Who is that old guy in the mirror

The other day, as my grandson, Eli, and I crossed Mass. Ave in Cambridge, on the way to a shop where children select and paint pottery for firing, he took hold of my hand. We let go when we reached the other side. For reasons I can’t explain, I looked down at my hand, now gnarled and misshapen, and wondered what Eli’s thought of it. As a child, as I recall, I was put off by the wrinkles of elderly bodies. Eli didn’t seem to notice or care. But that got me thinking about aging and body imagery.

For the longest time, I liked the effects of aging on my body, especially my hands. They looked strong and weather beaten to me, signs of physical labor and a life well-lived. Recently, the weather has battered them even more. Not that I find them ugly. I still like the look but now I’m pretty sure others don’t.

That got me looking for clues about how common my experience was. I began reading in the psychological and sociological literature on body imagery, where I found pretty much what you’d expect. The aesthetics of bodily decline, for example, is profoundly influenced by culture. In a youth-oriented culture, smooth looks good and wrinkled looks bad. African Americans are more comfortable with large “body mass” than are Caucasians. Men bemoan growing guts and loss of muscles. Times are changing: Looking soft is unmanly even if you are slim. Women focus their displeasure on fat. As they age, their wrinkled, droopy, and heavy bodies damage their egos and they resent that comparable changes seem to make men look distinguished.

All of us—men and women, Black, White, Brown, and Tan—are encouraged to look young. We are taught to exercise, to make ourselves up, to cover unsightly parts of our bodies. The popular literature on staying young or looking “ageless”—and, by the way, looking ageless is supposed to make us feel ageless—has grown beyond the fondest corporate imaginations. Pop psychologists encourage the pursuit of agelessness, but more politically attuned psychologists tell us that agelessness is a pernicious form of “internalized agism.”

Most of us already know what the experts are saying: that our self-image is heavily influenced by cultural preferences, or, if you like, by cultural bigotry. But this knowledge does not help us to shed the cultural stigma. They are deeply ingrained. My hands are my hands. And the loose skin on Nora Ephron’s neck is hard to affirm. I could go on about my knees, after two surgeries and thousands of miles of hiking, tennis, and basketball. My legs just don’t look so good.

I have written numbers of essays whose core strategy is turning lemons to lemonade, finding new and affirming ways to understand experiences that have troubled us. But I don’t think that approach applies here. I know that some people try. For instance, there is a lovely article in the Huffington Post: 8 Artists Who Explore the Beauty of the Aging Body. And I see the beauty in Joan Semmel’s nude self portraits. I do. But they feel like exceptions to me.

Aside from culture, there is a second influence on body image that may point a way out of my dilemma: functionality. As long as our bodies do what we want, as long as we can trust them, they remain more temple than burden, and they are easier to affirm. “It may not look great,” we can say, but, through long practice, “it still works just fine.” There is research to show that sexual interest and activity continues for many of us well into old age. So it seems that we may look good and feel good to someone. Maybe there’s a kind of visceral imagery that can supersede the visual.

That’s an inspiring idea but let’s admit it, mostly our physical capacity declines over time and, at some point in old age, the decline is precipitous. That’s when it becomes harder to convince ourselves of our body’s beauty.
If I can’t find some smart or quirky way of affirming this old body, what’s left? Acceptance. That’s what I’ve always invoked when I couldn’t seem to change some aspect of my personality or social interaction. I try to relax deeply into whatever difficult reality I’m confronted with. I look at it straight on. No denial. No effort to make it any different than it is. And eventually, I grow less critical and more at ease with what I see.

Sometimes I feel skeptical about acceptance, wondering if it is any more than numbness. And numbness seems like an illegitimate solution. Aren’t we supposed to experience our feelings in all their intensity? Not necessarily. Why shouldn’t we permit ourselves the protective embrace of feelings like resignation and acceptance.

