A couple of weeks ago, a friend asked me to talk about aging with a men’s reading group that he hosts. I agreed and a few days later, he sent me a gift of That Good Night, a novel by Richard Probert. It’s a rollicking, hyperbolic, Odessey-like journey that describes the struggles and triumphs of 84 year old Charlie Lambert as he escapes from what he experiences as the prison of an assisted living facility.
Charlie is an archetypal grumpy old man, who feels rejected by his family, forgotten by his friends, and consigned to a life of endless boredom, condescension, and enforced passivity. He yearns to be free. He dreams of making his own decisions and pursuing a life of his own choosing, which, after his escape, takes the form of a solo sailing voyage from the Chesapeake to the shores of Maine.
Freedom is no metaphor for Charlie. As he sails off, his mind and energy return to life. He relishes even the smallest pleasures. For Charlie, even the uncertainties and pains of freedom are preferable to a life quietude and resignation, and That Good Night serves as a comic paean to self-determination.
Of course, the need for autonomy and a sense of one’s agency accompany us through all stages of life. In early childhood, during the “terrible twos,” we intone: “No, no, no.” That’s the time when we, incohately but persistently, begin to draw boundaries between ourselves and our parents. It’s as if a small child could say “I am more than an extension of my parents.” The content doesn’t matter but the boundaries do.
In adolescence, we move beyond the world that we see as defined by others. Wittingly and unwittingly, we explore unknown and often frightening realms. Part of us yearns for a return to the security of parental rules and ideas, but we can’t, we won’t. Beginning in early adulthood, our sense of belonging and our sense of service may lead to an apparent retreat into more conventional styles. We seem to let other people—bosses and spouses, for example—commandeer the autonomy we had won with such pain and perseverance. What independence and self determination we still nurture goes underground and becomes more a part of our fantasy than our active lives. That’s part of the mystery of adulthood. Even as we earn our livings and raise our children, we can feel other, seemingly more authentic, exotic, or rebellious selves peek out at work, in affairs, in mid life crises. But, for the most part, these remain anomalous, not defining experiences.
Strangely enough, self-determination reappears as a defining experience in old age, even if neglected by institutions that care for us. With the loss of job- and family-defined lives, we must decide what we will do, who we will be. We yearn equally for safety and adventure. Some adventures may seem tame—Elder Hostile travel tours, skin diving, and red convertibles, for instance—but they express a profound desire to reach beyond the limitations that we had imposed on ourselves.
And surprisingly enough, I believe that this desire transcends gender. While self-determination is far more closely associated with men than women, the need to meet life head on and to set one’s own course, seems as true for one as the other.
What, then, is self-determination? For me, it’s not so much about running from convention nor reacting against what others do or what they wish for us. As we reach maturity, self-determination shifts from a negative to a positive valance—not so much being free from constraints as being free to pursue our own ends.
This kind of freedom requires self knowledge. You can’t set a true course until you know what it is, and you can’t know what it is until you know who you are and what aims make you feel right with yourself. Old friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, put it this way: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” To do so, you really have to listen to those inner voices. As older people, we have the time and the elbow room to do that kind of listening. We have listened before. We know the themes that have animated our lives. We are potential connoisseurs.
To listen well, you have to be still. For a moment, at least, you have to let go the need to be productive. Otis Redding can be our model, “sitting on the dock of the bay, watching the tide roll away.” Meditation provides another model. It calms the mind and allows us to observe our feelings with greater clarity and skepticism. As William Wright writes, “Rather than automatically following their guidance, you critically inspect them and decide which ones to trust.”
At such times, feelings, thoughts, and images float through your mind. If you refuse to settle on one right away, you eventually find your mind focusing, almost by itself, on some desire and some course of action. If you wish, that becomes your north star.
Pursuing that star then requires discipline. Henry David Thoreau tells us that “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately…” This statement joins the two parts of self and determination. As we know from the pages of Walden Pond, Thoreau quieted his life so that he could determine what mattered most, then followed what he learned as carefully and authentically as he could.
I identify with Thoreau. Like him, I keep a journal as a way to observe my world and to quiet myself. I think of my blog posts as ways to sort through and crystallize what I am learning.
It’s not easy to find the core. As contemporary philosophers have taught us, it may be necessary at first to throw off the rules that we live by before we can learn about our more authentic voices and choices. In fact, self-determination is a phrase often used for countries, not individuals. A former colony, for example, throws off the yoke of slavery in order to gain freedom, first. Only then does self-direction follow.
So, too, with individuals. We have to look inside at length to determine what has been imposed and what is true for us, alone. We have to throw off the colonizing process of all the rules we have learned, the habits we have developed in order to be liked, to seem good, smart, strong, or appropriate.
In his famous essay, Emerson talks of “self reliance,” but that phrase misses the mark for me. It’s not a matter of just depending on ourselves. I think we do and must depend on others, as well. It’s a matter of directing ourselves in order to be the person we wish to be, in order to achieve the ends we want to achieve. In another passage, Emerson says it better: First he tells us that “The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.” Then he proclaims: “Dare to live the life you have dreamed for yourself. Go forward and make your dreams come true.”
How, then, can we go forward? There is an emerging consensus among psychologists and educators that determination is as powerful as what we think of as innate ability. They call this quality “grit.” When they look at a child’s potential, they say that the willingness to try and try again, to fall and rise again, to persevere in the face of criticism and doubts, their own and others’—that this quality of character may be a better predictor of future success than IQ and social privilege.
It may seem strange to invoke the quality of grit for aging people but I am convinced that it is essential to our well being. Those among my friends who tenaciously pursue the activities that matter most to them, whether it be caring for grandchildren, playing music, meditating, continuing their professional work, or launching new and seemingly unrealistic project—these people are most alive.
Self determination, then, begins with contemplation and culminates with the energetic, often dogged pursuit of whatever turns you on. There is joy and satisfaction in this pursuit.