Let the Celebration Begin!
Or Are You Waiting Till
You Get a Bit Younger?
by Lionel Fisher
“Nine-tenths of wisdom consists of being wise in time.” -Teddy Roosevelt
The thing is, you don’t have any more time to waste.
Not at your age.
Not if you’re as old as I am.
But even if you’re not, you will be one day, as surely as the brightest denim skies dwindle into dusk.
So it’s about time, my friend.
Time you and I can no longer afford to waste the way we did when we thought we had an inexhaustible supply.
Back when death was a distant rumor, as Andy Rooney put it.
Anything, therefore, that squanders our remaining time, whatever stands in the way of living, truly living – celebrating the rest of our lives! – must be paid attention to immediately.
Before another irretrievable moment passes.
The saddest words ever spoken: “Too late.”
They come when there’s no more fooling ourselves about what we’ve done or haven’t done with our lives.
The young don’t think about growing old, remarked one blogger in an Internet conversation on aging well. “It’s because they haven’t experienced the reality of declining in physical strength and mental capabilities. For them, getting older has always meant
getting better as they draw closer to the peak of their physical maturity.”
“If they talk about ‘growing old’ at all, it’s often with disdain for the way many people spend their golden years, discontented with life, set in their ways, bitter towards many people.
GRIM REMINDERS OF MORTALITY
That mindset is understandable, even predictable, notes Ronni Bennett in another cyberspace dialogue, because few of us like to be reminded we are mortal. “And although it’s rarely acknowledged,” says Bennett, “much of the ageism and age discrimination
evident in U.S. culture must be attributed to that most primal of fears.”
“Old people,” she claims, “remind others they too will wither and die one day. So elders are often made outcasts – ignored, sometimes vilified for being greedy geezers, fired from their jobs before younger workers and urged into retirement villages where
they’re isolated from the general population.”
“No wonder everyone is afraid of getting old,” Bennett adds redundantly.
“If these are my golden years,” commiserates one bumper sticker, “I am SO screwed.”
Maybe it’s because most of us reach our senior years dazed and confused, as if they’d crept up on us with no warning whatsoever.
“Old age is the most unexpected of all the things that happen to a man,” grumbled Leon Trotsky.
“Inside every older person is a younger person wondering what happened,” agrees Jennifer Yane.
Little wonder, observed Andre Maurois, since growing old is “no more than a bad habit that busy people have little time and no patience to acquire.”
There’s no denying old age never comes at a good time. No one ever woke up exclaiming, “Hooray, I’m old!”
One gray day the lengthening shadows simply find us deep in uncharted territory, lost and apprehensive, groping for a path through an emotional wilderness we blithely denied we would ever have to travel.
WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT, RALPHY?
“I’ve gone round and around in my head about aging,” reveals Edwina Bauer, 58. “I’d always thought it was something that would happen to others. Then it happened to me.”
“And it happened fast,” she adds with a wry smile. “One day I felt forty. The next day I felt old. The next day I looked old, at least that’s how it seemed. There was no denying it, even to myself.”
“It was a rough patch for a few years,” Bauer continues. “I went through long periods where I became fixated on growing old, on terrible illnesses I might fall prey to, on being alone and helpless, on living in nursing homes, on dying – on and on until my
imagination scared my poor mind out of its wits.”
“Whenever I ask myself what terrifies me, I find that ninety percent of the time it’s my own imagination,” she continues. “And yet I am aging. I spend a lot of time thinking about getting old and what to ‘do’ about it, how to interpret what it
‘means,’ how to respond to my changing self-image, how to view it, how to reconcile myself to my identity as an ‘older’ woman, how to adapt to the rest of my life.”
Actually, she thinks she’s adjusted pretty well to aging, claims Bauer. “Somewhere along the line during these past few years of mulling it over endlessly, I must have made the decision that happiness in life is my right. So I’ve made an all-out
commitment to be happy, no matter what. I’m not going to miss out on happiness after all the unhappy years. And there’s no time to waste because my time is growing shorter.”