There is one further destination to this journey, though. The older I get, the more I seem to replace what I look like with who I am. I don’t think this is merely convenient, though the timing is clever. very good. I find that I am more reflective these days, that I spend more time think about the meaning of life and other such themes. In other words, I haven’t stopped looking in the mirror—heaven forbid—but the mirror that holds my attention has changed. If I am self-conscious, it is mostly about the state of my mind or the legacy I might leave. My vanity is more focused on the wisdom I have and have not achieved. In that light, this wrinkling body of mine seems like the right one to have.

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Through the dark and into the light

“In the depths of winter I finally learned there was in me an invincible summer.” Albert Camus

Since I began my blog, friends and colleagues have expressed their concern about what they perceive to be a depressive strain in my writing.  I have mixed feelings about my dark side.  It can be painful but it has lent depth and insight to my life.  So I wrote an essay about the Blues, trying to explain how the very act of acknowledging and not avoiding dark feelings helped people move through them.  The essay proved interesting but not persuasive to my friends, which leads me to a different tack—putting what Winston Churchill called his “dark dog” into a cultural context.

In America, we are encouraged to be happy and urged to avoid or hide unhappiness.  There is a stigma attached to depression, a largely unstated belief that vulnerability is weak and unacceptable, particularly for men, who are taught from early childhood to mask their fears and anxieties.  More than one survey has determined that Americans believe depression is the result of a weak will or a character deficit.

Sometimes when people “worry” about me it sounds like they are also scolding.  Their concern sounds a little bit like an accusation.

When people point to my sadness, melancholy, or depression, my first feeling is shame.  My second feeling is denial.  Not me.  Then I want to distance myself from these prying eyes. This is what men do.

We’re not alone.  In many other cultures—Japan, for example—vulnerability must be avoided, and shows up regularly in stomach and digestive problems, which are acceptable.  The more martial and macho a culture, the more men transform vulnerability in to physical symptoms.  In American culture, women are said to “act in,” while men “act out,” often to the detriment of marital relationships and to a society that badly needs to look inward before leaping to military actions and diplomatic bullying.

I belong to another strain of manhood.  I was always plagued and blessed with a desire to understand myself as deeply as possible. I want to be happy but not at the cost of  the depth and wisdom I find in introspection.  I need to go below the surface to discover what moves me, what upsets me, what brings joy and relaxation, what made me effective.  These introspective journeys have been as natural to me as the running and jumping, the basketball, tennis, hiking—and the exuberant pursuit of ideas—that have also filled my life. They formed the foundation of my life as a psychotherapist and coach.

But let’s return to what I take to be my strain of manhood.  Many of the people we admire most have been subject to dark moods.  Here are just a few:  Mark Twain, Hans Christian Andersen, Edward Degas, Leonard Cohen, William Faulkner, Michelangelo, John Steward Mill, Sir Isaac Newton, John Keats, Kurt Vonnegut, and, of course, Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln.  I feel tremendously enhanced by the company of these great depressives, whose capacity to brave the darkness, then combine it with the light to form complex and beautiful thoughts, I so admire.

I believe that it is impossible to reach towards insight and creativity without fully acknowledging fear, anxiety, and confusion.  According to the neuroscientist, Nancy C. Andreasen, our openness to new experiences, tolerance for ambiguity, and the way we approach life enables us to perceive things in a fresh and novel way. Less creative types “quickly respond to situations based on what they have been told by people in authority”, while “creatives live in a more fluid and nebulous (read: incredibly stressful) world.”

Writing for Scientific American, the psychologist, Scott Barry Kaufman, summed up his research this way:  “It seems that the key to creative cognition is opening up the flood gates and letting in as much information as possible,” he writes. “Because you never know: sometimes the most bizarre associations can turn into the most productively creative ideas.”

