The Comfort of Growing Old Together

Almost 30 years ago I wrote a book with my friend, Michael Glenn.  We called it Couples and it painted a picture of couple development in three stages.  I was 45 when I first hit on this theory and, callow youth that I was, I paid little attention to the experience of older couples.  These days my focus has unavoidably shifted.  I’m eager to share what I’ve been learning.

Then as now, the cultural narrative for couples—implicit prescriptions for success and failure—was almost impossibly demanding.  Historically, marriage was a contractual arrangement, mostly concerned with economic matters, the production of children, and the alliance of extended families.  In modern times, the narrative has grown more personal, including early romance, the need to feel loved and cared for, and a looser, and a more negotiated idea about how the common work would be shared.

In the 1960’s demands on couples, generally with women in the lead, rose exponentially.  Not only should marriage provide for security, safety, and companionship, but also sex, romance, and self actualization for each partner.  Couples should be best friends, confidants, intellectual partners, and personal cheerleaders.  Even as you clean the kitchen or the yard, you should look fetching or dashing.  Even as you change a baby’s diaper, you should concern yourself with your partner’s personal growth.

Each of the three stages of couple development is profoundly influenced by this narrative.  The first, Stage of Expansion and Promise (the honeymoon phase), for instance, hews close to the cultural ideal. Its essential quality is expansiveness: in ourselves; in our partners; in the relationship.

In the early days of relationships, “We feel more capable and more available.  In the enthusiastic gaze of our new partner, we are likely to feel more witty, more charming, and more animated than ever before.  We feel vulnerable, yet strangely strong.  We are expressive, bold, and open.  We are in touch with images and yearnings from childhood as well as with hopes and expectations for our future.  Our unfolding relationship feels encouraging, flexible.  Possibility and potentiality abound.  There is space here for being awkward, for being funny, for starting and stopping, for fumbling about, for being passionate and sexual, and for making discoveries.  Time slows down as we linger with our new partner, but it also rushes by, and we find there are never enough minutes in the day for everything we want to do.”  P 64

The Stage of Contraction and Betrayal follows when couples cannot sustain their expansive promises.  “The Stage of Contraction and Betrayal ruptures the Expansive Contract, threatening both the relationship and our sense of ourselves.  It’s essential quality is contraction: contraction into ourselves, contraction in the picture of our mate, contraction of the relationship as a whole. It is like pulling back into our skin.  We are less impressed with our partners and find them less enamored, less infatuated with us.” P 84  Where Expansion is based on a “virtuous cycle,” where one good thing leads to another, Contraction is characterized by a “vicious” and downward cycle.

In Contraction, the relationship that had opened and transformed us now closes us.  Against our will, old limitations and problems resurface. Reluctantly we conclude that we are more loving and competent with friends and colleague than with our partners.  Where once our relationship brought out our best selves, now it reveals our worst.  The loss is terrible. The contrast between the two stages is agonizing.

In Contraction, couples have three basic options: break up; remain painfully stuck in their struggles; or move into the Stage of Resolution.  Resolution is characterized by a spirit of accommodation, a capacity to see the complexity of things, and an inclination to emphasize affection and partnership over romance and passion.  This is a stage of compromise and successful conflict resolution, emphasizing perspective, balance, stability and shared responsibility.  We feel in control of our lives again.

Now the cycles.  Here’s the irony: The resolution of conflict, the escape from our worst selves, is such a relief that it precipitates another visit to the Stage of Expansion and Promise.  This return is one of life’s great highs.  It’s like falling in love again—and a personal redemption. For a moment—or a little longer—everything seems possible again.

Expansion then lasts for a while, sometimes brief, sometimes longer.  But then a challenging event—the birth of a child, the loss or the beginning of a job, an illness, a big salary raise—jars us and, often, awakens our fears again.  We pull back.  A sense of Betrayal and Contraction sets in.  It seems like we’ve never left.  This place feels like bedrock, the real relationship, while Expansion seems a frothy illusion.  For couples with the stamina and courage to withstand the fall, though, there follows a second move into Resolution. Like being pulled along by powerful ocean currents, we move, once more, into the protective waters of a coastal cove.  And so the cycle goes, never ceasing because life events almost always trigger further revolutions.

The cycles continue through the lives of couples.  From a hundred feet in the air, it is the full cycles, not a single stage that may best define relationships.  Some couples zoom through the cycles.  Others take a leisurely path.  Usually time is short in Expansion and most couples find a Home Base in either Contraction or Resolution, fighting fear or finding friendship and trust.  For those who get stuck in Contraction, divorce, either legal or informal—through distance and endless struggle—is often the answer.  