“Fortunately, I’m convinced that I am the agent who must bring that happiness to me. I – no one else – am responsible for being happy. The world doesn’t owe me happiness. Nor can the world or anyone else give it or take it away or keep it
“One thing I’ve discovered for certain,” Bauer concludes, “is that as long as I expect others to make me happy, as long as I blame others or blame my circumstances or blame the world for my inability to be happy, I will never be happy. Blaming
neutralizes happiness like soda neutralizes acid.”
OLD AND SMART NOT ALWAYS A DUO
Wisdom, we also assume, automatically accompanies old age – the insight born of experience that will provide all the answers. Then age shows up by itself, leaving us up life’s creek without a map, compass, or paddle.
“The face falls, the body rebels – physical changes that are mirrored in the psychological shifts that age demands,” notes sociologist-psychologist-author Lillian B. Rubin. “It’s the two together that are so hard to bear.”
“The journey continues, but to what end?” Rubin asks and answers herself by quoting a disconsolate 74-year-old widow: “Sure, I keep busy, but that’s just what it is – keeping busy. It doesn’t have a lot of meaning, if you know what I mean.”
We fear “disempowered role-lessness,” asserts spiritual counselor Ram Dass, “the fear of having nothing structured, nothing we’re ‘supposed’ to be doing, a fear that becomes so palpable around retirement time. To counteract their anxiety, people often
throw themselves into other activities, such as volunteerism, second families, vacationing that never ends, or hobbies and avocations to maintain a sense of having purpose.”
Many older Americans really do understand the old widow’s sense of purposelessness, for they themselves have struggled with the same feelings of irrelevance, pointlessness, and futility.
“Though there’s certainly nothing wrong with being busy,” says Dass, “the desperation that often prompts these activities does create a shadow. In other words, it’s often more skillful to be still and attend to the frightening feelings that a change such
as retirement can arouse in us than to rush to fill the free time in order to avoid our feelings. We have the opportunity to ask ourselves why we fear inactivity, and what feelings we avoid by our perpetual busy-ness.”
THE JOURNEY PAST MERIDIAN
Tragically, it’s not the end of the journey that gives us pause for reflection. It’s the realization we made the trip with boundless but mindless energy, paying little attention to where it was all heading, failing to prepare for what it would be like
when we finally got there.
Yogi Berra summed it up well during an errant motor trip: “We’re lost, but we’re making good time.”
As did Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.”
Others, fortunately, are giving the rest of their journey past meridian some much-needed, long-overdue thought. With our nation on the brink of a longevity revolution – by 2030 the population of Americans over the age of 65 will exceed 71 million, one in
four will be 60 or older, nearly 10 million of them 85 or older – a vanguard of experts is striving to change the way our society deals with growing old. This cultural elite of gerontologists, physicians, psychologists, philosophers, sociologists, spiritual gurus, ethicists,
and cultural observers – themselves mostly elderly – advocates a brave new outlook called “conscious aging.”
“They want us,” says Daniels, “to be aware of and accept what aging actually is – a notice that life has not only a beginning and a middle but an end – and to eliminate the denial that now prevents us from anticipating, fruitfully using and even
appreciating” our so-called golden years.
“Conscious aging is a new way of looking at and experiencing aging that moves beyond our cultural obsession with youth toward a respect and need for the wisdom of age,” Daniels quotes holistic physician Stephan Rechtschaffen, M.D., director of the Omega
Institute, a driving force behind an attitude-shift from aging as a fearful, worthless affliction to its acceptance and appreciation as an integral, dynamic part, perhaps even the best part of the life process.
This radical, enlightened outlook is long overdue, for most of us in need of it have never had a role model, much less a program, not even a 12-Step program (until now) for growing old with serenity, grace, and passion.
“When there are things to be done, they must be done whether you’re 96 or 56,” Sherwin B. Nuland quotes pioneering heart surgeon-researcher Michael DeBakey in his new book, The Art of Aging. “Those are just numbers,” says DeBakey, who turns 100 on
September 7, 2008.
“I think conceptually it’s important as you age to recognize some of the limitations that age produces,” he stresses. “But once you’ve recognized them, then you are aware of those limitations, and this allows you to be flexible within them…letting our
horizons come closer and confining our plans to the realistic.”