The need to tolerate the dark is embedded in all of our religious traditions.  Buddha tells us that first reality of life is suffering.  All our efforts to avoid or deny this reality make us more superficial and rigid, unable to face and adapt to life’s great challenges.  Moses asks us to face—not accept—our enslavement to other people and their way of thinking.  With that insight, he begins to lead us towards freedom.  Jesus sees our suffering and takes it onto himself.  He doesn’t ignore it.

My first intentional effort to move through the darkness and into the light was as a young man.  I wanted to triumph over my fears, which meant I needed to see them clearly, understand them, know that I would survive the encounter with myself.  For me, this meant mustering all my courage because I was afraid of what I might find—my weaknesses, my limitations, my uncertainty, the many demons for which I did not yet have a name.  I did survive and feel very much richer for the effort: more comfortable with myself; and much more able to summon my courage when needed.

As I age, as the realization that the years ahead are not infinite, the search for wisdom has grown more urgent.  By that I mean the search for perspective, calm, joy, and freedom from fear become ever more alluring, ever more intense.  Each search begins with a feeling or thought that I need to come to terms with—as we all do—and attempts to move through the darkness and into the light.  That’s the road I’ve chosen.

Old and Proud: We will not be defined by the standards of youth

I am grateful to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s for bringing James Baldwin back to us.  Just this week, I took my copy of The Fire Next Time,, with its browning and brittle pages, down from the bookshelf.  I bought it in 1964, my senior year in college, and underlined almost every word.  Each sentence is still shocking, strange, and resonant at the same time.  I knew nothing about growing up in Harlem at the time but felt passionately, as he did, that I did not want American culture to define me.

Baldwin tells us that his father was “defeated long before he died because at the bottom of his heart, he really believed what white people said about him.”  When white people called him “nigger,” it was unforgivable.  But when he internalized their view and became invisible, even to himself, a man without an identity, that might have been worse.

Baldwin tells his nephew that “There is no reason for you to try to become like White people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you.”  Instead, “you must accept them and accept them…” And, by doing so, “force our brothers to see themselves as they are…”

It may be impertinent for a White man to say so but Baldwin’s cri de coeur also seems like a perfect battle cry for those of us who are aging: to force our younger brothers and sisters to see us as we are and, by doing so, to see themselves as they are.

American society wants old people to be young, which is how we are portrayed in the AARP Magazine, the flagship of affirmative aging.  According to the Magazine we should aspire to smooth skin and bright smiles; long hikes, sexual prowess, and working for as long as we want; to financial security and an upbeat disposition; and to ticking off the items on the bucket list we created to make up for unfulfilled lives.  The degree to which we imitate young people is the degree to which we can affirm ourselves.  In other words, we are enjoined to be anything but old.

While this injunction is silly on the face of it, we have absorbed it.  We are complicit, especially when we try to imitate youth.  In imitation we betray ourselves.  By the standards of youth, we are ugly, slow witted, graceless, and impotent.  We are defined, not by who we are but by our failure to be effectively young and, conversely, by an ineluctable movement towards frailty and death.

This youthful pretense magnifies our shame.  We are ashamed of our forgetfulness, our lined faces and crinkly skin, our diminished muscle mass and our increased fatty tissue, and our need to be cautious in the out-of-doors.  What’s more, these current ‘failings’ bring back ancient wounds.  Even as youth, we weren’t always beautiful, brilliant, agile, and bold.  We were taught to be ashamed then, which is now aggravated in old age.

Shame is a terrible feeling.  It isn’t like guilt, which focuses on what you have done or failed to do.  It speaks to your whole being.  It is being unworthy, unattractive, unloved.  It makes you want to crawl into a cave, to be unseen and unknown.  In old age, there is nothing worse than shame.

We will do almost anything to avoid it, even try to be someone or something else, like trying to look and act young.  We will cover our shame with anger, becoming the angry old men and women of satirical movies. Anger at least keeps people and shame at a distance.  We will allow ourselves to be seen as adorable—nice elderly people and doting grandparents.  If we don’t appear challenging, others won’t challenge us, or so we tell ourselves.  We hold back much of who we are.  We become withdrawn, no matter how lonely it makes us.

