone has something: arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, knees, hips, and shoulders to be replaced; memory loss.  There are endless bad jokes that we share about spending so much time at doctors’ offices that we had to retire in order to attend them.  Almost as bad as the illnesses, themselves, is the creeping sense of fragility.  “I shouldn’t do this or that,” for example, “because I might injure myself.”  At the same time, there is a fierce desire that group participants expressed to try new activities, to travel, to build, to paint, to push themselves—to explore new ground.

Where, we ask, is the best balance between realistic self appraisal and the adventure that has become possible with the free time that retirement affords?  How can we accept the limitations that are real without yielding prematurely to resignation (and sometimes despair) at the losses exacted by our vulnerability?

Being alone and loving the silence versus the desire for activity and company.  As one participant put it, “I’m a doer, always on the go.  All my life I’ve been busy, busy, busy. Now that I have time, I sometimes savor the quiet that I find in doing nothing; I am comforted by the solitude I had always feared.”  And yet, when sitting quietly, she gets antsy pretty quickly, aware of things she “needs to do”—or inventing things that would save her from the loneliness or “indulgence” of sitting alone.

As the years of retirement pass, she and others find themselves getting better at sitting still and sitting alone, more able to tolerate the internal demons that had long hurried them into activity even when none was required.

But the desire for company never fades very far.  Two kinds of company especially came to the fore.  First, there was the company of strangers, people to join you in new experience.  Buddies.  People virtually glowed when talking about this kind of companionship.  Second—and this was especially true in the couple group—people talked about the profound comfort of old companions.  “We’ve taken this journey together for a long time,” they said.  “It would be so much harder at this stage to go it alone, so much deeper to do together.”

The desire to stretch versus the desire to rest and be peaceful.  One member talked about the ambitious plans he had built for his retirement, plans to write and produce a play that he’d been dreaming about for decades.  Yet when retirement came, he found himself reading deeply and exercising with a pleasing discipline.  Nothing creative, as he had imagined.  Yet he’s “never been happier” in his life.  Bucket lists for travel and creative activities are common to retirees.  Some ask us to stretch ourselves, to do things we had only dreamed of and never found the time for.  Stretching takes energy and daring, though, and many retirees are tired or tired of having to produce and to be judged by what they produce.

Forsaking those dreams can feel like a betrayal of self.  Or, in the case of our participant, it can feel like a tremendous relief, just to be oneself, just to rest, to step outside of judgmental arenas, even when they are positive, and pursue, instead, the pleasures that he had put off.  He anticipated that his “sloth” would bring a sense of failure, a painful disappointment in himself but, instead, he found a rhythm of living that he hopes to sustain for years to come.

This is not an all or nothing competition, though.  Each of us need to find a way to stretch enough to feel more fully alive and to move far enough from the fray far to be more at peace with ourselves.  The only way to find the balance between the two is to experiment.

I suppose that the idea of experimentation is not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about old age but, in fact, it is one of the experiences that most defines this period.  As one of my blog readers put it, “I am coming to thinking of ‘aging’ having much in common as going with of adolescence—a sense of knowing that one is crossing a bridge or maybe better yet a high wire….sometimes exciting, sometimes challenging and sometimes downright scary….. And above all – eye-opening!”

This list of competing desires is hardly exhaustive but provides an enlightening sample of themes in need of resolution during our later years.   It has always seemed helpful frame life’s hurdles in a way that encourages resolutions.  I look forward to learning about ways that you have managed or resolved them.

Meeting the Five Challenges to Aging Well

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.