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Friday, February 26, 2010

Newness

Aging intentionally is a heady idea, isn't it? The thought that there is another way to relate to the aging process. The notion that as we age we can find newness in what will most likely be the last major period of our lives. What an opposite view from the thought that the only thing unknown is when and how it will come to an end.

According to Joan Chittister, "Growth in later life requires the curiosity of a five-year-old and the confidence of a teenager." We can actually be whatever we want to be without the all the drama and posturing of younger life. We can re-create ourselves and be creative in the world in very different ways than we allowed ourselves earlier.

I'm not talking about "creative" as in "artistic". I'm talking about creative as in finding those parts of ourselves that that have been unexpressed in life and let them out. Cooking a good meal, organizing a block cleanup, organizing community rides for kids to go to events, and starting a book club are all acts of creativity...they are new and did not exist before.

There are only a few things necessary to do this. The most important is to choose a new way of being, thinking and doing in the world. It can be frightening because we are not encouraged to really know ourselves and to take action based on this knowing. We spend many years doin gand being what others expected us to be and do. Intentional aging is about continuing to grow spiritually, mentally, and morally as a person. All the wisdom of your life is about something, isn't it? We have to want to experience the newness in order to make this period fulfilling and meaningful.

Choose well my friends!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Where's the Mystery

Our lives schedules and deadlines have a purpose, I guess. In some regards they keep us accountable to each other and to society. I think the problem with them is the power they have over our lives. They can become our life. And they can obstruct life, taking us away from what really matters.

The opposite is Mystery! Mystery is what happens when we allow life to evolve rather than having to make it happen all the time. It's what happens when we spontaneously decide to walk to the store, or notice the cold wind as it brushes across our cheeks, or when we share the gaze of a stranger. It happens when we allow ourselves to notice, to experience, to see, to wonder, if only for a moment, about the world around us.

For me, these little moments of mystery are almost sacred! They stick with me for weeks... sometimes years. I'm thrilled by the notion that something wonderful can happen at any time if I only open up to it. And being an intentional ager gives me the opportunity to "stray as (I) have never strayed before". I can go to the art museum first thing in the morning, I can go to the library to sit and read all day. I can play music with a friend's child. I can go to the river and listen and watch.

So much of life is about either youth or middle age. We have no direction or map to navigate those days when "time alone will be our guide, our companion, our goal." So we are tempted to do as we have always done...with schedules and deadlines.

Later life is a time to harvest all of that early effort. Finding a little bit of mystery in each day opens up the possibility to see the world differently and to bring our lives in to wonderful perspective and perhaps some healing. Can we learn to trust that it is okay to seek out the mystery?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

"You look good....for your age!"

"She's looks good for her age!" and "He acts like he is twenty years younger!" How many of you have heard this or perhaps even said it? I recently caught myself saying something similar to a seventy five year old woman who appropriately shot back with "Well, honey, get used to it because this is what 75 looks like!"

The underlying concept in all this is, of course, that, as a culture, we have the belief that aging is "ugly" or the antithesis of "healthy". When we see someone who does not fit this image of decline we will usually utter something like the above or perhaps say something about defying the ravages of age.

So what is good health and bad health? Or, asked another way, what is healthy aging? And how does one acquire it? The fields of gerontology and geriatrics seem ripe with studies about the decline and dysfunction of aging but there seems to be little information available about healthy aging and how to acquire good self-care, high morale, intimate friends, and mental health...the four pillars of wellness.

Is healthy aging the absence of "looking old"? Is it the ability to run marathons past the age of seventy? What is it to be a healthy 60..70..or 80 year old? I wonder how we can get past the cultural belief that healthy/successful aging is simply NOT looking or acting your age?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

You're So Gray!

One of my favorite anecdote comes from Ram Dass, the spiritual teacher, who tells of a time when he visited a friend who lived in a village in the Himalayas. "You're looking so old!" the man said to Ram Dass. "You're so gray!" At first Ram Dass reacted with a Westerner's typical horror. Calling someone "old" in America is like labeling that person as inferior and someone to be avoided. But in India, he realized being old was an achievement that entitled a person to respect and recognition. Ram Dass said, "I realized that my friend was congratulating me on becoming an elder. He was saying, 'How wonderful that you've arrived at old age!'"

What a difference from my experience. Several years ago I was participating in a workshop and we were completing an exercise that required us to verbally defend our life to a group of other participants. I was told by a young woman of twenty five that although she appreciated what I had done and would do do in the world, as a person over 60, I should just die because there is not room or resources for everyone and older people do not contribute to society.

Later I talked to her about her feelings and beliefs and asked her if she saw anything that older people contribute to society..her answer was "No!" and told me with absoluteness that people over sixty five should just go away.

How far do we have to go to change this perception that older people are simply a social burden and have nothing to offer society or their communities. Although I don't perceive this young woman's feelings to be the dominant paradigm in society it is still sad that we have allowed our elders to be so isolated and their contribution unseen and unappreciated. Stashed away and hidden we don't see their contributions in creativity, wisdom, nurturing, teaching, unconditional support, spiritual growth, and perspective.

It is disappointing that our community structures and norms do not provide for better positive outlets for these qualities to be used and experienced. I am convinced, however, that as intentional agers we can make a difference in this but we must be bold yet affirming, warrior-like yet soft, and authentic yet empathetic in our interactions with others.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Experience or Stodginess

As we age our personality becomes more deeply defined. Some might call this "character" while others degrade it as "rigidity". As a young man I realized that I liked creme brulee and scotch whiskey (just not together) and that I did not like gummy bears or Gin. Is the narrowness of my choices today a function of my stodginess or wisdom of experience?

Likewise what is it that occurs when an older person stands up for what they believe in? Is it wisdom and experience talking or is it someone living in the past and yearning for the old days? Carl Yung speculated that "A human being would certainly not grow to be 70 or 80 years old if this longevity had no meaning to the species."

So what is this meaning Jung alludes to? I would like to think, as George Vaillant says, that our elders are the keepers of the meaning or justice and justice requires a more non-partisan and less personal approach. Dr. Vaillant goes on to say "We need dispassionate judges as much as we need passionate trial lawyers. If the task of young adults is to create biological heirs, the task of old age is to create societal heirs."

Most gerontologists agree that one of the tasks of aging is generativity. However, generativity, at least as I know it and experience it, is caring for a person, which, although likely to win us more love from those around us, is not the same as doling out justice. And isn't justice more desirable and needed, now? Living life in order to be liked and for the "roar of the crowd" is nice but is it what society needs from our elders? Isn't our collective experience a source of wisdom for the future? Or is it just stodginess?

I wonder!