The Dreaded “O” Word and Aging Into Wisdom

Old

 

I recently attended an educational lunch program put on by a financial advisor at a restaurant downtown.  It was geared to attorneys and their retirement planning needs. Most of us in attendance were “old enough” to be planning for retirement already and we had a number of questions answered.  A latecomer to the program arrived after we had finished our lunch.  He proceeded to ask our host a question about a “hypothetical 75 year old” but I suspected this colleague’s age to be well in excess of 80 years.  What really struck me however, was his use of the expression “O word” as if to acknowledge some common implied cultural unwillingness to use the term “old” as if it were a pejorative term.  I was both puzzled and troubled by this use of the term which I had never heard before, let alone from the mouth of an octogenarian!

So maybe there’s more than a few of us who simply refuse to accept this aging thing that we do, but I insist that there is a bright future for wisdom in elderhood. . . Here’s a link to a New York Times article  from 2014 about the science (from a psychological perspective) of “older and wiser” and  a short article from last month in Psychology Today entitled “Are Older People Wiser?”

Wisdom is one of the very few positive stereotypes of elderhood, but it’s of course not necessarily true.  A passive aging focused on the denial of age and eventual death does not lead to a ripeness of wisdom in one’s elder years. The jury is still out on this “older and wiser” issue, but while elders’ brains generally slow down, an elder’s experience and knowledge can make up for the shortcomings in processing speed and distractibility.  But getting to elderhood requires one to accept and even embrace our aging, learn from experience and to grow one’s knowledge along the way.  If we’re busily engaged with denying our aging, resenting that we’re “not who we used to be,” then that wisdom piece will remain elusive because we are failing to come to terms with a most basic premise of this life: the length of a life is uncertain and all we truly have is the present.

So, what is wisdom?  I liked these two definitions found at the Collins dictionary:

Wisdom is the ability to use your experience and knowledge in order to make sensible decisions or judgments; and in American

the quality of being wise; power of judging rightly and following the soundest course of action, based on knowledge, experience, understanding, etc.; good judgment; sagacity

There is also the wisdom tradition, which is synonymous with Perennialism, defined in Wikipedia as “the idea that there is a perennial or mystic inner core to all religious or spiritual traditions, without the trappings, doctrinal literalism, sectarianism, and power structures that are associated with institutionalized religion.”

So I turn to a favorite classic of literature here, Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy, finding particularly relevant his quote of Francois Fenelon (at 257 of the Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition) to the subject of wisdom as an outgrowth of embracing the aging process as part of our experience of our selves:

Faults will turn to good, provided we use then to our own humiliation, without slackening in the effort to correct ourselves.  Discouragement serves no possible purpose; it is simply the despair of wounded self-love.  The real way of profiting by the humiliation of one’s own faults is to face them in their true hideousness, without ceasing to hope in God, while hoping nothing from self.

If we can avoid becoming overwhelmed with the discouragement of old age and its changes to us and in us, perhaps we can exercise that sagacity referred to above.  There a number of resources in the wisdom of aging category, including the late Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s book From Age-ing to Sage-ing which led to the founding of the Sage-ing International organization, which hosts workshops, webinars, conferences and other forums for fostering “spiritual eldering.”  Their website states that moving from age-ing to sage-ing involves the following:

  1. Developing a willingness to deal with life completion and overcoming the desire to stay in denial of aging.
  2. Coming to terms with our mortality.
  3. Acquiring the skills for working on the inside by practicing journaling, meditation, imaginal exercises, and spiritual intimacy by creating safe and sacred space in dyads.
  4. Paying attention to our body, feelings, mind, and spirit, being guided by them and maintaining them in the right tone, mood, and attitude.
  5. Giving  a real hearing to the inner voices – allowing all the minorities within the whole person their witness.
  6. Beginning to do life repair:
  • in health
  • in practical matters with wills and testaments
  • in relationships and between generations
  • by reaching into the past and offering release and healing
  • through forgiveness work with release from vindictiveness
  • by finding the pearls in the anxious memories
  • 7. Doing the philosophical homework by raising questions about the purpose and the meaning of our lives.
  • 8. Serving as elders to others as guides, mentors, and agent of healing and reconciliation on behalf of the planet, the nation, and the family by being wisdom keepers.
  • 9. Preparing for a serene death and afterlife, furnishing our solitude with God.
  • 10. Doing this nobly in connectedness with the inner, actualized self,  already realized, individuated, and complete.This is a formidable list, but fortunately there is assistance in the Sage-ing community for these efforts.  There are also other excellent resources which may involve a bit less introspection and life review.Jane Barton (of Cardinal Life LLC), an excellent local speaker with whom I am acquainted, has a program she has entitled “The Journey of Aging.”  Part of her programming covers the denial of death and the aging process and how that unwillingness to engage with our mortality adversely impacts our present abilities to consciously and deliberately plan for our future.

