Reflections on Aging

Where is the instruction kit on aging? We have books that provide written advice on child rearing, child bearing, child transitioning. We are drowning in publications giving advice on parenting, telling us how to avoid making mistakes as a parent, and offering programs to correct mistakes we should have avoided but didn’t. There are an equal number of books on aging, but I find the advice on aging to be clumsy, because even though we would prefer to learn before we act – in reality we act before we learn. Our epiphany comes when we realize that inside every 80 year old body is a trapped 50 year old, shouting “What the hell happened?”

The years fly by at a dizzying pace. When I look back at my own childhood, I feel as though I had been riding a spirited horse that I wasn’t able to control. I wasn’t seeking mastery – just survival. There were a jumble of markers along the way. I couldn’t wait to be sixteen, then eighteen, then twenty-one. Graduation from high school, college, and law school were also markers that guided my transition into work.

My behavior mimicked the behavior of virtually every classmate and workmate I knew. The Vietnam war was raging, our being dragged in always a constant possibility. My friends and associates were getting married, buying houses and raising children. There was more afoot than a mere act of surrendering freedom. There was a race to give freedom up. We deluded ourselves into believing that receiving a check every two weeks and being a viable candidate for partnership some time in the future was fair exchange. 

Between thirty and sixty I concentrated on earning a living, getting married, raising a family, honing my values, experiencing my own mortality, suffering losses, finding a spiritual practice. There was a constant juggling. No one felt fulfilled. I struggled to understand the dynamics of what I was experiencing as it was occurring. As Zorba the Greek says when responding to questions about his life, “Am I not a man? And is not a man stupid? I’m a man. So I married. Wife, children, house, everything. The full catastrophe.”

I have spent the first third of life growing toward adulthood and maturity, the next third in a deluge of experiences lumped together as life, and then only God knows how many years are left for the last third of life. Calling it a third may be optimistic, but we can attribute a lesser number of years to rounding errors. At the time of this writing, I am 78. As I frequently acknowledge, I am now too old to die young. I feel the need to be more planful than I had been during the first two-thirds of life. My ways of being planful are to listen well, read a lot, cull what doesn’t resonate, and then build on the parts that I keep.

I am writing this Reflection from the perspective of my aging in mind, body, and spirit. I am aware of words that slip from memory and I watch to see if that inability to recall faces, words, and objects on demand is part of the normal aging process or a precursor of something worse. At the gym my level of exercise has diminished, my body bruises more easily and recovers more slowly. Spirit, however, seems to grow with age. I have more time to explore my beliefs, question why I have discarded some and favored others, and what practices will get me nearer to a place of wonder at the miracles that surround us with every breath we take and every heartbeat that affirms our presence in the universe.

I’m struggling to appreciate how precious time is, how I spend it, how I respond to illness, how I prepare for the life that remains and how I prepare for the death that is coming. The struggle takes place when I use my time in ways that I consider wasteful. I do not know if there is a life beyond this one, but I would like to live my end days as though an afterlife doesn’t exist – and yet be prepared for surprises when this one has completed its run.

How the last third of life is spent varies with each person. We have created artifices by which we mark time. Whether they are measured in days, weeks, or years, or are marked off by measuring time in hours, seconds, or nanoseconds, we have less time today than we had yesterday. When I consider the relationship that my wife and I have constructed over fifty plus years, I begin each morning with the thought that fortune has blessed me with another 24 hours with Helen as a living, exploring, vital, and vibrant human being, and not as a memory whose ending has already occurred. That is an alternate reality that one day will exist for one of us. To contemplate that stage of life now is a poor use of time – poor because it diminishes what is still flowering in favor of what can only shrivel.  As one long-time director of Broadway theatre advised: “Don’t play the third act in the opening scene.”

There are many ways to assess how we rate our success at living into our elder years. What may be most important is valuing what we have, not what we may lose.  We have already lost capacity and continue lose more every day. What remains a mystery is the rate of loss, its permanence and finality. My instincts haven’t changed, but my focus needs to be recalibrated. Here are three qualities of mine that need a personal make-over. I list them because they may resonate with you, or because they bring forth other qualities that would benefit from a life review.

The qualities I refer to aren’t part of an active toolbox. What’s in a toolbox prepares us to live more fully, to squeeze the lemon so that every drop of juice is fully used. By the time we have reached old age the lemon has been squeezed so often that further extraction of juice is improbable. What I need at this stage is an expansive embrace of “what’s next” and not a reluctant surrender of “what was.”