Learning through the cycles.  As we pass through each stage, there is something essential to learn.  In Expansion, for example, we experience ourselves at our best.  We learn more about our capacity for love, compassion, excitement, energy, empathy, to name a few feelings or skills.  Much as our skeptical psychological culture may protest, there is nothing illusory about these feelings and our capacity to trust and amplify, then integrate them into our character is one of life’s greatest opportunities.

The passage through Contraction and Betrayal offers up a comparable classroom.  There we encounter the fears, anxiety, defensiveness, and rage that burst forth when we feel abandoned or spurned by a loved one.  These feelings are not all of who we are but when they rule, we have little access to our best, and they feel all encompassing.  The way to release their domineering grip is to acknowledge them, to deepen our knowledge of them, to grow more comfortable in our ability to withstand their attack.  There’s courage in this kind of honesty.  There’s learning in our refusal to run or hide.

In each stage of couple relationships the opportunity for greater self awareness and  the ability to transcend our limitations presents itself.  Some of us do not accept this challenge.  In our anxiety, we may choose a more narrowness and rigid path.  Some of us do accept the challenge.  Some of us learn almost in spite of ourselves.   I would say about myself, for example, that the constant cycling has broken down boundaries between what I like and what I know about myself.  I find my internal life to be more fluid.  I find myself less judgmental and more curious.

Extending the cycles into old age.  With time, many, maybe most couples learn to accept the complexity of their individual and shared lives—and make a home in Resolution.  As we move into our later years, individual development increasingly lends itself to this home base.  For instance, researchers tell us that aging people generally develop a “cognitive bias” towards positive, and away from negative, experience.  We literally structure our lives to minimize stress.  If we were to begin again, to find a new partner, we would choose a harmonious companion and avoid people and situations that create disharmony.

We seem to gravitate towards the Stage of Resolution as though drawn along some slow but powerful waterway.  The qualities of Expansion and Contraction have been absorbed into our individual identity and into the workings of the couple relationship. Resolution seems the natural place to be.  The cognitive bias towards positive experience, noted by the researchers, prevails—but without the denial of negativity.  Harmony with our companions becomes the norm, and we deal more efficiently with volcanic flair ups from Contraction.  We choose to be kind to one another, even when we recognize unkind impulses within ourselves.

And this is key: In Resolution, we become skilled practitioners of self-determination.  We understand the complexity of our inner selves and of our relationships and we get to choose—most of the time—which parts of ourselves we bring to the table.  And the sense of agency is delicious.

Here’s a second key:  the more comfortable we grow with our own and our partner’s whole selves, the more spacious the Stage of Resolution becomes.  There is room within the relationship for more of our selves.  Those who learn to nurture the stage of Resolution find deep friendship, with a romantic patina around the edges.

To achieve this space, paradoxically, we often learn to limit or omit some of who we are—there’s no need to insist that our partner accept every one of our warts—in order to create the emotional space capable of including more and more of our selves.

As we age and retire, we spend more and more time with one another, grow more dependent on one another.  At first this kind of closeness can be off-putting, at least, and frightening, at worst. This is one of those disruptive experiences that, even late in life, sets the cycle in motion.  Frequently it awakens the fire of Contraction.  A frightening moment late in life.  A moment we thought—hoped—we had transcended. But it also provides an urgency to move through that fire and back into Resolution, with yet more of ourselves intact.

I want to add one more ironic observation about the way that relational cycles can serve as our teachers.  As the Stage of Resolution grows ever more complex and spacious, it is easier to appreciate our partners in their fullness.  By appreciating the complexity of things, we stop trying to change them.  When we stop trying to change them we can, at last, see who they are, independent of our own needs and anxieties.  This allows us to see one another with a freshness that has been unavailable since the earliest stages of Expansion and Promise.

And here’s the best part: the freshness permits a new kind of intimacy that is simultaneously gentle and intense.

 

 

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Flu Lessons: Being Old and Sick

The second he completed the rapid flu test in his office, my doctor put a mask on his face and threw one to me.  “Don’t go near anyone without it,” he almost barked.  That was unlike him and took me aback.  Then he lightened up:  “Don’t worry.  There’s only a 5% mortality rate for the flu with people your age.  You’ll be fine.”

For more than a week, Franny and I were felled and jointly quarantined by a flu that, in me, moved ineluctably from a faucet of a drippy nose to a sore throat to coughing that felt like a thousand knives to the chest, to an unsettled stomach, to … well you get the picture.

