Old age is hard, filled with pain, loss, and humiliation. Shakespeare famously wrote, in “All the world is a stage”
” …The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”
Walt Whitman, among many others, followed suit:
“As I sit writing here, sick and grown old,
Not my least burden is that dullness of the years, querilities,
Ungracious glooms, aches, lethargy, constipation, whimpering,
May filter in my daily songs.
Worst of all, says Kelly Sherry, “It is the loss of possibility that murders us.”
Still, some of us hope that these trials will be balanced by the achievement of wisdom through extensive meditation, contemplation, study, and just plain experience. To me wisdom means keeping the world and our own experience in perspective and being able to accept both as they are. And, with that acceptance, finding a greater sense of calm and contentment.
Erik Erikson, the great psychologist of human development, characterizes the last stage of life as a battle between Integrity and despair. We generally enter this battleground when we confront our own mortality, often following the death of a spouse or close friend or the onset of our own illness, or, more mundanely, with retirement. The entrance can be sudden and terrifying or gradual, an ineluctable movement towards death’s door. For some, the time to wrestle with this challenge is brief; for most of us, it may begin in our 60s and extend for decades.
Faced with our mortality, we review our lives; and if we can find a way to affirm the totality of it—without ignoring problems and failures—then we may achieve a sense of wholeness and well being and wisdom, which Erikson describes as “informed and detached concern with life itself in the face of death itself.” Failure to resolve this final life crisis manifests itself as a fear of death, a sense that life is too short, and a fall into depression.
I remember a moment, 15 or 20 years ago, when my friend David and I, steady, if desultory, meditators in search of wisdom, decided that it wasn’t coming quickly enough and wasn’t likely to be ours. Instead, through nervous laughter, we imagined an old age closer to adolescence, filled not with calm, but with intense and fluctuating feelings about almost everything in life. Just the other day, after yet another meditative moment, we recalled that day and concluded that we may have been right.
It seems that my journey towards the shores of wisdom has been just that: a journey with great hopes and enough glimpses of the promised land to keep us working, but almost no chance of making a lengthy landing. That has been disappointing. But, to our surprise, we don’t find ourselves in despair. Instead, we find ourselves fully engaged by the continual challenges that confront us in our 70s.
While our own culture generally paints old age in tones of gray, I have discovered vibrancy. While poets write about the invasion of lethargy and despair, I have discovered a period that is alive with challenge. There is an intensity and urgency about it. It is a time when many of us try to find the sense in, or meaning of, our lives. We wonder how our children and grandchildren will turn out, whether we have made a difference to others, whether we might still be able to repair personal and social wrongs. It is a time to be brave and as independent as possible in the face of difficulties. All of these experiences command our attention. We are alert.
Here’s how my friend, Harry, put it in a note he shared with me recently:
“The integrity pole pulls me toward self-scrutiny, sometimes regret for omissions and commissions/sometimes pride of experience if not of accomplishment. The feelings associated are more rounded: luck, love, sadness, patience, perspective, and good stories to tell. The despair pole brings the realization that no one wants to listen! I think a lot about identity these days (big topic), and realizing how much age is as core an identity as race, gender, and all the rest. Despair feelings are much more pointed: anger, hopelessness, suffering, and dark humor. Of course mortality is the energy beneath both.”
When I wrote about the vibrancy of old age, my brother challenged me, thinking that I was painting too rosy a picture. Fair enough…so let me clarify. I don’t mean that life is always good or easy. There is pain and sorrow and fear, galore. I do mean that so much is new, and in its newness offers opportunities for excitement, increasing depth, further understanding.
Take retirement. Suddenly, you have lost your crowd—the people who surround and hold you, even if not always comfortably. Your identity is challenged. Who are you, separate from your professional roles? How will you fill your time? Are you at ease just resting, not doing things that are productive? Will hobbies suffice? Will volunteering fill your need to “repair the world?” Where does family come in?
If retirement brings on the chaos of new freedoms, the loss of a spouse brings another, more devastating kind of freedom. Virtually everyone I speak to tells me how the loss tears their world asunder. They don’t know who they are, how to spend their time. For some, not just the future but the past become cloudy. There is no one to hold them, comfort them, make them feel part of something beyond themselves. And yet the struggle is also animating, bringing out the resources of these survivalists, bringing some of us relief, even liberation. The fight to survive is far from fun but it is possible that you get to know yourself better and, with pluck and luck, come to respect yourself, at a deeper level..
Almost all relationships change during old age — sometimes dramatically. Take the relationships that are forged with one’s children. I am thrilled that my children have found their way, glad for the pride and freedom that development has brought them, and yet I also hate that I am not closer to the center of their lives. I have had to absorb these new terms. I have to stretch to embrace them.
Then, of course, there is the nearness of death itself. The idea that we live in the shadow of death is nothing new. Philosophers have spent lifetimes in this precarious place, seeking ways to live well within it. Almost all of us have premonitions of the end and think to hurry our work and pleasures while there is still time. Bucket lists, simple as they are, attest to this urgency. For those who don’t want to be defined by decline and depression, the urgency to make something of these last years tends to increase exponentially when we reach our 60s and 70s.
Dylan Thomas urged his father not to “go gently into that good night.” Instead he advocates rage “against the dying of the light.” I don’t think it’s rage that most moves us but a strange combination of fear, urgency, and defiance—the sense of urgency that propels us to squeeze what we can of the life that remains.
Here’s how my friend, Pat, evokes the impact of impermanence:
“I distinctly remember when I was in my mid-20s and my children were around 4 and 2 years old. They “were as fresh and lovely as the morning dew. I felt the desire to freeze the frame and hold onto it. I also knew that I couldn’t. Instead I said to myself ‘be with this as deeply as you can because this precious time will never come again.’ There have been many times since then when the same thing has happened but I notice that I am having many more of them now that I am older. When I was younger it had to be something extraordinary or amazing that made me super aware and able to stretch out my presence. Now just ordinary events bring on the inner voice saying, “This is it!” I am increasingly aware of the poignancy of impermanence.”
And I am increasingly aware of the need to embrace this poignancy.