False pride, depression, and separation. False pride causes people to assess you from behind a mask that you wear. People cannot help or befriend you when the signals you emit hide what you need. Fears abound that your command of life is just a finger snap away, and in a New York minute, you may be deprived of cognitive faculties that have guided your decision making, influenced your selections, and presented you with acceptable options for future action. It is not uncommon – just uncomfortable – to know how little control we have over future events.

False pride wants us to gussie up what has been imperfect so that it looks successful and complete. My last employment was serving as counsel to Arnold & Porter. A&P is a wildly successful law firm based in Washington, D.C., with additional offices in various states and overseas. Being counsel to such a firm is prestigious and remunerative, but is a far cry from being a partner of that institution. How easy it would be to glide over the distinction and have people assume I served as a partner instead of its counsel. That would trim up my life resume nicely – but it would be incorrect. Even worse, it would be dishonest. A life resume doesn’t require imagination – just honesty. It lets go of hyperbole and embraces equally regrets and achievements.

Depression has many causes and roots. When it appears in our last third of life we are mourning over something we can no longer do, a relationship that has ended, a weakening of our body that slowly (or not so slowly) is stealing our independence, or a sense that we are no longer relevant. Spirituality can be a pathway back to connections with those you love – and more importantly – those who love you. As we embrace spirituality, we confront, destabilize, and weaken the depression that so often is rooted in our aging process.

When I use the word “separation” I mean a separation from life, its ups and downs, people with whom we can share common experiences, interact with, argue over, laugh at, cry about, or talk to. Without the touch of another human being we become isolated, unable to share our feelings or our fears. I don’t cry easily, at least I didn’t until Parkinson’s came into my life when I was 63. I didn’t want to hide behind my make-up, but I was easily embarrassed at revealing this part of myself too easily. I shared my medical information with one of my women colleagues and friends at the Omega Institute where I then worked. I passed on the news – received a hug, and broke into tears, only the second time in my life that events were so profound that my defensive wall didn’t just come down, it was obliterated. It wasn’t that I was just reaching out. I experienced that I had friends who wouldn’t let me wallow in my hard news and who were prepared to make the rest of my life’s journey in partnership with me.

Making changes that address our destructive behavior is hard and often feels overwhelming. As we observe our loneliness we are often weighted down with additional burdens – such as the limitations that illness imposes – that makes our capacity to resist false pride, depression and separation hard to imagine. Yet imagination is a gift we humans have been given that allows us to make doable what appear to be undoable. If you can harness that aspect of your skill set – whether it be in the doing of an activity or an appreciation of someone else’s imagination – it connects us to amazing insights, discoveries, and beauty. 

We have assets we have not yet used, strengths we have not yet employed, and capacities we have not yet harnessed. They are positive approaches to life that we have spent a lifetime acquiring. Just to name a few, these assets include listening well, being constructive, reaching out, helping others, resolving conflict, and being generous If we so decide, now is the time to engage with these assets. Whatever our level of skill, we have incorporated these features in our persona, it is time to employ these assets and derive from the balance of life available to us what pleasure, joy, and meaning we might yet extract from life.

You might say no to what I am suggesting. You might disbelieve what I am writing. You might disregard my suggestions for addressing pain. That is up to you and no one else. I lack the words to change anyone’s behavior. Nor would I want to if that gift were available to me. I have not spent time inside anyone’s skin other than my own.  I can’t even commit to you that my behavior will follow my suggestions when I am faced with my own isolation and loneliness. I can only tell you I plan to try. My writing about this subject is for my benefit as well as yours.

As I consider what assets I might call upon for my own growth, one feature stands out from the rest. It is learning to live in the present moment, to practice a consciousness that heightens awareness of life as we live it. Sources to guide this behavior appear in almost every medium imaginable, from books to retreats, and from programs to conversation. There is no limit to how deeply we can nurture this skill. There is no penalty for failing to use this skill when it is most needed. But when you fall off, you do need to get back on the horse.

We carry with us regrets from our past and concerns about our future. It’s built into our DNA and is how my childhood was shaped. It took years for me just to be aware that other ways of appreciating time existed. I began to take programs in which living consciously was taught and practiced. I joined groups that meditated. I was engaged and excited. It paid off in psychic dividends and made life easier. It takes practice to concentrate on living in the present moment. Because I felt many competing goals during the second phase of life, I tried to keep conscious living as both a rhythm in my life and a goal to be attained. Once retirement became my reality, I had more opportunity to practice.

I could add to what I’ve written so far, but it would be repetitive. Instead I’m going to appreciate the environment that is enveloping me – warm, sunny, and around the corner from a total eclipse. I wish you well in your exploration.

November 2017

George Kaufman ©

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