We spent our days like zombies, our minds clouded and glum, lazing about the house like two vaguely related objects in space, not touching, hardly talking, each in a solitary universe.  Hours and hours passed with junk fiction, television, naps, and almost no food.  I lost a pound every day and felt progressively weaker.  Boredom.  There was nothing to break the monotony of the days.

Sunday afternoon was the occasion of our sweet, two-year-old granddaughter Lucy’s birthday party. Franny and I maturely declined the invitation, not wanting to infect anyone.  In the morning, Gabe brought over a vat of  potato-leek soup, and left it on the door step for us.  We cracked the door to retrieve it, feeling like long-term, immobile residents of an assisted living facility, peering for a moment out into the world.

As a child, I hated being sick.  The drill in those days was to relegate people to their beds.  Even urinating took place in milk bottles.  And believe me, we weren’t treated tenderly.  The idea was to get us up and about as quickly as possible.  I agreed because bed rest was boring and, even while sick, I was physically restless.

And I still hate it.  It may be 40 years since I’ve been laid up with a flu.  During the last decades, whenever there’s been a hint of illness, my attitude has been simple: Ignore it…it’s just a state of mind…plow through.  I’ve virtually staked my identity on what I saw as my strength of mind.  On a similar but side note, one year I decided that feeling cold weather was also a state of mind, and spent the winter without a coat.  Superman lives here.

Then I moved into my 70s, where I began to take more notice of those stomach pains, the weakness I felt on some days, the aches in my joints. The imagery I have for old age is antithetical to how I conceived of myself as a young and even middle-aged man.  But indeed, Superman is gone.  I no longer believe that I can plow through.  Now these dis-eases signal something beyond the immediate experience.  They portend big time trouble.  Almost any ache or pain seems a signal that my body is weakening, and my days are numbered.

A few years ago, I entered a period of feeling tired all the time, and thought:  Oh, this must be what it’s like being old.  Instead of plowing through, I was inclined to resign myself.  Wasn’t that the mature way?  Just in case, though, I saw a doctor, who diagnosed me with anemia, caused by a hiatal hernia.  Surgery stopped the bleeding that led to the hernia and my energy returned.

It turns out to be easy to conflate illness and aging; in my desire to be wise in the way of aging, I resigned myself to decline far too readily.  Now I found myself in search of a more balanced view: being strong; being alert; taking care of my body and my difficulties; and finding a philosophical perspective to accept my increasing vulnerability.  I needed a perspective that found strength in holding all of these views together at the same time.

When the flu arrived last week, though, all of this wisdom flew out the window.  There was something disorienting about the inward focus it brought.  How to lay still, how to cough less, drip less, eat less.  How to time my medicine to minimize my headache.  In fact, I felt like an addict, looking forward to my next fix of Tylenol.  The outside world grew distant, unimportant.  My body was all.  I felt like I was floating through time, occasionally noting the outside world, as though threw the thick glass of an institutional window.

I imagined that this is what it feels like to be really old.  There is a transition that the researchers talk about between the “young old” and the “frail old.”  The young old are often still vigorous, active, optimistic.  The frail old are largely confined by their illnesses, their vulnerability, and their isolation.  Even when they are with people, the connection can feel tenuous, insubstantial.  Somewhere in my cloudy consciousness, I knew that I wasn’t yet at this point, but I could see it.  It was like the island at the end of life’s journey was well within view.

To combat the disorienting, floating, inward focus of illness, most of us seek an external anchor, like finding a large object to focus on when growing dizzy.  Often it’s some way to keep busy:  a simple task like folding laundry.  And keeping busy helps for a while.

The busyness exercise is also true when healthy, especially during retirement.  We busy ourselves to keep our mind off of our troubles, our fears, the inevitability that things will get worse.  Mostly we keep busy to avoid a dizzying internal focus.  So we keep to our routines, develop projects, travel plans.

To be honest, though, keeping busy has never been my cup of tea.  It feels useless and superficial.  It feels deceitful.  I can’t stop judging myself when I am “just” keeping busy.

Purpose—or a sense of purpose—feels better.  Purpose ranges from the very simple: I want to get well and will devote myself to it; I want to help with the grandchildren so my children can pursue their careers; I want to volunteer, to do my little part in making the world a better place.  All of these approaches take my mind, at least temporarily, off of myself.  When I feel purposeful, I don’t feel self-centered.  I feel part of something larger than myself.