James Baldwin asks Black people to see themselves without the filter of White society.  Ta-Nehisi Coates, his partial reincarnation, doesn’t think that’s possible and urges his son to withdraw.  I am not sure if aging people can free themselves from the imagery of a youth-oriented culture.  But, short of withdrawal, we have to try.

To begin, we must ask: what makes us distinctive.  It is partly the losses we have incurred, physically and emotionally.  We cannot deny that.  If we do, we are giving in to ‘them.’  But look closely, my friends.  There’s something beautiful in the experience that is written into the lines of an older face.  There is something ancient, almost eternal, in the laughter when it comes forward.  What about the knowing glances in response to petty conflicts that we will no longer join.  What about the depth acceptance in our friendships.  There is wisdom in that acceptance.

When old people study and think about new subjects, there is a vast storehouse of knowledge and experience that they draw on, whether younger people want to benefit from that knowledge or not.  There is perspective and calm that lead to sound judgments.  There is wisdom in these judgments.  There is greater understanding that each, new sunrise is to be cherished.  Not in every old person, of course.  Not in as many old people as we might hope.  But this is the distinctive potential of old people who affirm themselves as they are, not as the absence of youth.

Baldwin tells us that, by being ourselves, we have the capacity to help others to see themselves more clearly.  Baldwin means that White people avoid themselves by externalizing their own fears and inadequacies.  By focusing their contempt and anger at Black people, White people can ignore the contempt and anger they feel towards themselves.  We see this in glaring form among the White Trump voters today, these defeated and abandoned men who momentarily lift their self-respect by venting their rage at immigrants, elites, and people of color.

Young people, with our complicity, do the same to us.  They do not want to face their inadequacies and they do not want to know that they are human, that they, too, will grow old.  They don’t want to look directly at our wrinkled skin.  They spend inordinate hours trying to be beautiful because they fear being old and ugly.  They don’t say ugly but they mean ugly.  They don’t want to face their own future.

Our challenge is to help them to see the beauty of life through its many stages, through all of its pains and triumphs.  We have the opportunity to make them less afraid, and to help them to celebrate life’s full passage.  Not by preaching or teaching them directly but by being wholeheartedly ourselves.

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.

 

In Praise of the Aging Mind

When I was a child, I would float in the ocean while my mind wandered to far off lands.  I am not so different now.  I often quiet myself in meditation-like trances, in the shower with water soothing sore places, or on slow walks under low skies.  It seems that my mind touches down wherever it chooses, and when it returns, it comes with the solution to a problem that I had posed.  To this day, I am amazed by the magic, which has grown richer with age.

When I am with friends, we talk about our aging brains.  We can’t do math as well, we lament.  We have trouble learning new languages, especially the technical languages that our children and grandchildren absorb with breakfast.  Our memory isn’t as good.  We can’t find words or remember names.  We are absent minded.  How often do we walk into a room to find something only to find that we don’t remember why we had come?

We worry about our decaying and betraying minds with foreboding and fear, as though we are already in a steady and soon-to-be debilitating decline.  In contemporary America, fear of Alzheimer’s disease seems second only to fear of cancer in its reach.  The big C and the big A.  Even when the fear of dementia is out of consciousness, it seems to be lurking nearby.  We’ve watched our parents fall to it.  We’ve seen friends falter.  We wonder when our time will come.

But most of every day I don’t feel that way.  I learn every day and I revel in the play of my mind.  I trust my mind.  When faced with a problem or an opportunity, there are so many reservoirs of knowledge and experience to draw upon, so many cognitive and emotional templates that I didn’t have when I was young.  I feel less constrained by conventional ideas.  Why worry about convention at this point in life?  Freedom and creativity are far more alluring.

