The Poignancy of Old Age

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,

Ennui,

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.

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.

Mentoring

As retirement drew near, strange images came to mind.  In one, I pictured all the knowledge I had accumulated in a long life drifting skyward, growing indistinct and formless, then disappearing.  In another, all that I knew seemed to be dissipating and returning to the earth—some uninvited play on life as dust to dust.  The biblical allusion didn’t calm me. I shared the imagery with Franny and wondered: “I’ve learned so much over my lifetime.  Will it simply die with me?  Isn’t there a way to pass it on?  Will anyone want it?”

The problem is that the market for wisdom has been declining for centuries.  Once the world seemed stable.  It didn’t change every few years with each new technological advance.  In traditional societies, if you were alert and thoughtful, the longer you lived, the more you knew and, more importantly, the more you understood.  The currency in old age rose instead of falling. For younger generations to succeed, old men and women had to share their accumulated wisdom.  Young and old benefited.

Erik Erikson extended the idea of human development beyond childhood.  For each developmental stage, he claimed that there was a challenge that we needed to meet in order to be strong and healthy.  The penultimate stage he called “generativity vs. stagnation” (40-60).  To move firmly through that stage—let’s call it the launching pad for old age—adults need to turn from self-concern and self-indulgence towards the concern, care, and nurturance of the next generation.

The primary challenge Erikson identified for life’s last stage (65-death) is “ego integrity vs. despair”.  To succeed at the end of life, he claimed, we need to accept life more or less as it is, to review our accomplishments and failures, and to come to the conclusion that we have lived our life reasonably well.

I think that Erikson sold these last years short, as something of a lengthy dénouement in which productivity stopped and reflection was all that remained.  That doesn’t reflect the people I know.  It’s true that most of us have done an accounting.  It’s also true that, for most of us, the urgency to produce income, ideas, and concrete products has waned.  But our energy persists, as does our desire to contribute towards the lives of others.  Erikson’s challenge for the stage preceding old age—turning our attention to the next generation—works as well, if not better, for old people.

For many this takes the form of taking care of grandchildren and volunteer work in nonprofit organizations, participating on boards of directors, assisting with administrative tasks, and mentoring the children served by the nonprofits.  All very valuable contributions.  For most of us, though, I think that mentoring represents our greatest and often untapped opportunity.

While youth do not automatically revere age in our society, my own experience tells me that they do value what we have learned when applied appropriately and well.  Most of us can’t advise on computer and iphone issues, for instance, as our children and grandchildren can attest.  We would also be unwise to lay claims to universal wisdom—not if we want any but cult-seeking groupies to listen to us.  Nor can we impose our cultural premises onto the next generation as those in traditional societies could.  If we try, young people won’t and shouldn’t listen to us.

What we can draw on is a great deal of lived experience which, if we are reflective, provides the possibility of wisdom comparable to the elders in traditional societies.  We have formed and nurtured families, organizations, and communities and we have learned a great deal along the way.  We have learned by our successes and by our failures.  We have learned from our fears and from our boldness.  We have learned by falling on our faces and getting up again.  We have learned by our reluctance and by our impetuousness.   Every one of us has lived a life in which we had to solve problems, endure hardships, and learn to affirm life as it is.

We have learned, that is, if we have consistently reflected on our experience—and if we continue to reflect on what is true and what still seems relevant.

Since many, if not most of us, have not had the opportunity to be well mentored or to observe mentors in action, there will be skills to learn.  Describing those skills is beyond the scope of this essay, but let me offer just a little advice.

Mentoring is generally best as part of a relationship.  There has to be a good fit between mentor and mentee, a mentor’s desire to help and teach and a mentee’s wish to benefit.  Much of what we offer begins and ends with respectful listening, which is the best way to get to know one another and to build trust.

Most of what we say is best shared through stories.  Unless they are requested—teach me how to write a budget, a plan, how to get along with my fellow workers—didactic lessons tend to feel like impositions.  They create distance, not intimacy.  By teaching through stories, we encourage and affirm our mentees’ capacity to draw their own conclusions, to extrapolate in their own creative ways.  The key is this: to allow our own wisdom to release and not constrain our mentees’ wisdom.

There is one more key: we have to be in proximity with young people.

Mostly we are not.  We live in separate communities.  We talk different languages.  We don’t share stories.  The generations have become balkanized.  While older people resent the warehousing that separates us from family and community, we also contribute mightily by separating ourselves.  We need to buck this tide.

I have had the privilege of mentoring many young people  For years, I joined with young marital and family therapists.  For many more, I have worked with organizational leaders.  And throughout, there are moments when even my grown children have allowed me to offer a telling story or a bit of advice.

Mentoring is an activity I love.  It provides me with the opportunity to know the younger generations, just a bit, and for them to know me.  At some point in of every session, I feel that I have contributed something, that I have passed on a little bit of what I have learned.  I have not let my life’s learning just dribble away.  Mentoring is a way forward with dignity.  For me, it has become a little piece of paradise, the closest I come to an afterlife.

 

Un-Tethered: Freedom in Aging

When we are young, we generally seek independence.  We want the freedom to form our own relationships, to discover and to articulate our own thoughts—to find our own way.  When we are old, freedom comes almost unbidden and the ties that bind us to activities, relationships, and communities often take flight.