Feeling purposeful, I suppose, is as strange an experience as the zombie-like disorientation of illness.  When we enter its zone, it’s as though a giant magnet gathers all the molecules that were drifting and colliding during our inward focus and pulls them in a single direction.  We feel aligned.  For a moment, at least, our energies and values flow together.  We get off that great, slow conveyor belt that has been pulling us into the world of the frail old person, who will one day inhabit our body and minds.  As we step off that conveyor belt, as we feel the magnetic pull of purpose, our vitality is restored and extended—at least for the present..

As my flu receded,, I pushed myself to attend a few meetings and got back to writing my blog.  I called friends to see how they were doing.  Nothing earth- shattering, but I felt more like a participant than a victim of some demonic process of aging.

I don’t want to act like Pollyanna here.  Most of us, if we’re lucky, are headed for that frail old stage.  During this part of our journey, feeling purposeful, feeling like we matter, will be harder to come by.  But the opportunities will always be there.

 

 

Friendship

I don’t know what I’d do without my friends, that inner circle of people, mostly not related by blood, who I love and feel loved by.  I was going to write “who I love and who, in return, love me.”  But that’s not it.  There’s no quid pro quo in friendship, no deals that are struck.  That’s the beauty of friendship.  It feels spontaneous and freely given.

Because friendship is not as charged and complex as marriage—positively and negatively—we often get to be our best selves:  loving, generous, funny, strong, (a vulnerable, silly, candid—you name it.  Maybe because friendship lives within a narrower emotional range and with fewer obligations, we feel easier within it.  We don’t challenge our friends.  We don’t try to improve friendship as much as we tend to do with family relations. It feels easy: easy to relax within its flexible cocoon.  And our worst qualities, those that we regret and try to hide elsewhere, almost never come out.  We are at home in this kind of relationship.

And the gift keeps giving.  The predictability, the dependability is immensely comforting.  All we have to do is enter that cocoon and we are, with few exceptions, the person we want to be.

When we think of friendship, we often think about what we receive but I think that misses the point.  Instead, it’s what we give.  It’s how much easier it is to be generous, for instance, than elsewhere.  With friends, we share material things and feelings with relative ease.  When in the mood, we share our woes and amusements, pleasures and pains, and feel better for the sharing.  Partly, I suppose, because the sharing doesn’t assume many obligations.

There’s another quality of friendship that needs highlighting: the experience of being well known.  Good friends finish sentences for us.  They know how we think about things.  Often they have known us for a long time—they knew us when.  Which means they know us in many contexts, in many of our best and worst places.  They know the story of your life, the whole person, surely the one we chose to have seen, and sometimes the one we’ve tried to hide.  And they still choose us.  That’s a comfort beyond almost all others.

Close friend and especially ‘best friends’ are like family, except they are chosen.  That makes the relationships a little more tenuous, but most of the time the fragility that lurks beneath all chosen relationships stays hidden.  For many of us—older people whose families have drifted away, or middle–aged people whose children have flown the coop—circles of friends are, for most of every day and week, simply what we’ve got.

Best friends often seem like second marriages—and easier, simpler ones, at that.  Except for those mad adolescence friendships which resemble romantic engagements more than anything else, these relationships are mostly contained within a much narrower range of emotions and expectations.  They often balance and buffer more tumultuous marriage and family life. They serve as a tension release, a place of rest and—or so it can seem—a place of sanity when marriages are in their most irrational or explosive phases.  In this way, close friendships contribute to the success of marriage and family

The apparent simplicity of friendships, however, is deceptive.  It actually requires great discipline to sustain them over a long period of time.  There are two arenas in which that discipline is particularly necessary: maintaining jointly established “rules of the road” and sustaining a shared narrative—the story we both tell that reflects the essence of our friendships.

The rules are largely implicit and rarely articulated.  What do I mean by rules?  Here is one – it pertains to how much candor is permitted.  If one friend’s candor becomes hurtful or frightening, the other will indicate that a rule has been broken by saying something or moving away—until the friends creep back to the established norm.  This kind of movement speaks to another rule that concerns how close or far we are allowed to go.  For instance, a kiss or a certain embrace might exceed what at least one person thinks is the limits of this intimacy.   Not calling on the telephone for a longer-than-usual period of time might also break a rule about emotional distance.

A third genre of rule reflects what’s legitimate to talk about:  other friends? our partners? politics?  Here I am thinking, for example, of the wide, political divide that separated me from one of my closest friends.  It took us a number of irritable conversations, spaced out over years, to figure out what we could comfortably discuss, what was off the table, and how we should approach the topics we deemed “discussable.”  In recent years, we have found a stable, unthreatening way to have these conversations.

