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.

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Free to Be You and Me

I had long thought that drawing a strong, unbroken line dividing work and retirement was for those who disliked their work and wanted to retreat to lawn chairs, mixed drinks, golf and cruises, and for those who had created large bucket lists to make up for unfulfilling lives.  A haughty framing, wouldn’t you say? When people asked me what I was going to do when I retired, I said “I don’t know.  There’s such a dense cloud cover between here and there, I can’t see what’s on the other side.  I can’t feel what it will be like.”  But I had a notion.  I wanted to be very engaged by activities that would continue to add satisfaction and give meaning to my life.

Along with others, I anticipated retirement with mixed feelings.  We looked forward to leaving the grind, to the absence of responsibilities, the slower pace, taking time over coffee and the newspaper in the morning, then a long leisurely walk in the early afternoon.  Some of us couldn’t wait to take up the piano again, throw pots or paint pictures, travel to far off places, and take time with friends. We wanted to take on work-like projects and board seats just for the satisfaction they brought.  For others, more time with grandchildren seemed an irresistible lure.

But there were also anticipatory anxieties.  We worried that we might be bored.  We would rapidly become irrelevant and ignored by all but those closest to us—and maybe some of them, too.  Our minds might wither without challenge.  Then, too, many of us associated retirement with the nearness of infirmity and death.

Since engagement—being deeply absorbed in activities for long periods of time—was  my Valhalla, I assumed that others would join me.  By being absorbed in meaningful activities, the primary desire for more leisure and social life would dissipate.  In an uncharacteristic fit of modesty, though, I began to doubt that my way was so universal and sent a note to about thirty friends asking what had changed in the way they attended to projects and other activities when they moved from work to retirement.

Their thoughtful responses spoke of many—not one—solutions to the developmental challenge represented by retirement.  They also led to a discovery: continuity of character seems to supersede changes in activity.  Even while many changed what they did with their time, they all seemed to remain very much themselves.

Some were like me.  They found projects that occupied their attention and gave zest to their lives.  Some of the projects mirrored their life’s work.  One friend, for example, expanded her research and writing about affordable housing.  Another pursued her passion to fix our climate but did so with greater flexibility and ease.  A third deepened her love of literature—something she had taught for decades—by writing a book on Dickens.  In each case, freedom from institutional constraints, from bosses, pay checks, and from injunctions to be well behaved turned out to be delicious, even liberating.

Others turned away from lifelong patterns.  These are people who had worked very, very hard, often with great success.  Now they don’t work hard; they hardly work at all. They play.  Where before they were highly focused, now they jump from one activity to the next, almost without pattern; the jumping, the freedom to follow their whims, to be inconsistent, is what they find pleasurable.  Even as they defy their own need to stick with work and projects, though, they retain their characteristic intensity.  Each little activity is taken up with great care and concentration.  But they eschew long-term projects with goals, measures of effectiveness, and airs of importance.

From what I observe, this second group is composed of people for whom work contained a driven and seriously anxious component, which they don’t want to repeat in retirement.  Even professional success had taken a great toll.  They dearly wanted to shed responsibilities and to stop pleasing.  They are ready to be responsible only to themselves.  Sustained projects would plunge them back into the old cauldron.

There does seem to be a third type: those with shorter attention spans, who never could or never wanted to manage lengthy projects. One friend, for instance, dearly wanted to be done with institutions.  He maintains that he could have continued in his work without them but that’s hard for a surgeon to do.  He does not want to conform to organizational norms—or to any norms.  He chose early retirement and has become happier than he’s ever been as he grows more eccentric with time.

Knowing him, I noted that he does have a sustaining project: building a beautiful art collection and broadening his expertise in Asian and African artifacts.  He insists that I am wrong.  What he’s doing is just so much fun.  Even auctions, which others find tense, are an engrossing game to him.  He pursues his project by choice and in the style he wants and in accordance with the timing he chooses.  He engages and disengages as he sees fit.  He is free and that’s what he likes.  Much of his behavior looks very much as it did when he worked but he is the master of the whole domain.

I suspect that the desire to distance ourselves from our masters is what many of us have in common—whatever and whoever those masters are.  Some are external—bosses, financial responsibilities and the like—or creatures of our own psychic creation.  We want the freedom to make our own choices and to serve as our sole judges.

Character crosses the developmental divide more or less intact..  Whoever we were before we continue to be after retirement.  If we were intense before, we remain so.  If we had a short attention span beforehand, that is how we are afterwards. If we were focused before, we remain so, though in retirement, fearing the need to achieve, our focus may be in brief bursts of energy and attention.  If we needed sustained engagement with something outside of ourselves—like big projects—then we are likely to continue in that vein.  The post-retirement strategies we choose are meant to provide satisfaction and pleasure and to protect us in new ways from our inner demons.

At the same time as we doggedly remain the same, we also roam.  We roam from old consistencies, from the need to achieve, from the need for approval and external reward.  As we roam from old behaviors and, more importantly, from old injunctions, we grow a little or a lot more eccentric.  The permission we give to ourselves to be eccentric and the way we demand that others accept our eccentricities may be the truest achievement of retirement and aging.

The Wisdom of Aging

I have been looking through the essays I’ve written during the last five months and have noticed how many of them talk about letting go of many of the activities, thoughts, and feelings that have sustained me through my life.

There are actually three, complementary themes that jump out.  In some, I feel abandoned—by physical strength or memory, for instance.  In others, I am letting go.  Here I think of my efforts at fame and fortune and my desire to be more than I actually am.  Still others feel active, as though I am saying farewell.  I have, for example, retired.  And I have divested myself of many possessions.

