A Sideways Approach
I’m working up a new series of posts on the many obstacles along the path of what I will call “successful elderhood.” Being that I am such an optimist, you might be wondering why I’m using the more formidable sounding “obstacle” as opposed to a much friendlier sounding term like “challenge.” The Merriam Webster online dictionary defines obstacle as:
Something that makes it difficult to do something; an object that you have to go around or over: something that blocks your path.
I use the term “successful elderhood” because I know it is a loaded one! How we talk about aging reflects our thinking about it and often also our feeling toward it. Is it merely a decline, a forced slowing down with no redeemable benefits – or is it a process that can be incorporated into the accumulation of wisdom – for the benefit of the individual as well as their community? Instead of quoting words of Viktor Frankl’s wisdom, I’ll quote the late theologian J. Sidlow Baxter, who asked
What is the difference between an obstacle and an opportunity? Our attitude toward it. Every opportunity has a difficulty, and every difficulty has an opportunity.
Obstacle and opportunity? Well, there’s a good one! I will try and use this as a template for paying attention to the lenses through which we view aging and elderhood. Of course I’m showing my bias already, just from using the term elderhood – I’m presuming there is a stage of human development that is capable of a fuller embrace of the unknown, of the mysteries of life, that can allow us to love the lives we have to live, despite all the odds and opinions to the contrary. This certainly is not an easy path, it is probably beyond the tee shirt slogan “getting old is not for sissies,” so I’ll quote the Sufi poet Rumi here:
A heartbreak shakes the yellow leaves from
The branch of the heart
So fresh leaves can go on growing . . .
Heartbreak pulls up the roots of the old happiness
So a new ecstasy can stroll in from beyond.
Heartbreak pulls up all withered, crooked roots
so no root can stay hidden.
Heartbreak may pull many things from the heart
But in return it will lavish kingdoms.
From: Andrew Harvey, The Return of the Mother (1995) at 156.
This idea of “successful elderhood” brought me back to a great book I (mostly) read several years ago – Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2006: Random House). Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford, wrote this compelling book based on her many years of research on motivation and other important topics. Much of the book readily applies and is aimed at motivating kids and young people toward building the successful trait of resilience, and away from the ossifying talent-obsessed entitlement way of thinking about who we are and how we operate in the world. Her basic premise, reflected in the title “mindset”, distinguishes the fixed mindset from the growth mindset and her work shows the advantages and offers much practical advice about overcoming obstacles (instead of ignoring or denying them) with a growth mindset. Feeling bad about one’s situation does not mean that one is not able to take constructive action. See Mindset at 221-24.
Whether we look at an obstacle as an external setback or an internal one can make all the difference. If we change the lens through which we look at aging, that all our hard-earned capabilities are being taken away from us by some external subjective and unpredictable process known as “aging” . . . . then perhaps all we are really looking at are challenges, challenges to our thinking in some fixed and no longer relevant context, a sense of entitlement to what we have earned, which invites us to go beyond those “yellow leaves” into a new and unfamiliar territory.
I especially liked what Dweck wrote about the growth mindset and self-control: “Then there are the setbacks. They [people in a growth mindset] know that setbacks will happen. So instead of beating themselves up, they ask: ‘What can I learn from this? What will I do next time when I’m in this situation?’ It’s a learning process – not a battle between the bad you and the good you.” Id. at 235.
Dweck’s approach is refreshing and liberating and has much to offer in support of a developmental view of elderhood. Here’s a TedxNorrkoping video in which Dr. Dweck talks about “the power of yet.”
I will close for now and look forward to my next post on Elderhood and The Economy of Gratitude. I will tip my hat to the motivation provided by my summer reading list, which has included Robert Emmons’ Gratitude Works!, Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal and Katy Butler’s Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death.
©Barbara Cashman 2016 www.DenverElderLaw.org