Each transgression of these rules has to be corrected.  Each one tests the friends’ commitment and skills.  Each success can increase their confidence and even, perhaps, broaden the arenas of interaction.  In all, there is an intricate web of agreements, some just between friends, others prescribed by culture.

Think about the ‘rules’ that govern your key friendships?  How have they been broken?  How have they been fixed or changed to preserve or enhance the relationship?

Now onto our friendship narratives.  Friendship narratives describe the qualities,  activities, and meanings of relationships.   My friend, David, and I, for instance, first got together to play tennis.  We noticed immediately that we liked each other’s game.  That was a good beginning for being tennis buddies, but not enough for friendship.  Then one day it began to snow pretty seriously, and without a word between us, we continued to play through it.  That began the narrative that focused on our similarities—easy empathy, determination, fierce and joyful competitiveness.  We were crazy, of a type, “a couple of nuts.”  As our friendship developed, we could trust each other to understand and not judge the way we exceeded or transgressed all kinds of cultural norms.  And while others teased us, we basked in the companionship that allowed, even encouraged, us to be ourselves.

Finally, I’d like to say that, over time, many of the best marriages either begin as friendships and add romance or begin with passion and add friendship. In the more common case of couples who begin with romance, two people eventually learn to establish rules of engagement and stick to them—in much more skillful and determined ways. Individually and together, they grow more disciplined.  They also build and adhere to a shared narrative even when it doesn’t entirely fit.  Together and individually, they learn to correct missteps, and over time, to do so more quickly and with less fuss.

There is so much more I could and will say about friendship.  But this is a start, and I will depend on you to be a friend: to agree and to criticize and to add to what I’ve begun.

 

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.

 

 

Updating Your Life Story

Have you ever had the feeling that you are living out a story that was written a while ago by some familiar but mysterious stranger? Yes, you are the author but there also seems to be another hand at work.  The story is so familiar that it has to be you but you didn’t intentionally write it.

The choices you make in following these scripts don’t really feel like choices.  It’s as though you are sleepwalking, passing other options as though they barely exist.  You march down a prescribed path like a character in a Greek Drama.  The path feels almost like destiny.  Because you are the child of this mother or father, whose ideas about your future have suffused your being, you make choices over and again in obedience or in contradiction to the life they imagined for you.  Because you were born into a particular era—say the post War 1940’s—you are upwardly mobile, married, with three children, and living in the suburbs, as though the zeitgeist had written the script for you.

Most of the time, the narratives that define our lives remain unconscious.  We believe that we have chosen our own fate.  We think we have decided what kind of person to marry, what kind of work to do, whether and how to pray, what type of communities to join.  We feel the tug on subconscious forces, like strings commanding puppets, though not so much that we feel the need to break free.

But sometimes these narratives break into consciousness and we wonder: Whose life am I leading?  I awoke one night during graduate school, for example, with a realization: I was studying history, reading philosophy, and writing poetry—the very pursuits my father felt he had been denied—the pursuits he had bequeathed to me.  He never said this explicitly, but somehow I felt I had to live out his unfulfilled dreams. Then, with that realization fresh and real, I stepped out of my dream state and made a series of different choices — deciding, for example, to switch from history to psychotherapy.  It was as if the sky had parted and a god had offered me my freedom.

Usually, the moments when we see our narratives not as destiny but as choices often emerge during times of decision, change, or crisis, when the regular choices don’t feel right—even if we can say exactly why.  Imagine, though: our spouse has a new job in a new city, our way of thinking about ourselves comes apart. No matter how confusing, annoying, or terrifying, for a moment we can actually choose what we want to do.  The opportunity is luxurious.

Developmental crises—adolescence, midlife, retirement, for example — are famous for bringing the regular flow of life up short. Take midlife crises.  Silly and awkward as they may look, they often represent earnest efforts to break from what feels like a prison of prescribed choices.  Or sometimes they reflect a long-buried wish to leave the accumulated boredom and disengagement that comes from cruising based on old injunctions: Take care of your family! Make something of yourself! Find someone who will care for you.

Often the break into consciousness comes with questions.  From this point on, am I condemned to repeat myself, to live within these prescribed boundaries?  Can I escape?  Do I want to escape?  Isn’t this good enough?  Might I lose what I most value if I change my life? Won’t I hurt others if I rebel?  You could call the sum of these moments identity crises.

But it’s important to remember: These narratives, however powerful, don’t represent all that you are.  They are stories told over and over, stories that have gathered confirming experience to themselves.  Each new experience seen through the lens of our narratives provides the proof that this is who we are.  But the stories also gloss over parts of ourselves.  For instance, a family person might yearn for solo adventure.  A heady professional might long to work construction. .

