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