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.

Hope: The Bridge Between Darkness and Light

Sometimes the night time can be bleak.  That’s when old fears, new injuries and ongoing anxieties mingle and persist.  Yet, as first light dawns, there is a stunning transformation.  Within seconds, and even as I recall the night’s drama, it is replaced with the anticipation of a good day.  Almost every morning I am amazed and grateful.  Almost every day the transformation is the harbinger of the internal resources that help me realize those good days.

This seeming miracle, this feeling of hope, takes place with such regularity that I have to believe it is embedded in my psyche, a permanent part of my character.  I have done nothing to cultivate or deserve the extraordinary bridge between darkness and light, between the worst and best in me. But I depend on it almost as much as I depend on food and water.

So I have been asking myself: What creates and nurtures this capacity to leap across the abyss, this ability to wait out the hard times with some sense of optimism?  What is this feeling called hope?

To me, the most compelling description of hope comes from Erik Erikson, who finds its origins in the infant’s struggles to resolve the developmental conflict between Trust and Mistrust.  Picture an infant, hungry, tired, cold—crying, thrashing, needing help that doesn’t come right away.   It’s easy to imagine a kind of despair setting in.  But then a parent arrives, lifts her, holds her, feeds and comforts her, not once but again and again.  With time, the baby comes to trust that, although she is miserable, she won’t be in the future. The repetition eventually builds a “protective barrier against despair that can last a lifetime and is the basis for resilience,” optimism, and faith.    (from Mary Catherine Bateson, Composing a Further Life)

In essence, the cycle of need and rescue teaches the baby to hope, which is not innate, but rather a learned response to fear.  Once learned, it becomes a virtually automatic, unconscious expectation that good will follow bad.  This is how I awaken each day.

Erikson makes such sense to me.  With him, I suspect that, throughout our lives, there is something about our capacity for hopefulness that reflects these early lessons.  At its core, the experience remains primitive, beyond words and what we think of as cognition.  But hope is also updated, reformulated and revised as we move through our lives, growing into childhood, adolescence, early and late adulthood—through childhood, adolescence, early and late adulthood.

Let me illustrate.  As toddlers, we become more autonomous and better able to make things happen.  Psychologists call this a sense of agency.  Just the other day, I watched my 10 month old granddaughter pull herself up to a standing position, let go of her supports, fall, stand, fall and stand. My god, I wish I was so tenacious in pursuit of an accomplishment.  It seems clear that little Lucy regularly draws on the capacity for hope that she learned months earlier.  Now, though, the quality of hope is no longer passive.  It doesn’t depend entirely on an adult.  It now reflects her growing autonomy, her own will to succeed, and her growing capacity to influence her autonomy.  From this point forward, I believe, the quality of hope she experiences is inextricably connected to these other skills.

With each new developmental stage, our experience of hope is joined by new skills, new ways to see the world.  As we enter adulthood, for example, we learn to actively participate in intimate relationships, to love.  Let’s say that our solution to what Erikson calls the challenge of Intimacy vs. Isolation, is to be consistently generous towards our lover.  Generosity actually makes us feel closer and brings our lover to us.  Now our updated experience of hope comes with a strong dose of generosity.  As we awaken in the morning after a fight with our partner, for instance,  we almost immediately—and automatically—think about what we might do for her.  This pleases her; she draws closer; and the link between hope and generosity grows stronger.

Now there is a fusion of our will to succeed (in resolving the fight), a belief that we can (because we are competent), with both generosity and hope.  As we awaken, and in the twinkling of an eye, hope is immediately present—joined by these additional friendly capabilities.  We may not yet have worked out a strategy for how they will work together but we are already optimistic that we will find a way.

These days, psychologists know that people don’t pass through these stages in an orderly way, one after another.  Rather, we begin to resolve a conflict, like intimacy versus isolation, then fall back.  Then we try again.  With time and multiple efforts, we build a style of resolving those conflicts that is all our own, yet also profoundly influenced by the people and the general culture that surround us.  Each resolution builds on and integrates aspects of the ones before and folds into the ones that follow.

Erikson’s model features eight stages and eight challenges.  For the purposes of this essay, I’ll now skip to the last two.  The seventh challenge emerges as adulthood moves towards old age.  Here the struggle is between what he calls Generativity vs Stagnation.  To successfully resolve this developmental crisis, we must build a capacity for the sustained care of others.  In very old age, the challenge pits Integrity vs Despair.  If we fail to resolve this struggle, we become indifferent and disdainful.  If we succeed, we grow humble and attain a state of wisdom.  I would place myself in the midst of these two crises.

What amazes me is that, at 75, hope is as present and visceral to me as it was at 15.  For instance, I fear that my grandchildren will inhabit a world that is polluted and ravaged by storms.  Yet, in the same moment, in the same breath, I hope that they will be well,

that they and their generation will find solutions that we can’t now see.  What’s more, there is some vague notion that I can help.  Even if I can’t see the exact solution, I might help them build a belief in their own efficacy.  I hope so, and that almost means that I believe so.  Let’s hope that this is more than just a way to comfort myself.

Here’s another example.  I feel that the pain in my back and my arm and my wrist are only increasing, leading to moments of despair.  But I also hope that I find ways to affirm and to take pleasure in my life anyway.  I don’t call up the hope, like some ancient Greek God.  I don’t wrestle with the despair.  The hope emerges by itself, just as it did when I was young, now joined and refined by all the many ways that I have learned to manage myself, to draw on the support and love of my wife, my children, and my friends.  I know how to distract myself, for example, by walking instead of running, by writing essays not professional papers, and by paying attention to the young people I mentor.  As we think and laugh together, the relationships make me feel young and joyful, on one hand, and comfortable in my age—reflecting a wisdom that may be no more than the belief that my life will work out.

It seems to me that hope is as much a part of me as the skin on my face when the sun is shining brightly.  It is a deep reservoir of good will.  My trust in its benevolence may be as close as I come to religious faith.