Over the many years I practiced and taught psychotherapy, for instance, I’d maintain a stream of significant renovation projects at home.  The projects were concrete, definite.  They provided a kind satisfaction that was sometimes missing in the complexity of psychotherapy, when I wasn’t always sure that I was helpful or helpful enough or helpful in the right way.  A kitchen wall was a kitchen wall.  I could see it and others could, too.

I wondered if I might take a few years to build houses—on spec, no less—and relax my mind.  If I had taken the years, I’m pretty sure that my life and the narratives that guided it would have turned in many ways.  My relationship to my family and freinds would have shifted.  My image of myself would likely have been transformed.  I would have, essentially, tossed the script aside.

I don’t think I pulled the construction idea from the sky.  My father, raised in the Great Depression, had wanted me to have a trade, some safe way to support my family.  This was the other side of his philosophical dreams, and I absorbed it, too.  Being a child of the 1950’s, with its great prosperity and endless opportunities, I became a ‘successful’ professional.  But there was always this other narrative of working with my hands, of making things, that has lived not so far beneath the surface.  As a matter of fact, I wonder if my writing pursuits stem from and join both narratives, producing concrete verbal entities that all can see.

There are several, maybe many, narratives that float in our unconscious and peak or break through during times of crisis – for example, narratives of adventure, helplessness, invisibility, peacefulness.  My mother, for instance, could never let go the idea that she was meant to be an explorer like Thor Heyerdahl who ventured across the Pacific in a straw raft.  Even as she lived a conventional life, almost every event in her life was interpreted, at some level, in terms of how she had fulfilled or abandoned that narrative of risk, adventure and rewards.  In a way, that narrative represented her identity almost as much as the one she lived every day.

Old age offers a particular opportunity to experiment with new stories about ourselves; the long-standing, dominant ones are less tightly secured than they were by schedules, responsibilities, business, and the familiar people in our lives who keep them in place.  You might say that we are vulnerable to these ‘intrusions,’ or that they come as welcome guests to enliven our years.  Let me illustrate an odd one that I seem to carry with me.

There is a rabbinical narrative within me, maybe because so many of my forebearers were rabbis, but it’s not the rabbi you might expect.  There’s a quiet man, not a preaching man with a congregation.  He is chanting and pious, with his head and shoulders covered in a prayer shawl.  I don’t know where this image comes from but it has strength to it.  Here is how it continues: I have left the flock, whom I loved but who also have burdened me because I never knew if I could give them what they wanted or, more importantly, what they needed.  Even as I held that ambivalence, I never felt it was right to leave them.  So I didn’t.  Now I am old, and they have gone.  In this story, I don’t know if I’ve left them or if they have left me.  But I am free of responsibility and mostly alone.  I can be quiet.  I can be calm.  I’m hidden beneath my prayer shawl. I feel content.

If you are quiet and allow your normal responses to situations flow by, if you detach from your dominant life narrative, I wonder what stories and imagery might come to mind.

 

Ritual and routine hold me like a good mother

I imagine that I’ve pushed the limits of your patience with my apocalyptic warnings about the state of our nation and my “honest” talk about the trials of getting old.  For a change, I’d like to talk about my good fortune at having arrived at an advanced age feeling good.

It’s 6 AM and the sun has already risen.  I hear the fountain outside our bedroom window, spraying water from the little pond right outside, and — I know this even though I can’t see it from my bed — spreading the coating of light green algae to the pond’s far edges.  A few robins are chirping.  A squirrel is chirping, too, as he speeds up the oak tree’s trunk.  I feel so damned good this morning. =

Already, the day reminds me of an ee cummings poem that I loved as a young man, a poem, coincidentally, that my sister-in-law, Marcia, recites to herself each morning, wanting a reminder of what the day might be.  I’d like to quote it in full.

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any–lifted from the no
of all nothing–human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)”

There are too many days when I’m not as attuned to those “leaping greenly spirits” as I’d like to be, but even before and after I explode with exasperation at what I read in the newspapers, I am still aware of the great privilege I have in being alive at 76, with my ears and eyes still working, my body ready to go, and my spirit alert to possibilities.

I might focus my gratitude on the love that persists in my marriage and family, but today I want to focus on simpler things: the routines and regularities of life in retirement that bring pleasure to even the worst of days and allow me to pay attention to nature’s bounty.