As we move through our sixties and into our seventies, and as we near or enter retirement, we grow increasingly disengaged from family and work.  Our children have flown the coop, often settling in other states and regions.  We see them as often as possible—as often as they permit, we say—but they no longer fill our daily and weekly lives.  Nor does the contact define us as much as it once did.  For many of us, this includes grandchildren.  We adore them but they are elsewhere.  Even when we see them weekly, they are not the center of our lives as our children had been.

In addition to the loving contact and the intensity of relationships within families, there is an everydayness to the lives they required that gave shape to our days, weeks, and months.  The teacher conferences and the vacations, the bedtime stories and the meals to prepare—they determined the rhythm and texture of our lives.  It was easy to imagine that this, the quotidian, would be the hardest to relinquish.

The empty nest at home is joined by a comparable experience at work.  Like family, work is more than a series of activities.  It’s a community of sorts, a web of relationships.  Many of us may have spent more time within that web than with family and friends.  Who we are within that context seems to be who we are.  Our identities have been partly forged by our projects, our roles, our ambitions—or lack of ambitions—and by the relationships we cultivated.

Some of us, freed from what seemed like limiting marriages or intractable conflict, were at our best at work.  When we have been nurtured by work, it can be particularly hard to separate from it.  At the extreme, there were those among us who virtually lived at work and became virtual strangers at home.  As strangers, we lost our standing in the family, where the primary relationships were between the children and their mothers—or, in rare cases, with their father.  In such cases, leaving work meant leaving our true homes.

Broadly speaking, our sense of responsibility to people and institutions grows thinner with age.  And this isn’t just a numbers game.  It speaks to the way that the ties have held us. When we know what’s expected of us, when we know the rules by which we succeed and fail—and what will happen in both instances—when even the mostly implicit rules are known, there is a comfort in the clarity.  Paradoxically, the very clarity of the constraints and expectations make us free.

There’s another paradox here: even though you choose your work freely, day by day, you don’t choose.  You are just there, at work, within the work community, the web that holds you.  And, though deeply immersed in these webs, you are free to leave.  When you leave, the feeling of freedom and loss mingle in confusing ways.

For most of us, the power of family and work comes in good part from the sense of belonging, the virtually unsought and implicit sense of connection.  We don’t have to seek it.  We don’t have to risk rejection or embarrassment.  We are just a member.  And there is a quality of membership, hard to define, that feels larger than ourselves, larger than any group of individuals.

Unlike a contract, which is based on a quid pro quo—you do this and I’ll do that—family and work are based on a covenant or sorts.  A covenant is not a two but a three legged stool: you, me, and something larger.  It could be shared beliefs, shared goals, an almost religious sense of the ties that bind us together.  When this covenant is threatened, we are threatened.  We are un-tethered, potentially alone in a vast and uncomprehending world.

That is why you would think that old age and retirement would shake most of us to our core.  The prospect of facing ourselves without these twin holding relationships seems daunting.  Who are we in the midst of this new and puzzling freedom.  How do we nurture ourselves? Do we have only ourselves to answer to and to please?  At first—and at second—glance, that seems a flimsy basis for living.

And yet, and yet, this seems like a very good time of life, less needy and more easily filled than imagined.  I have been watching my friends bask in the freedom, which most of the time does not seem puzzling at all.  In fact, I’d say that they celebrate the freedom: freedom from pressure on the job; freedom from the fear of failure which is always present when you put yourself on the line; freedom, for the most part, from having to please other people; and freedom from having to try to control others.  What an unbelievable relief to be responsible only to ourselves and a to few others.  And for those of us who have been fortunate enough to retire with enough money to live comfortably, the time for anxious saving is done.

The empty nests mean that we have completed or mostly completed the work of parenting and the long labor to earn a living and a reputation.  We have probably taken time to assess our lives, acknowledged our limitations and found gratitude for successes.  What’s done is done and it is mostly in the past.

My friends celebrate time to read what they hadn’t had time to read, to take up photography, art, music.  To learn.  For years, it seemed like we had stopped learning.  There was too much to do.  And when we did learn, it was begrudging.  There was the need to keep up professionally, to make sure advisors weren’t taking advantage of our tax and financial positions.  These felt like chores not openings to new worlds.  Now Learning in old age becomes a source of delight and deep satisfaction.

 

My friends celebrate spontaneity.  We don’t have to run from task to task. We need sprint right home from work to make sure the kids have dinner or rides.  If we want to have dinner or drinks with a friend, we do.  Friends become more central to life than they had been since childhood.  If and when we want to take a walk, we do.  Read a book, go to a movie, take a nap—any time of day, any day of the week.  What a privilege this seems.  Sometimes it feels illicit but that hardly dims the pleasure.

Maybe the greatest and unexpected pleasure brought on by the combination of empty nests is a sense of detachment.  This is a subject that the great psychologist, Erik Erikson, talked about so eloquently.  He described our lives as passing through a number of stages, each with its own great challenge.  The challenge for the last stage (sixty-five and beyond) is to cultivate “ego integrity” over “despair.  Despair represents the fear that our lives haven’t gone the way we wished and there isn’t enough time to begin anew.

Ego integrity means embracing our sense of wholeness, a belief that life as it is, is enough.  To achieve that wholeness, people have accepted setbacks and disappointments, celebrated successes, and found meaning in both.  Those who find such meaning arrive at a sense of well being, a peaceful contemplation of their own mortality.  This, if anything, is wisdom.