There is a name that the pioneer of psychometric researcher, Raymond Cattell, has given to the type of intelligence that wanes in old age: “fluid intelligence” is the ability to reason and solve novel problems, independent of accumulated knowledge.  It’s the ability to analyze problems that you’ve never seen before, to identify patterns and relationships that underpin these problems and to extrapolate from these patterns by using logic. This is the stuff of logical problem solving, as well as scientific, mathematical, and technical problem solving.  It is the form of intelligence tested by I.Q. exams and generally peaks in the twenties.

Cattell has also given a name to the type of intelligence that most guides me at seventy four: Crystallized intelligence, which is acquired through experience and education.  It shows up in verbal skills, inductive reasoning, and judgment. While fluid intelligence is often considered largely a product of genetics, crystallized intelligence is much more dependent on “a bouquet of influences, including personality, motivation, opportunity and culture.”

Richard E. Nisbett, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Michigan, has long argued that “when it comes to intelligence, experience can outrun biology… Older people,” he argues, “make more use of higher-order reasoning schemes that emphasize the need for multiple perspectives, allow for compromise, and recognize the limits of knowledge.”  Despite a decline in fluid intelligence, complicated reasoning that relates to people, moral issues or political institutions improves with age.  The brain’s most powerful tool is its “ability to quickly scan a vast storehouse of templates for relevant information and past experience to come up with a novel solution to a problem. In this context, the mature brain is especially well equipped, which is probably why we still associate wisdom with age.”

Modern society has virtually jettisoned the idea of wisdom, preferring knowledge and the rapid advance of technological skills.  But I am entranced by the idea of wisdom and consider it the great gift of healthy aging.  If you strip from wisdom its mystical side, it can be defined as the quality of having experience, knowledge, perspective, confidence, and good judgment.

By perspective, I mean the capacity to see events and ideas from a bird’s eye view.  We see and recognize patterns of action and thought in ourselves and in others.  “Oh,” we might say, “I’ve tried that approach before and it never works” or “It only works when combined with kindness or firmness.”  Or with certain kinds of people.  We might note an idea keeps intruding or dominating our thinking but know from long experience that it is more a habit of mind than real problem solving or creative thinking.  Through experience—and reflection—we know the mental and social territory that we dwell in; we know its travails, its traps, its challenges.  And we know the way through the thickets to open spaces.

By perspective, I also mean calm.  A frequent advantage of age is the quieting that comes with experience.  The anxious, internal chatter that clouds the thinking of so many younger people, tends to dissipate.  The intensity dims, too.  This is both loss and gain.  The gain is that you see even difficult or dangerous situations without panic or impetuousness or competitive urges. The idea is to solve a problem not to be the best.  In old age, the focus is less on you, more on solutions.

Let me illustrate my point by observing its opposite.  Take a look at Donald Trump’s failure of wisdom.  He lacks knowledge, perspective, and judgment.  His intellectual style has bogged down in adolescence. He is self centered.  He needs to ‘win’ at all costs, even if winning leads to failure, which it often does.  Most of us, to our great advantage, grow out of this phase

We build our confidence not out of bravado but experience.  You have traveled many pathways in your life, sometimes with success, sometimes not, but you have come to know the territory.  You know it so well that, even when you diverge from your regular pathways, you are pretty sure you can find your way to safety.  The confidence we feel is more realistic, more solid.  We are clearer and more forthright about both our strengths and our limitations.  We don’t need to hope and pretend as much.

I have the good fortune to have many former students, now leaders of nonprofit organizations, who come for advice.  The pleasure that I take in sharing what I’ve learned over the years is hard to express.  The acuity and confidence I feel when helping to advance their careers and their lives is a gift that I have given to myself as much as to them.  It is the gift of giving and it is the gift of play.  I love thinking with others.

I am hardly unique in having knowledge and experience to share.  There are vast amounts of untapped wisdom among my peers, needing only to be recognized and utilized, if only our culture will grant aging intelligence its imprimatur.