Each day, as I awaken, Franny is next to me.  I can see the sky, cloudy or sunny, it doesn’t matter.  I ease out of bed, walk about 20 feet to the bathroom and go through my ablutions.  I like the rhythm and the sound of the electric tooth brush and the taste of the water washing down the two pills that I take.  Dressing, especially in summer, is easy: underwear, t-shirt, and shorts.  Everything feels clean.  I’m ready.

Next I make coffee for Franny and me, and we sit in our easy chairs with the newspaper.  The news isn’t so great but there we are, together, as the light shines through the roof windows and the window door and gentles our moods.  Almost every morning, we look at each other, nod, and feel our good luck.

After the newspaper, we separate. Franny either stays in the living room or goes to the second floor to do some work, or what, she says, passes for work these days.  I go to my study to write in my journal, first in that free, undirected, ambling way that I’ve practiced for almost 50 years.  If I’m not calm to begin, the writing calms me.  If I’m calm, it deepens the feeling.

Next I write something “serious.”  I work on an essay for my blog or chapter for the memoir that I’m writing.  Sometimes this goes easily and well.  Sometimes it’s a slog.  Then I push and either break through or give up, hoping — maybe assuming — it will be better tomorrow.  I can get aggravated when I feel the writing has gone badly but I am comforted by the fact that I am there.  I have been sitting in my desk chair, in front of my computer, thinking and typing away.  Every day.  It’s the everydayness that soothes the aggravation.

When I’ve had enough of the writing, I read a few articles from The New Yorker or the New York Review of Books, which make me feel just a little smarter, just a little bit more in touch with the New York intellectuals I’ve long identified with.  It’s like touching base with my community.

Now I’m getting a little restless, though.  I feel it in my body.  When I get up from the desk, my knees and back are stiff.  I’m thirsty.  I need to move.  So I do.  Franny and I may take off on a walk.  These days, I may hit a tennis ball against a backboard for about 25 minutes, and then walk for about 40, knowing that I need to put in at least an hour of exercise to reassure myself of my health — and to feel good.  I have always needed exercise to get those endorphins going in order to calm my body and soul.

Upon returning home, there’s a shower, and very few things feel as good as that hot—or cold—spray running down my body, taking away the sweat and the effort, until I am fully relaxed.  Even the drying follows a ritual.  First my hair, rubbing and rubbing with a towel, probably until the brain is active again, then my back and chest, then the legs and the feet.  The towel always returned to the hook for drying.  The return to my very light clothing.  I’m ready for the next act.

In the late afternoon, I read, generally nonfiction — a biography or a history book — leaving fiction for the evening, when I no longer require myself to keep learning.  The reading might make me sleepy and, now in my dotage, have begun for the first time in my life to take naps.  They are sweet.

Franny and I come together for dinner.  Then we might have friends to visit.  We might read, talk on the phone, or watch TV — we love mystery series, news, and documentaries.  I love sports.  If there’s a big basketball, baseball, football, or tennis game on, we split up, then come back to each other for conversation and sleep.

Not every day is like this.  Sometimes, I do some work—coaching young executives, for example.  A little strategic planning consult with a nonprofit.  A meeting for a board of directors.  On Mondays, I spend time with Franny and Lucy, our 17 month old granddaughter.  On Tuesdays and Thursdays, we spend a few afternoon hours with our 5 and 8 year old grandsons.  At times we travel and then there is no routine.  Franny has her own activities, of course.  And frequently we meet friends, separately or together, for walks, coffee, or drinks—or to dream up future projects.  There’s always something new.

But it is ritual and routine, by surrounding and supporting all the other activities, that relaxes me enough to appreciate what is new and different.  It’s the surrender to the routine, not having to be in charge all the time, that keeps me calm.  It’s the routine, holding me like a good mother, steadily but not too tightly, that invites me to notice the leaping greenly spirit of life.

Science Says: Our Aging Brains are Active, Agile, and Resourceful

  • Primary references are at the end

 

Each morning, I wake up feeling good: clear-headed, energetic, eager to learn, eager to think.  I may not be poised to break new scientific or artistic ground—I never was—but my thinking seems as good as ever.  Right?

It’s likely enough that I’m deceiving myself.  Supposedly my brain is in the midst of a long, steady decline.  The clues are obvious.  My capacity to retrieve names is abysmal.  Sometimes words escape me, at least for a while or until I fire up Google to trigger my retrieval system.  I say trigger because, as often as not, I remember the word or name before Google has rescued me.

