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.