In order to come fully to the encounter with whatever gives ultimate meaning, in order to really wrestle with the angel, one must be a free agent, not defined by another, or by cultural imperatives.
—Marilyn Sewell, Cries of the Spirit
In 2011, my research team and I developed three surveys, asking 2,752 people to provide insights about life after fifty. We were basically asking baby boomer subjects to define “a new spirit of aging” for the new millennium. More women than men responded to our survey, at about 70 percent to 30 percent. In our work in gender studies over the last two decades, we have found this result to be consistent and robust. We have also found that, in general, men write fewer words than women.
Craig, fifty-three, from Los Angeles, responded in this brief but cogent way. “I’ve experienced deaths in my family and some early health problems, but I understand where I am. I am finally able to handle what is on my plate—and what is on my plate is more than it’s ever been. One thing I’m especially doing is listening to life (and listening to some very good and wise friends). The metaphor in my mind is that I’ve now entered the middle weekend of a wonderful two-week vacation. I still have a week of vacation left but I am not entirely unaware that the plane is leaving next Sunday and the vacation will end. I call this next week of my life ‘Christmases Yet to Come.’ ”
As I followed up with Craig, he talked about the new freedom he was seeking now in his fifties. It was not the freedom of “escape” but rather of new engagement with life. Craig had married for the first time in his forties, started a new family (his daughter was six), and had decided to leave the business world to get a teaching degree. He was also volunteering in his daughter’s school and had started an educational foundation with some of the money he had made in the financial services industry. Craig was stepping forward into the second half of life with vigor, vision, and wonder.
Marcy, fifty-six, wrote a longer story, also revelatory of a new spirit of aging in her life.
“My husband and I are originally from the Northeast and have been living in Georgia for 18 years. My daughter is 19 and a sophomore at college, and my son is 23, and graduated. I am working to cut apron strings with him and give us both a new kind of freedom. My daughter left for school a year ago August, and our dog passed away in May. I decided that I would get a dog, a French shepherd, so that I could participate in outdoor activities, walking, hiking, and training her for things. That has worked out very well; it has provided for me a new set of folks that I have met (lots of people within 10 years on either side of my age). I have sort of re-created myself in this role, more laid-back, no makeup, lots of enjoyment from watching dogs play together and chatting with their owners.
“Nine years ago, my mother, 88, lived in New England on her own, but I realized that as an only child I could not hop on a plane from Georgia and help her when she needed it. So I insisted that she move here. She did and is now 97. Sometimes, being with her makes me afraid of being that old; it doesn’t seem like much fun at all, especially since I’ve realized I could live another thirty or forty years or more. But at the same time, being with Mom more has made me want to do and try new things. Caring for her makes me want to finally become the fearless and free person I’ve always wanted to be, and now I think I definitely have the time to do that.”
“I want to become the fearless and free person I’ve always wanted to be. . . . ” How many of us have said those words, or something like them, over the decades of our youth and middle adulthood? Many of us. Perhaps all of us. In the survey questions, neither I nor anyone on my team used the word “freedom,” but that word and its meanings showed up in many of the responses. As people revealed wanting happier, growth-ful, fearless, and vital ways of living now, they discussed their sense of living in a new time in life when they could develop a new sense of freedom. They talked about a sense of now-more-than-ever and now-as-never-before. Freedom became the spiritual goal within all other goals. In reading the surveys, I understood people to be using the word “freedom” as a sign of spiritual growth at deep levels. People were hoping to redefine and spiritualize their lives so that “problems” became “challenges” and difficult parts of life became no longer “enemies to battle” but spiritually meaningful, complimentary facets of real life, an evolving part of each person’s development of a philosophy of personal completion.
There is a wonderful film about some of this called The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. In it, the character played by Judi Dench speaks about aging and new adventures: “This is a new and different world . . . the challenge is not just to cope, but to thrive.” Dench’s character and a number of others leave England and move to a retirement hotel in Jaipur, India. They enter a completely new world filled with challenges that ultimately help them find new meaning. They grow into a kind of wisdom that frees them to care for others and themselves in vital ways. Where they felt unworthy of success or love in the past, they discover worthiness and love in the present. They reassess what they do and think, becoming the role models people need in order to see where to walk and rediscover a sense of wonder. They realize they have sown many miracles in their lifetimes, and there are more to sow. They sense that pain and sorrow are beautiful evidence of a life lived for purpose. The whole film, from beginning through denouement, “breathes into the void” a sense of what freedom and fearlessness can be for people who age with vision, growth, and self-discovery.
My wife, Gail, and I went to see this film as I was developing this chapter. The goal of this chapter is to concentrate on key standards for what might constitute a new, free, and fearless spirit of aging today. Seeing the film helped me to fully understand why freedom is so important to us as we age, so crucial to positive aging and the continuation or rediscovery of wonder as we age. It is a theme at the center of the spirituality of aging, as we will explore in this chapter and this book. We may lose a lot of our childhood wonder as we move through adulthood and middle age, but as we age we have a chance to live in wonder again (and freshly, maturely) as never before.
By way of coincidence (if there is any such thing), the evening after seeing the film I spoke by phone with my father, eighty-three, who, with my mother, had taken me to India to live in the 1960s (we lived not far from Jaipur, in Hyderabad). He and I talked about the film and about his life as an octogenarian. A number of times recently he had fallen and injured himself, so he had moved into a retirement community where he could get more immediate care. Because of ongoing issues with his lungs, he also needed to move away from Santa Rosa, California, where he and my mother had lived, to a drier climate. When my mother passed away, he chose to move to a retirement community in Las Vegas, where my sister and my aunt live.