© 2017 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org

A Sense of Place and Aging in Place

 

 

 

Isn’t this an amazing Saguaro cactus? A few weeks back I visited Scottsdale Arizona’s McDowell Sonoran Desert Preserve with a friend.  There were many types of cactus and other vegetation, along with plenty of birds.  The saguaro, especially one that gets “giant” status like this one – is truly a survivor of almost impossible odds.  It is nature’s way.  I also saw a couple smaller and younger saguaro cacti which benefitted from a “nurse plant” to a baby saguaro.  These plants or trees shelter the vulnerable saguaro during critical stages of development, and after making the ultimate sacrifice for the saguaro (the nurse plant takes less and less water and nutrients as the saguaro grows bigger and stronger), it stands for years as a tribute to its sacrifice.  Even in a harsh environment such as the desert, there is much cooperation and biological community.

 

On my drive down to Scottsdale, I travelled through the Monument Valley.  Here’s one of my pictures from the Navajo tribal park there.

Monument Valley

The Sentinel

I love this part of the country.  Along the way, I listened to Richard Rohr’s book “Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.” Watch a YouTube with him here.     It is a wonderful book about aging growing and what we can do with the second half of our lives on a spiritual level.  This is a book about what we can come to understand with our aging, maturity and wisdom – as well as how we can come to terms with mortality and the meaning of our life.  The unprecedented number of people in their 80’s and 90’s has opportunities for meaningful elderhood that few of their forebears enjoyed.  The number will be even bigger as the huge wave of baby boomers gets older.  What will we do with this time in our later years?  Will we continue to enjoy retirement as a long vacation or as a chance to reconnect and engage with our community in meaningful ways?  Each of us has a choice to make about this to the extent we are given this opportunity of what to do with our longevity.

While I was listening to Father Richard (he is a Franciscan priest), I thought about the popular notion of “the bucket list” or some to-do list of things that many people agree they ought to see or visit before they die – as if life experiences, unique and personal – are somehow easily boiled down into some generic list of what a worthwhile human experience is. . . .  . !  Rohr’s chapter on the first half of life is about learning and practicing the rules, being a productive member of society and that sort of thing.  Sadly, many people get stuck there and seeing that there are many others in their company – may think that this place is the only destination.  Hence the “bucket list.”  Who writes their own bucket list – or is it a bucket list because it is agreed upon by a group that it is meaningful?  His reference to falling into the second half of life is a place where a person can be freed from the constraints – internal, external, community.  A journey of free fall that is like a remembering of who we are, what we came here to be and to do.

This reminds me of the lyrics of a favorite Enya song – “Pilgrim” (watch a beautiful video of the Hubbell Deep Field photos with the song as audio here ):

one way leads to diamonds,

one way leads to gold,

another leads you only to everything you’re told….

oh pilgrim it’s a long way to find out who you are.

It is a long journey, but as Father Richard explains and reiterates, the second half  is a beautiful journey of freedom which each of us must discover for ourselves.  I would say it is a pilgrimage of the heart, to remember.  So – where is that physical or emotional or spiritual place for “aging in place”?  Is it in a multigenerational home, is it with the support of or under the care of others, or is it with the “independence” we fancy that we have enjoyed throughout our lives?  That is up to each of us to decide – or not, depending on our own inclination.

 

Perhaps the whole journey of life is as a return from exile, the experience of exile – moving away from the known and its sense of belonging.  Redemption is possible when the way toward home is found, through some place of light, through the illuminated darkness.

Could this aging in place provide the opportunity to move beyond one’s constructed self, the identity of who we have become in our accomplishing phase of the the first half of life?  Might this resulting freedom allow one to consider the wholeness of or our sense of place in the world, to reassess our place in the community?  What about your place in the universe, and in the struggle to wake up?  More on this topic later……

 

©Barbara Cashman 2013     www.DenverElderLaw.org