I want to propose a new measure for the vitality of life: the experience of spaciousness. A spacious world is a free world, full of people and ideas, activities and imagination—all in motion, with enough room to touch one another for a moment, dance away, then touch again. Each time they touch, a new configuration is formed.
You might think that the world would grow smaller, much smaller, as we age. After all, there are fewer years ahead. There’s less to look forward to, fewer fantasies about what we might encounter or achieve. Yearning and ambition, those great drivers of a expanded world, have mostly fled. Friends and relatives are slipping away—many of the people we are closest to have retreated into themselves or died. Since most of us aren’t working, we have lost that large circle of acquaintances who gave an extra spice to our lives and added to the everyday stories that enlarge our sense of self.
The past shrinks as memories grow dimmer—not just the quantity but also their meaning and intensity. With time and a modicum of maturity, we have learned to calm ourselves, to stop those memories from dominating our present life—the time when a guy jilted us in high school; the year we lost a child; the time a father lashed into us; the humiliations we have all suffered, early and late in life. Shrinking those memories in order to live a good life in the present has been one of the great accomplishments on the way to maturity and greater wisdom.
As we age, you might think that our worlds are shrinking without recourse but, aside from physical activity, that is not my experience. My mental and emotional world is still expanding.
Let me offer some random illustrations. During the last few months, I have been interviewed by my granddaughter, 19, and by a friend’s 14 year old daughter, both seeking an eye witness to the 1960’s and the Civil Rights era and recollections of childhood in the 1940’s. I’ve been questioned by nonprofit leaders, wanting to know about how I built my organization and how I managed to leave, ready to continue its growth. Also by journalists asking my thoughts on aging.
There’s nothing grand about the interviews but I love to pontificate and, as I’m discovering, I love to recreate a chock-filled past for almost anyone who is interested. What has struck me is the expansiveness of the experience. The more people ask me the more my memories came out, like a flood—no, not a flood—like snowflakes, one after another after another, until they filled and colored whole landscapes. Once one landscape is completed, I seem to build another. During these experiences, I can’t tell if I’m recreating or inventing worlds but they feel real and they keep coming. The more people ask, the more I remember, new and old worlds keep springing to life, and I find myself wishing I’d have interviews every day.
When people are interested in what we think and do, our world expands. Why not put ourselves in that position as much as possible. The other day, after a meeting with some young leaders who I mentor, I wondered whether I should make myself more available. Why should there be a sharp distinction between working and retirement. Few things make me happier than supporting young people and sharing what I’ve learned. Just the other day, my daughter quipped that I’d probably be happiest as a village elder, and she’s right. What a large world that would be, sitting in a rocker and adding to the lives of younger people.
There are many ways that my universe continues to grow. To state the obvious, my family keeps growing. There are five grandchildren, two children and two virtually-my-children—my son- and daughter-in-law. All of their lives are growing exponentially. I participate in their lives. I watch them grow. I learn about their stories and their expanding universes.
My intellectual universe is growing, too. When I talk with family, friends, and mentees, I find myself citing historical events and precedents, quoting poets and philosophers, inventing broad theories of everything. This is not an entirely new style for me (an understatement, notes my wife) but it seems to be increasing, as though I am living in an immense world of ideas that no longer feels tethered to particular historical events. Now they roam freely, attaching as they will to one experience or another, lending greater meaning to the specific and otherwise limited events that they touch.
Young people often chuckle when I begin one of my historical, literary, or philosophical references—here he goes again—but they also seem to like it. To them, their own ideas and their own experience can sometimes seem compressed and lacking in context. Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed are not part of their everyday universe. Nor Rousseau, Locke, Hobbes, Marx, and Dewey. But they are mine. They were internalized over so many years that they have colonized wide swaths of my interior space and inform everything I think. Though the young people don’t know it, these ideas are part of their lives, just buried and implicit. I have fun telling them how that is so.
I’ve written before about the impact of experience on problem solving. When problems arise, I draw on many earlier efforts to solve similar ones, on successes and failures that inform the present, on templates that I and others have developed. Get me thinking and talking about a challenge and I feel that I can draw on an almost infinite variety of approaches. That’s one of the reasons I have such fun when mentoring young leaders.
Surprisingly, then, looking back affords a great sense of spaciousness. But what about looking forward? That timeline has surely shortened. You wouldn’t think that I could have comparable expectations about the future, could you?
Actually, I think that I do. For instance, I like so much to imagine how things might turn out for my children and grandchildren, my mentees, the organizations I helped to start. What will Molly and Jake choose for work? Who will they marry, if they marry. If so, what will those lucky people be like? Will Franny and I be alive for Eli, Jack, and Lucy’s bar- and bat-mitzvahs; will we see the arc of their lives as we have, with great good fortune, seen a good deal of our children’s trajectories. We love to speculate about these things. And so it is for my mentees and for the organizations that I’ve worked with.
Oddly, speculation about the future is not so different than recreating the past. Both require imagination, a blending of facts and filler. They are creative acts. During the act of creation, uncertainties arise. These, the times before committing to our course, are the most pivotal moments.
I have always liked uncertainties—the way you feel when you get lost and have to find your way home. That is so much better for me than having a GPS at my side. I like the freedom that comes with uncertainty. I like observing how closely my speculations hew to experience. I like learning about the world through observation and reading and conversation. Uncertainty and the infinite potential for learning are partly what make the future seem spacious.
Earlier I spoke about the pleasure I take in still being involved in the lives of younger people. I’d like to conclude this essay, though, with a different, maybe even an opposing thought. Even as we participate in the lives of others as we age, we also move to the side and become observers.
When we really observe, when we rid ourselves, little by little, of prejudice and prescribed outcomes and investments in particular outcomes, the observed world becomes much more dynamic. As an observer, we shrink into the background; and the more we shrink, the larger the observed world becomes. Our selves, our egos, are no longer blocking the view. As we leave the foreground for the background, our vested interests shrink. We observe a universe that is startling in its clarity and spaciousness.