I have been studying the wisdom traditions, both East and West, throughout my adult life.  The experience is often similar to what I feel when I read popular books on quantum theory and the bending of time.  While I’m reading, I think I understand.  When I’m done and try to explain what I’ve learned, my understanding has fled.  But the idea of wisdom continues its allure, and some of my late life experience seems to lend itself, at least a little bit, towards better understanding.

The marriage of age and wisdom is an ancient one.  It applies best to traditional and stable cultures, where the known world is available to the observant person, and not changed annually by new technologies.  In the known worlds, observation leads to knowledge.  Knowledge is tested and forged in fires of experience.  Reflecting upon that experience then leads to good judgment; and the repeated experience of good judgment leads to both confidence and a calm disposition. When sound judgment is shared calmly with others, and not imposed, word spreads.  A wise man or woman is in our midst.  This is the ancient pathway.

In spiritual traditions, judgment based on knowledge may not be enough.  There is a paradoxical passage to be navigated.  Even as you accumulate knowledge, you must let it go in order to see through conventional knowledge—and to see freshly into the unknown.  The Christian tradition, for instance, tells us that “…unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  (Matthew).  Buddhist and Hindu practices teach us how to let go of our illusions and our attachments in order to be free.  Liturgy and ritual are in the service of their opposite: the unknown.

This is the aim of meditation, maybe the primary discipline, even primary teacher, in many spiritual traditions.  In meditation we learn to see a tired and futile old solution to problems we have faced many times and, instead of grabbing onto it, we let it flow by.  When we hold on to what we know, it eventually weighs us down and blinds us to what is right in front of us.  By letting go of conventional wisdom, we are unmoored, which can be frightening, but we are also liberated to experience the world as if for the first time.  The experience is simple, spontaneous, visceral, and very satisfying.

Once free, you can bring back a good deal of the knowledge and good judgment that you had attained through study and experience.  Much of it will remain pertinent—but fresher, more immediate, more specific to each new situation.  Specificity and immediacy are what change.  You no longer apply knowledge with the broad strokes that had rendered your judgment, however correct, so uninspiring.  The inspiration of the child is in the sense of wonder.  Each moment is special.  With time, wonder and knowledge join. The marriage is joyous.  The present moment—discovery—and the ages are bonded as one.

The search for wisdom is often puzzling and daunting.  Among other things, it requires sacrifice: you must learn to let go the very knowledge that you have depended on, the precious knowledge that has given you a sense of security and status in your community.  In our fast-changing world, wisdom-as-knowledge is ephemeral.  The capacity to let it go over and over again becomes the key to clear sightedness.  And clear sightedness is true wisdom.  It permits you to address each moment, each challenge, each problem without the baggage of failed solutions.

Contemporary society confronts us not with stability but constant change.  Within that change, though, we also build a body of knowledge, some having to do with the nature of change and how best to cope with it.  But, ironically, on an individual level, this body of knowledge generally becomes almost as fixed as it was in traditional societies.  Those in search of wisdom pass through a comparable development: from observation and experience to knowledge and good judgment, from judgment to calm.  For those who wish to go further, the process of letting go of the certainty and woodenness of the knowledge they have attained, letting go remains the key to clarity.

Let me step back from these philosophical ruminations and say a little bit about how they apply to my life—and maybe to yours.  Remember, there were three related experiences that seem increasingly prominent: abandonment; letting go; farewell.

Abandonment means loss.  But it means more than loss.  It’s as though someone is actively leaving you or taking something away.  I don’t experience the loss of youth as voluntary.  It feels like it has fled while I slept.  The same is true for my belief, my dependence on the future as a balm that heals all ills.  Since I was a child, raised by parents who envisioned a better world, I have trusted the future.  Throughout my life, when I failed, struggled, or didn’t live up to expectations, I always believed that I could correct mistakes and improve conditions in the future. Now that I am much older, the future is no longer my friend and savior.  It has abandoned me. There’s only the present.

Letting go has a much more positive connotation for me.  It is active.  It feels purposeful.  For instance, I have begun to let go of my wish, my need, to be extraordinary.  I no longer expect that of myself, and I have plenty of evidence over a long life to confirm the humility that has finally emerged with age.  This humbling turns out to be restful.  I’m judging myself less, pushing less, failing less.  No doubt it also eases my relations with others.

Farewell is more active, still.  I have waved goodbye to my long and generally satisfying professional life.  My work was more than work for me.  It was defining.  It was a good part of who I was.  Saying farewell feels like leaving a friend, a family member.  It also means the end of “earning a living” and all that that connotes, especially for a man of my generation.  After long thought, I have said my goodbyes to people, projects, and lingering ambitions.  I have divested myself of many, many material objects, including the home where Franny and I raised our children, thousands of my beloved books, and much of the income I used to think we needed.

For a couple of years leading up to retirement, I was frightened by the yawning chasm that seemed to be on the other side.  But, with time, I began to feel that there was some other, great phase of life that I wanted to give myself to.  A time to explore my place on earth, the meaning of my life.

This brings me back to the theme of wisdom.  I don’t expect to achieve wisdom, certainly not as a steady state, a dependable calm, far above the concerns and slights of everyday life.  But I hope to touch its shores.  I think I know the secret sauce, too.  It has to do with saying farewell to being more—more charming, more intelligent, more lovable, more successful—more than myself.  More than my self.  It is time to find the freedom in just being who I am in a universe I do not control.