However, with scant attention paid by most of us to aging until we’re old, it’s not surprising we find ourselves in our vintage years as if dumped there rudely, without warning – wretched, frightened, and confused.
It’s not that the elderly have more issues than young or middle-aged people. Or even different issues. There are more than enough issues to go around for everyone our entire lives. They’re simply part and parcel of the business of living, generic to its
But for the old with so many issues and so little time, resolving whatever stands in the way of our remaining happiness becomes poignant in its growing urgency. Because time is running out, and we literally don’t have a moment to spare.
GORILLAS ON THE YELLOW-BRICK ROAD
What are emotional issues, anyway?
“Unfinished business is one way of describing them,” explains Molly Stranahan, Psy.D. “They are unsettled matters of the heart and spirit that get in the way of our joy and fulfillment.”
“Our natural state is to be happy, to possess a sense of inner peace, particularly when we mature and learn from our experiences,” claims Stranahan, program designer and co-leader of The Path to Happiness personal-growth workshops offered by the
Center for Applied Psychology of Rutgers University.
“Things happen in our lives which we interpret to create feelings other than happiness – feelings that keep us from experiencing our natural serene state. So it’s important to recognize and investigate what is behind them,” she urges.
“Once you identify those uncomfortable feelings, when you acknowledge that they stand in the way of your happiness and well-being, you can accept and honor them for the call to action they bring. The feelings that have blocked your enjoyment of life can
pass through you, having fulfilled their function. Then they become gifts.”
Call aging issues the thousand-pound gorillas on the yellow-brick road through our golden years, obstacles that must be displaced so the rest of our journey can be idyllic and rewarding.
They are the growing sense of irrelevance, of vulnerability, of uselessness. They are the sadness, guilt, regret, and remorse over failed choices that will never come again.
They are the inexplicable embarrassment, the irrational shame at having grown frail, tired, unproductive, and dependent. They are the eerie sense of no longer belonging, of having become a wallflower in the dance of life. The uncanny sensation of
invisibility in a Peter Pan world of the resolutely young.
HERE’S LOOKIN’ THROUGH YOU, GRANNY
“We become invisible as we grow older,” laments Angela Lansbury’s character Leona Mullen as she speaks of the indignity of old age in Terrence McNally’s stage play Deuce. No moment in the play is more arresting, wrote New York Times
drama critic Charles Isherwood:
“The quiet plea in her voice rises to a note of true despair as she expands on the thought, recalling the urge to cry out ‘Look at me!’ when faced with the dismissive glance of a younger woman. As performed with precise focus and powerful feeling, the
moment gleams with painful truth.”
As painful and crippling to the aging is the ensuing sorrow over diminishment and loss: loss of dignity, loss of stature, loss of memory, loss of vibrancy, resilience, and health.
Loss of youth, of physical attractiveness, of sexuality. Loss of ability, achievement, acclaim. Loss of the roles that sustained and endowed us with purpose, power, and identity. Loss of control over our ability to make reasoned choices, to competently
govern our actions.
Most gut-wrenching of all, the forfeiture of “possibility” as defined by University of Wisconsin Humanities professor/author/poet Kelly Cherry in her heartrending Lines Written on the Eve of a Birthday:
It is the loss of possibility
That claims you bit by bit. They take away
Your man, the children you had hoped would be,
They even take brown hair and give you gray
Instead. You ask if you can save your face
But that is part of their plan – to strip you
Of your future and put the past in its place.
They don’t stop there. They take the skies’ deep blue
And drain it off; the empty bowl they leave
Inverted, white as bone. They dust the trees
With strontium, but they keep up their sleeve
The biggest trick of all, the one that sees
You give up in the end. It is the loss
Of possibility that murders us.
Every bit as lethal is the mortal dread that never attaches itself as tenaciously as in old age. Not just the morbid fear of death, but of dying painfully. Dying alone. Dying without having made things right. Dying unfulfilled. Dying without having really
Beyond fear of death, fear of the unknown also paralyzes the aging. Fear of eternal nothingness. Fear of a literal Judgment Day, the loss of heaven, an eternal hell.
