These days it has become popular to declutter our homes and offices, an unsentimental drive to make our lives cleaner, sparer, and more efficient. The same principle, applied more broadly, is particularly apt for older people.
My posse of age mates — old by most standards, but not yet frail or beset with too much forgetfulness — is entering a phase of life that is both fraught and filled with opportunity. It is the moment between acknowledging, with bone-chilling certainty, the finitude of our lives, and actually reaching that end point. Time is short, intensity is high, everything matters.
I’ve been asking myself how to make the most of the time I have left. There is much to do, but first I have to clear my mind — declutter. By that I mean, shedding the ideas, the narratives, the philosophies, the solutions to old problems—ways of understanding the world that have guided me for decades but are no longer relevant. I need to free myself to experience this stage freshly and honestly.
There is nothing new about my desire to shed thoughts and images that interfere with my ability to do this. But each period of life seems to require something different. When I was young and busy with work and family, for instance, I would tell myself to slow down, to step outside the whirlwind. Sometimes I’d succeed through meditation, journal writing, hiking and running.
My most successful efforts took two forms. One began in adolescence, when I noticed that imagining a worst-case scenario had a paradoxically calming effect. For instance, when anxious about an upcoming exam or a tryout for my basketball team, I’d envision myself failing. From there I’d move to the consequences—more failure, loss of confidence, social ostracism—eventually leading me to flee my home and, finally, into a life of homelessness. As I dwell for a time on these worst case scenarios, I begin to feel like I can deal with them. I can get back on my feet. As I imagine myself rising, my confidence returns. The exercise acted like a bloodletting. As the poison drained from my system, I’d grow calm and, suddenly, able to manage whatever problem stood in my way.
Obviously, death is a more fearsome problem than anything I generally conjure up, but it serves very well as a worst-case scenario. When I’m most frustrated or frightened, imagining the end sometimes frees me from the moment and brings me peace.
A second strategy looks to the future. For most of my life, the future has been my balm. Often when I failed, I’d say to myself: I’ll be better. I’ll learn more, build my skills, better understand opportunities that fit my character. So I never had to fail completely and I could keep my hopes alive. In this way I could face the present much more squarely, because I had a future.
But in old age, the future no longer feels like my friend. Strategies that long served me now seem futile. They have become clutter that stands between me and the experience of the world I currently live in. They block the sun, the wind, the beauty and intensity of being alive in the last years of my life. To live well now, I need to clear away the clutter of old thinking. Here’s a scan on what it will take.
* To begin, there are the details of life that, when unresolved, leave us with a sustained feeling of uneasiness and take up too much of our mind share. So, of course, we need to get our finances in order to insure that we can live well enough through this period. That means determining what is affordable and sticking with it. We need to write our wills and determine our health care proxies. And yes, we need to consider living arrangements for the time when we cannot wholly care for ourselves.
There are several keys to this process. The first is to determine what is good enough—not perfect. The second is to be decisive. The third is to understand what you can and can’t control—and stop obsessing about things you can’t. You can’t control the stock market or the value of your home. You will never find the perfect independent living facility. Just one that satisfies enough of your needs. The goal is to free your mind from obsessive “what ifs.”
* Second, we need to let go of that tall pile of activities that we once loved, still miss, and no longer want. I’m thinking of parenting young children, working passionately with long hours, pushing our bodies to exhaustion in some athletic endeavor. We may feel nostalgic. We may be grateful for past experience. But, to live now, we need to acknowledge that these activities are yesterday’s bounty—and let them go. There is loss in that acknowledgement, but there is liberation, too.
* Third, let’s loosen our grip on regrets. They clutter and paralyze our minds. They serve no useful purpose. I’m thinking of sins of omission and sins of commission. Sins of omission include time we’ve not spent with our children; accomplishments that have eluded us; friends we haven’t cultivated and friendships we haven’t deepened; risks that might have been productive that we failed to take; places we haven’t visited. As the old song goes, “I want to wash them out of my hair.”
Regrets of commission include the many and various ways we have harmed others, particularly those we love and/or esteem – family members, friends, employees and employers, neighbors, colleagues. We made decisions to follow one course of action that precluded others; we pursued certain jobs and not others, lived in certain neighborhoods and not others, adopted certain religious practices and not others. We did those things. But they are past. Obsessing about them now only weighs us down, saps our energy, imprisons us in the past.
* Finally we have to update our personal identities. For many of us, the hardest part of growing old is the loss of identity, the loss of being something more than an old man or woman. Once we were useful. We were parents, teachers, carpenters, and doctors. Our roles made us feel worthwhile, lending dignity to our lives. They offered comfortable ways to view ourselves. The social and work communities we inhabited provided not just a concrete but also a psychological stability.
Who am I, then, when I leave my work and parenting identities behind? Just me? Often, that doesn’t feel like enough. Or is there some timeless quality that remains me, that doesn’t need social interactions to let me know who I am, to make me feel like I’ve got a stable self? Is that why some of us talk about our legacy, as though we will live after death in people and ideas that we know—and maybe beyond? Is that why we write memoirs, so people will remember who we really are? And who we aspired to be? Might we orient ourselves for the afterlife, find a role and an identity that lives forever?
It is challenging to live without ways to identify ourselves to others and to ourselves. Yet the day by day quality of retired life lends itself to that sense of absence. Maintaining an identity might have taken a lot of work. We would have to correct people’s impressions about us, fit into their impressions—and our own. But living within a clear cut identity felt secure. Living without clear identifiers is a little like living outside, without the walls that define our human lives. It feels a little naked.
Where once we were civilized, now we are Adam and Eve, exploring a garden we hardly knew existed. We are old but the sun is very bright, the colors are vibrant. We move carefully in territory that is new again. It is a little frightening but it is also exciting. This is the possibility that comes when we let go of life’s clutter.