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.

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Confidence and freedom

In my last letter I wrote about my desire for freedom and emphasized freedom from constraints.  But as we all know, there is more than one kind of freedom: freedom from and freedom to; and the feeling of being so absorbed that you lose self-consciousness.  You are free because you have escaped all those enervating inner monologues about doing better and doing more.

A key part of absorption is the experience of confidence.  You move through an activity feeling sure of yourself, not even worrying about mistakes, just flowing the way that an athlete moves when he is in a “zone,” the way a piano player’s fingers move across the keyboard, as though they are independent of her mind.  For a moment, there is almost no intention.  It’s just happening.  You’re just happening.

For the most part, we associate this kind of confidence with youth.  They are too young, we say, to understand all that can go wrong, and we envy their innocence.  But confidence is essential to aging as well, and that’s what I want to explore today.  I have been feeling confident in the writing I have been doing.  It has come easy.  Ideas and words are flowing.  I’d like to understand how to sustain it.

Researchers seem to prefer the phrase “self esteem,” and have gone to great lengths to measure it, even to measure its developmental course.  After large, longitudinal studies, for example, Ulrich Orth, PhD tells us that “Self esteem was lowest in young adults but increased throughout adulthood, peaking at age 60, before it started to decline.”  Retirement adds an extra push towards decline.  Good health and success in life help to stem the loss, as can many individual experiences.  But generally, confidence dips in step with aging.  As anyone observing very old people knows, anxiety comes increasingly into the forefront.

Being seventy four years old, and knowing that my health and strength will inevitably continue their downward course, I am particularly eager to remain confident anyway.  I keep asking myself: can health and confidence be separated?  I know that there are limits to how much I can control about my health.  The question is: can I build the discipline to focus on what I can control and on what makes me confident.

Paul Baltes, a developmental psychologist, had some very good ideas about this.  When describing his SOC model, he began with a story about the great concert pianist, Arthur Rubenstein.  Rubenstein had just given a performance to thunderous applause.  A young man approached him with a question: how do you keep playing so well at eighty six?  Rubenstein smiled, sat down carefully, and explained.  “First of all,” he said, “I have narrowed my repertoire a great deal.”  That’s what Baltus calls Selection.  You choose what you can and want to do well and eliminate what you can’t.  “Second,” Rubenstein continued, “I practice that small repertoire all the time.”  Baltus calls this Optimization.  You can sustain your nimbleness and effectiveness within a chosen range of activities.  “Third,” said Rubenstein, “I have tricks.  As you know, I am known for my speed and emphasis at the keyboard.  When I approach fast passages now, I slow down a great deal more than I used to.  That way, when I speed up, the difference between slow and fast is just as great, and I seem to have maintained my speed.”  That’s Compensation.

As I age, I’ll never get better with details and names.  I’ll need my grandchildren to help with my computer and my phone.  It’s unlikely that I’ll develop a flair for dancing or a keen understanding of quantum physics.  All of those arenas make me feel like an idiot and, unless I can laugh about them, sap my confidence.

What, then, is my comfort zone, arenas that build my confidence?  Most of all, I do feel that I see the big picture and the long view.  This is common enough for older people.  If you are sharp, you may have noticed that I have been writing blog posts lately.  They are flowing from my mind, something like the way that Rubenstein’s fingers still flow across the keyboard.  The ease is surprising and wonderful.  And like Rubenstein, I have some ideas about why this is happening.

First, many specific topics fit into a pretty extensive base of knowledge.  I’m an old guy.  I’ve been reading and listening and thinking for decades.  I have accumulated all sorts of ideas about how things work and what motivates people.  There are streams of ideas, impressions, stories floating around my brain, and new ideas fit within the streams.  These streams are waiting to be tapped.  I don’t have to search too far for what an event in the news means to me.  The whole process is so fluid, so automatic that ideas to write about virtually form themselves.  As a result, I have such a good feeling of freedom and confidence when I am at my (computer) keyboard.

And I trust the ideas.  They just feel right.  I also trust them because they don’t have to be exactly “right” or “the best.”  They are mine and that’s enough.  You can’t grow old without becoming at least a little eccentric, and I’m comfortable with that.  That, too, feels liberating.

So let’s return to Baltes.  I have selected an activity, writing, that I’ve been doing for more than fifty years.  I’ve chosen a form of writing—brief essays—that is much easier than the complex essays and books I once wrote.  Like Arthur Rubenstein, if a tad less successfully, I am learning and practicing my craft with discipline. That’s optimization.  I’m not sure what tricks I am using but one may be that I’ve been writing in the spoken voice.  It’s like talking to a friend—or writing a letter to a friend.  A letter on aging.  I don’t have to pretend to be setting the standard for a professional field.  I’m just talking.  That’s compensation.