And there is fear of fear itself, most unnerving of fears because of its self-fulfilling nature. “Fear of aging speeds the very decline we dread most,” writes Jere Daniel in Psychology Today. “Fear of aging is the single most powerful agent
creating exactly what we fear.”
“Fear is the mind-killer,” cautions the Bene Gesserit Litany in Frank Herbert’s science fiction universe of Dune. “Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And
when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
LAST CALL FOR HAPPINESS
“What now?” you ask, drifting in ever-narrowing circles towards the dark vortex, nervously eyeing the sands of time as they trickle through the emptying hourglass.
Join the club.
“Twelve-step programs are a wonderful way to explore our attitudes and beliefs so we can make healthier choices that can help heal us,” says New Jersey psychologist Molly Stranahan, who incorporates her training as a cognitive-behavior psychologist with
the proven dynamics of traditional therapy programs and her own personal and professional experiences to help people lead “happier, healthier, more-fulfilling lives,” her life’s mission.
“In essence,” Stranahan points out, “a 12-step gathering is simply a fellowship of people helping to heal each other by sharing their stories of struggle, pain, triumph, and redemption. It’s a powerful method of recovery because there is no better way to
feel good about ourselves than to help others feel good about themselves. By being good to others, we are good to ourselves. By doing good for others, we do good for ourselves.”
“It’s that simple,” she concludes.
In an episode of The Sopranos, Tony tells Svetlana Kirilenko, one-legged cousin of his girlfriend Irina, that he admires her resilient spirit and good humor despite her disability: “I was thinking about the way you are, how you always have this
little smile, like you got your own private joke.”
Svetlana just laughs.
“I wish I knew your secret,” Tony goes on. “Lose a leg and start making web sites,” referring to her latest business venture.
“That’s the whole purpose of people like me,” Irina says. “To inspire people like you.”
“Jeez, no offense,” Tony replies.
“That’s the trouble with you Americans,” Irina says. “You expect nothing bad ever to happen when the rest of the world expects only bad to happen, and they’re not disappointed.”
Tony answers in his usual sarcastic fashion, but Irina is unfazed.
”You have everything,” she says, “and still you complain. You’re buying couches and bitch to your psychiatrist. Hah, you got too much time to think about yourself.”
“Sounds like me, all right,” Tony brushes off her remarks, but you can tell her words have made an impression. During his next session with Dr. Jennifer Welti, his long-suffering psychoanalyst, he recounts his conversation with Svetlana.
“She said she didn’t want to prop me up,” Tony tells Dr. Welti, adding disdainfully, “and this from a broad that walks around on crutches half the time, nice, huh? “You know what she says, this broad?”
“She’s from Russia, dirt poor, had some kind of infectious disease on her leg when she was nine. She says that nowhere else in the world do people expect to be happy, except for here, in this country. And still we’re not. We got everything, and when we’re
not, what do we do? We go to shrinks, for what?”
For happiness, Tony, what else?
Because Americans expect to be happy, as Svetlana points out. We think we deserve happiness because we have everything, but we’re still not happy. Being unhappy is bad enough, but when there’s no excuse not to be happy, well, just the
thought of being unhappy when we have so much to be happy about makes us miserable.
Especially when we’re old enough to know better.
HINDSIGHT BEATS FORESIGHT EVERY TIME
“Getting old isn’t easy for a lot of us,” concedes Ram Dass. “Neither is living, neither is dying. We struggle against the inevitable and we all suffer because of it. We have to find another way to look at the whole process of being born, growing old,
changing, and dying, some kind of perspective that might allow us to deal with what we perceive as big obstacles without having to be dragged through the drama.”
“This is our predicament, then, to regain our roles as wise elders in a culture that has traditionally denied the need for wisdom, or the ability of the old to provide it; to envision a curriculum for aging with wisdom as its highest calling; and to use
it as a means of enlightenment – our own, and that of the people around us,” says Dass.