Conversations with friends are filled with anecdotes about mental lapses.  Absentmindedness often heads the list.  You walk into a room at a determined pace only to find that you’ve forgotten why you’re there.  Then, as you leave, you generally remember.  It’s hard not to speculate about the meaning of the lapse, hard not to think that you’ve lost a mental step or three.  Any effort to ignore or minimize the lapses seems like denial.  And there are lots of people to remind you of this weakness, some with amusement and some with worried faces.

Conversations with peers are filled with both humor and empathy about our decline.   They provide a sense of relief in the sharing and a place to hide together.  But even the humor reinforces the narrative of decline.  The narrative is ever-present, popping up like some Skinnerian behavioral stimuli.  I am declining.  I am declining.  Eventually you believe it—or you yield to a stark reality, a better way to put it.

Our adult children notice the lapses, too.  Usually they are patient and sympathetic, as well-raised children should be.  But that’s a mixed blessing, since most of us both appreciate and resist their kindness.  Who wants them to focus on our weaknesses? I, for one, would prefer a keen focus on the stupendous and miraculous accomplishments and adventures that have marked my life.  I wouldn’t even mind an emphasis on my bold and romantic spirit, my heroic nature.  Instead, they take control of our narrative by telling our story through the sympathy in their eyes.

Beyond friends and family, there is the general culture.  You’d have to travel to Antarctica to escape the media-driven warnings about dementia.  If you don’t have it now, they say, it’s probably just around the corner.  Here are the signs.  Here is how you should eat, exercise, socialize to minimize dementia’s impending grip. It’s a plague and you are unlikely to escape—soon or eventually.

But, as I say, I feel mentally alert almost all the time.  What does that tell me?  For one thing, it tells me that I am an individual person, neither a trend nor a statistical marker.  My developmental course is my own.  The later in life that I am clear-headed, for example, the more likely I am to keep my senses for a long time.

Current research debunks the idea that our brains grow duller and less able to learn as we age.  For instance, the flexibility and growth potential of our minds (neuroplasticity)—our ability to learn and change–continues throughout our lives. This is accomplished by using different regions of the brain in old age.

Late in life, “unique new circuits and ways of thinking are produced using more connections to and from the advanced frontal lobes.”  By continuously using our brains in different ways, new neurons are created through new learning.  New connections and synapses keep on developing.  In addition, both sides of the brain are utilized, whereas only one is primarily used in the younger adult.  In other words, we literally create new ways of thinking through new brain structures.

OK. We have more and more sustained brain power than we have been led to think. But what about those lapses that are completely real?  Are there ways to compensate?  Yes.  Simply put, we need external reminders in our life to trigger what we know.

Research shows that “…when the hints come from the environment, the difference in memory vanishes.”  As a matter of fact,  “In tasks that rely on external information, elderly do better. They are better in such     perception and learning. While reliance on external cues becomes a pattern in the elderly, this doesn’t mean they are impaired when they don’t have these cues. Using the environment saves brain energy as a strategy in old age.”

One of the main reasons that the aging brain continues to function well is that it changes in a fundamental way by recruiting other parts of the brain.  Unlike younger people, the elderly use both of their frontal lobes.  By Using both sides of the brain gives us greater resources and greater connectivity between all of the brains “modules.”  We then become better internal networkers, encouraging communication within the vast knowledge stores of our brains.

In other words, older people are much better at integrating their knowledge and mental abilities.  This gives us perspective, an ability to see the big picture.  Alert elderly people “understand many different patterns that appear in their sensory input—circumstances, ideas, and experiences. The older person’s superior ability to size up situations are then coupled with better social and emotional regulation–hallmarks of wisdom.”

The bottom line here is that I may not be deceiving myself too much.  America’s youth-oriented culture has created a kind of panic in the elderly and the soon-to-be elderly.  But Neurological evidence tells us that, for most of us, our brains keep renewing themselves.  They are, therefore, active, agile, and resourceful—and will be for years to come.  So why don’t we relax and enjoy the play of our minds?

When we think that we are clear-headed, we probably are.  All those neurons and synapses are clicking away, making sure of the continued neuroplasticity in our brains.  We don’t have to worry so much about the missing names and even the missing words because they are less of an omen than they are a simple condition that we can usually overcome by using environmental supports, like Google.  When we think we have lots of perspective to share, we probably do.

And, with these conclusions, I may find myself not only clear-headed in the morning but also in good spirits.

 

 

I roamed pretty freely in the popularized literature of brain research, but the best references I found and the ones from which I quote throughout my paper are:

https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/how-memory-and-thinking-ability-change-with-age

https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/how-aging-brain-affects-thinking

https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Know-Your-Brain