As I write or talk to friends about my new toy, the blog, I do feel good, even confident.  My hope is that you, too, will look into your own activities, then, in your own way, follow Arthur Rubenstein’s example.  Let me know if it makes you feel more confident and, with confidence, free.

Freedom and Constraint

Dear Mitch,

I am sitting on a deck in Cerbere, high above the Mediterranean, feeling free, feeling peaceful.  I am absorbed.  Then I look up and I feel that I never want to stop what I am doing, never want to stop whatever I am doing—until I want to.

I love the mornings when they are quiet, when no one intrudes.  I love when there is time to feel the breeze and the sunshine until I don’t want to anymore.  I love the mornings when I can contemplate matters small and large, when I can write and read and exercise until I am done—and not until there is a demand on my time: a scheduled event or a person requiring my attention.

There have been times during vacations when this kind of freedom has washed over me, and I feel peaceful through the days.  I have been looking to retirement to extend those times, to make them feel infinite.  But now that I am retired, they are not coming as readily as I have dreamed.  There are still people who lay claim to my time based on their timing and who experience my desire for quiet space as selfish or silly.  And, in fairness, they never signed on for this desire of mine.

In general, there is a childlike part of me that wants to be free from obligations, free from rules and demands and “necessity.” As far back as memory takes me, I have had to make my bed, clean my room, do my homework, earn a living, take care of children and family, and friends.  There’s nothing unique in this, of course.  And responding well to most of these demands has led to a good life.  I have a lovely family—children and grandchildren, a wife I love, a brother and sister I continue to love, and many good friends.  My work has gone well, largely because I have been responsible and true to my values and objectives.  The rules and the demands have been manageable. They have pointed me in the right direction. They have served me well.  And yet… a part of me rebels.

The fight isn’t just external. There are so many internalized imperatives.  Am I using my time well?  Am I doing enough?  I need to… substitute here a thousand things that I should be doing for others or myself.  It’s the internal demands that make it harder to rest, to take advantage of the increased time, to take my time with the mornings.  Even before the demands have a name, before they announce themselves with any specificity, I feel an itch to do something that disturbs the quiet that I seek or the quiet that I have  momentarily found.

As a child, I could be daydreaming or floating in the ocean and my father would wonder (loudly) if I was alright.  Translation?  Don’t you want to be more productive?  I can hear Madamoiselle Cattone calling out in French class: Monsieur Dym, vous dormez; tourjour vous dormez.  In fact, I had been trying to understand something important about my girlfriend.  In my view, I was working.  My parental training taught me that there was something illicit about dreaming and lolling in the water, or about drifting from the task at hand.

Now, as I hear those voices of proper behavior, I find myself quietly stomping my feet to demand my freedom.  I feel petulant.  I feel irate.  “Leave me alone,” I want to scream.  And in some of my acerbic little comments, I’m sure people hear that scream just as loud as I hear it in my heart.

Yet there is something terrifying about freedom of all kinds. We are afraid to enter the land where no one tells us what to do.  We take a certain comfort in the structure that rules and routines provide and even that the annoying demands of others provide for us. I remember, a long time ago, reading Eric Fromm’s book, Escape from Freedom, which described how some, even many, people chose autocratic leadership over democracy.  Democracy presents too many choices and people feel lost.  Rather a safe prison than confusion and self doubt.

A decade later, I wrote a doctoral dissertation called, after a Walter Lippmann book, The Chaos of a New Freedom.  The theme must have stayed on my mind.  The dissertation was about a generation of intellectuals who felt freed from the constraints of received truths.  With Nietzsche, they claimed that God is Dead. In his place, are the inventions of human beings: the stories, the structures, the symbols, the cultural icons—all of the things that helped us order and make meaning of our potentially chaotic lives.

I personally thrill to the freedom they chose, the ability, or so they thought, to build their own worlds.  I have always wanted to ‘take the road less traveled.’  Friends and family find me a little eccentric.  They ask me how I moved along a career path that follows an internal logic not always discernible—or approved—by even close observers: historian; psychotherapist; management consultant; writer; entrepreneur.  But to be perfectly honest, I have always surrounded my freedom with conventional supports: family, friends, income, and respect among colleagues.  I could not have chosen my odd professional travels without their continual support.  I would have gotten lost and frightened.

In retirement, and yearning for my freedoms, I am once again confronted by this great existential challenge.  Like many of my generation, I have the opportunity to build a balance between freedom and safety that works for me.  What kind of freedom can my retirement bring?  I don’t know yet, but I think it contains wide swaths of time in the mornings and early afternoons to contemplate and to write and to exercise my body.  What kind of constraints?  I surely can’t say, but I’d like to believe that I have grown strong enough in myself to keep them loose.  I really do want my freedom.

I know that others will not want to sign this contract, not without conditions, not without a fuss.  But I am going to fight for the better balance of freedom and safety that I have, almost unconsciously, been yearning for all of my life.