The wisdom of the old, after all, is truer than the wisdom of the young. Theirs, you see, relies on foresight, ours on hindsight, which is consistently more reliable. Given the choice, few of us would prefer to base our critical decisions on prescience
rather than experience.
Not that emotional maturity is the exclusive province of the old. In truth, it’s no great attainment for anyone who lives long enough. Get beaten up by life enough times and you eventually wise up. Sadly, though, it usually takes a lifetime of emotional
bruising for maturity to develop, arriving for most of us at the end of our journeys.
The way we look at things also has a curious way of altering with age. Life is a slow turning, as Willie Nelson sings, from the inside out and then back again as we view our ever-changing world from where we happen to be in the spectrum of our lives at
Barry Neil Kaufman put it this way: “The way we choose to see the world creates the world we see.”
“I don’t believe that life is supposed to make you feel good or make you feel miserable either,” says African-American author/scholar Gloria Naylor. “Life is just supposed to make you feel.”
Each of us creates our own wisdom, affirms New Jersey psychologist Molly Stranahan: “It’s what we tell ourselves about what happens to us that makes us happy or sad. We tend to believe what happens to us makes us feel the way we do. The truth is it
is how we interpret these events that creates our sadness or happiness.”
“It‘s how we look at life, how we deal with whatever life hands us that determines our success or failure in aging well. Some call it attitude and it’s everything on the road of life, particularly on the path to happiness.”
Abraham Lincoln summed it up neatly when he said, “Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”
It’s that simple, as Molly Stranahan points out. And that profound.
“I’ve made happiness a personal goal,” says Stranahan, who is writing a book not-coincidentally titled The Path to Happiness, “because I know that achieving it is entirely within my power. It’s even guaranteed by the Constitution – you know,
the part about the pursuit of happiness being an inalienable right – and who am I to argue with our founding fathers?”
“So I’ve chosen happiness as a primary measure of my success in life,” Stranahan concludes. “I believe I’ll die peacefully if I’ve lived a happy life and helped others to do the same.”
It was Honest Abe who also said, “Do good and you feel good. Do bad and you feel bad.”
Doing good for others – being good to ourselves – is celebrating life, not just waiting it out.
And if not now, when?
So let the celebration begin!
Or are you waiting till you get just a little bit younger?
© Copyright 2008 Lionel Fisher.
All Rights Reserved.
This article is excerpted from Lionel Fisher’s new book on growing old magnificently, titled “My Name Is Earl and I’m Old”/A 12-Step Program for the Rest of the Journey. A former journalist, freelance writer, columnist,
corporate communicator and advertising creative director who lived and worked in San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Miami and Portland, Oregon, before moving to Southwest Washington’s Long Beach Peninsula, Fisher is the author of Celebrating Time Alone: Stories of Splendid
Solitude (Beyond Words Publishing, 2001), On Your Own: A Guide to Working Happily, Productively and Successfully from Home (Prentice Hall, 1995) and The Craft of Corporate Journalism (Nelson-Hall, 1992). He also writes several self-syndicated humor/lifestyle
columns, including one on the art of living alone. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Celebrating Time Alone,
says the author, is about living joyously and self-fulfilled alone instead of steadfastly seeking our answers, our happiness, our very identity in others when we first must find it the only place we can – in ourselves. Fisher’s reflections on solitude came into sharp focus on
the remote Pacific Northwest beach to which he moved eight years ago where he kept a detailed journal to record his thoughts, feelings and emotions during this climactic period of willful isolation. He interweaves his own insights and
experiences with the stories of "new hermits" he interviewed across the country – men and women who have stretched the envelope of their aloneness to Waldenesque proportions, achieving great emotional clarity in the process, as well as their urban counterparts who, through
necessity or choice, prefer to savor their individuality in smaller servings.
The book’s central premise is timeless and simple, notes Fisher: "There are gifts we can only give ourselves, lessons no one else can teach us, triumphs we must achieve alone. It affirms that it’s all right to be alone, to want to be alone, even
to be lonely at times because the rewards of solitude can make the deprivations so worthwhile. It sings the praises of those who have found amazing grace alone. They lead us in quest of our own undiscovered selves."
TO "FEATURES" PAGE