Resolving Competing Desires Within Ourselves

During the early summer, I decided to begin a conversation group to explore the meaning of aging.  Lots of people responded to my announcement and, before I knew it, two groups of ten had signed up to meet for ten sessions, one consisting of individuals, the other of couples.  My aim as facilitator was in good measure selfish.  I wanted to learn how people were thinking about the concerns that have absorbed me for the last several years.  This Wednesday, we had our first meetings.

Almost everyone was in their seventies, with a few outliers in their late fifties and early eighties.  They entered my living room eagerly, with few signs of the jitters that generally accompany the beginning of groups where people are asked to share private and often unresolved feelings.  The quality of respectful and deep listening was extraordinary, frequently balanced by moments of humor that helped to maintain a protective early distance from some of the deeper feelings.  We got right down to business.

The discussions ranged broadly between people’s hopes and anxieties, between practical and idealistic goals, between observations and resolutions.  I was struck, in particular, by each person’s wish—or need—to resolve certain core and competing desires.  It seems to me that the way that we explore and resolve these competitions will shape the way we live the rest of our lives.  Here are three of those pairs.

Vulnerability versus the strength to explore.  Virtually every group member commented on his or her increasing vulnerability, mostly due to physical decline and, at the same time, the desire not to be dominated by it.  At a certain age, almost everyone has something: arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, knees, hips, and shoulders to be replaced; memory loss.  There are endless bad jokes that we share about spending so much time at doctors’ offices that we had to retire in order to attend them.  Almost as bad as the illnesses, themselves, is the creeping sense of fragility.  “I shouldn’t do this or that,” for example, “because I might injure myself.”  At the same time, there is a fierce desire that group participants expressed to try new activities, to travel, to build, to paint, to push themselves—to explore new ground.

Where, we ask, is the best balance between realistic self appraisal and the adventure that has become possible with the free time that retirement affords?  How can we accept the limitations that are real without yielding prematurely to resignation (and sometimes despair) at the losses exacted by our vulnerability?

Being alone and loving the silence versus the desire for activity and company.  As one participant put it, “I’m a doer, always on the go.  All my life I’ve been busy, busy, busy. Now that I have time, I sometimes savor the quiet that I find in doing nothing; I am comforted by the solitude I had always feared.”  And yet, when sitting quietly, she gets antsy pretty quickly, aware of things she “needs to do”—or inventing things that would save her from the loneliness or “indulgence” of sitting alone.

As the years of retirement pass, she and others find themselves getting better at sitting still and sitting alone, more able to tolerate the internal demons that had long hurried them into activity even when none was required.

But the desire for company never fades very far.  Two kinds of company especially came to the fore.  First, there was the company of strangers, people to join you in new experience.  Buddies.  People virtually glowed when talking about this kind of companionship.  Second—and this was especially true in the couple group—people talked about the profound comfort of old companions.  “We’ve taken this journey together for a long time,” they said.  “It would be so much harder at this stage to go it alone, so much deeper to do together.”

The desire to stretch versus the desire to rest and be peaceful.  One member talked about the ambitious plans he had built for his retirement, plans to write and produce a play that he’d been dreaming about for decades.  Yet when retirement came, he found himself reading deeply and exercising with a pleasing discipline.  Nothing creative, as he had imagined.  Yet he’s “never been happier” in his life.  Bucket lists for travel and creative activities are common to retirees.  Some ask us to stretch ourselves, to do things we had only dreamed of and never found the time for.  Stretching takes energy and daring, though, and many retirees are tired or tired of having to produce and to be judged by what they produce.

Forsaking those dreams can feel like a betrayal of self.  Or, in the case of our participant, it can feel like a tremendous relief, just to be oneself, just to rest, to step outside of judgmental arenas, even when they are positive, and pursue, instead, the pleasures that he had put off.  He anticipated that his “sloth” would bring a sense of failure, a painful disappointment in himself but, instead, he found a rhythm of living that he hopes to sustain for years to come.

This is not an all or nothing competition, though.  Each of us need to find a way to stretch enough to feel more fully alive and to move far enough from the fray far to be more at peace with ourselves.  The only way to find the balance between the two is to experiment.

I suppose that the idea of experimentation is not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about old age but, in fact, it is one of the experiences that most defines this period.  As one of my blog readers put it, “I am coming to thinking of ‘aging’ having much in common as going with of adolescence—a sense of knowing that one is crossing a bridge or maybe better yet a high wire….sometimes exciting, sometimes challenging and sometimes downright scary….. And above all – eye-opening!”

This list of competing desires is hardly exhaustive but provides an enlightening sample of themes in need of resolution during our later years.   It has always seemed helpful frame life’s hurdles in a way that encourages resolutions.  I look forward to learning about ways that you have managed or resolved them.

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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.