I shared with my father the “freedom” that was emerging as a theme in this book. He responded, “It’s true for me, too. People say these retirement communities shrivel them up, but that’s not what I’m feeling. I’m in a whole new phase of life. I’m doing a lot, I have a lot of new friends, I teach an adult education class online, and I have the three-times-a-day hilarious entertainment of people-watching in the dining room! I’m not worrying anymore about whether I’ll fall down and die alone in the house. I definitely feel a new freedom. I tell you, Mike, it never ends, the growing-up stuff.”
Forging a New Spirit of Aging
“Freedom” is a multifaceted word emerging not only in anecdotal research but in the scientific and psychological research on aging. One specific area of science-based research on this subject exists in and from regions of the world called “blue zones.” The term “blue zones” reflects the sense of “blue sky for miles to come” in places like Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; Abkhazia, Georgia; and Loma Linda, California. In these locations, researchers have studied women and men who are living a full, chronological second half of life—to one hundred and beyond. The researchers want to know: Why do so many people in these cities and regions live so long, and with such high quality of life?
Researchers have discovered that while some answers involve genetics and healthy food intake (eating more fish, less meat; more fresh foods, nothing processed; eating small portions, and no refined sugars to speak of), many other answers involve personal choices of positivity and spiritual principles of growth. Older people in blue zones often move into the second half of their lifetimes building more freedom into their lives. They do so by focusing on four particular elements of life, elements my team and I also found in our survey, focus group, and interview results. These elements, I believe, can comprise a foundation for the wonder of aging, and what, specifically, I would like to term “the new spirit of aging.” We will explore each one in this chapter.
1. Healthy aging requires concentration, over a period of years, on de-stressing one or more of the physical, mental, and emotional aspects of our lives. Physical and mental well-being are now crucial, whether in the face of a pivotal health event or just as a part of natural aging; we need to develop discipline regarding nutrition, exercise, improving mental functioning, and working through psychological and relational issues that cause chronic stress. We need to gradually or immediately remove these chronic stressors from our lives if we are to thrive in our second lifetime. Our new discipline of lifestyle, and our working to decrease areas of significant stress, give us quality of life and longevity.
2. Healthy aging requires us to embrace realistic optimism about aging. This requires a lot of active life and, often, an attitude change that sees aging as filled with free potential on all fronts, from personal to professional. Embracing age and rediscovering wonder is about rebirth.
3. Healthy aging requires us to form and join new communities. Most specifically, we need to develop or join a small circle of friends who share similar values, ideas, interests, and visions of age. If we move to a different city, one circle of friends may dissolve but a new circle of friends can form in the new place or new stage of age.
4. The second lifetime is the time to grow from “adult” to elder. This involves becoming or remaining visible, engaging in spiritual practice, practicing concentrated service to the world, and mentoring young people. The move to become an elder is a transformational experience that we need to accomplish consciously. Elder is not just given to us as we become chronologically “old”—elder is grown, created, made, and shared.
Abkhazia, Georgia, is one of the blue zones in which these four elements are prevalent. People who live to one hundred or older focus on new attitudes (they increase the time they spend joking, socializing, and working while singing, for instance); they increase their time in small circles of influence, including circles of like-minded friends; they consciously pursue mentoring of the young (the anthropologist Sula Benet, who studied them and lived among them for many years, saw a culture that lived by its proverb: “Besides God, we also need our elders”); and they specifically de-stress their lives (the physician Alexander Leaf, who studied the Abkhazians for years, noticed that elder Abkhazians try to avoid being rushed as much as possible—they really concentrate on that; they plan their day to be able to include long periods of walking from place to place, rather than rushing from place to place).
While our busy lives involve more rushing around than in a village, especially for those of us still in our prime working years, the blue zone research is helpful in begging each of us to ask questions of ourselves that can help us focus on greater health and freedom as we age.
■ Do I feel an internal pull to begin de-stressing and de-cluttering my life? At certain times of the day, do I feel like slowing down a little and fully entering my senses and “the now”? Do I let myself feel this pull, or do I remain too busy to feel it or give in to it?
■ Do I feel like now is the time to look at what a “good attitude” and a “bad attitude” are regarding age, health, mission, and “time left”? Where does complaining get me? Am I optimistic? Am I so optimistic that I’m not realistic about my age, or am I avoiding age by doing everything possible to pretend it isn’t happening?
■ Do I feel pulled toward a circle of family and friends who can become my rock as I age? Do I have close friends? If not, why not? If my spouse used to be the “friend maker” but now I am alone, how can I find a circle of friends on my own?
■ Do I feel a pull to explore what “elder” might mean for me? All my life I have been building a personal legacy—working, caring for others, serving, accomplishing. Am I becoming an elder who shares wisdom, or am I just subsisting? Is my community allowing me to become an elder? How do I become an elder?
We have the freedom now, in a miraculous second lifetime, to soul-search and soul-find. Wherever we are in our personal journey, if we are near or have passed the fifty milestone, we are psychologically driven toward a new spirit of aging. At fifty, we’re just starting to feel the call; by sixty, then seventy, then eighty, it will become even louder. I’ve felt it, you’ve felt it, people in blue zones have felt it, and everyone around us, wherever they live, have felt it as they cross the threshold into the second half of life.
Stress as the Catalyst of Spirit
Contemporary science-based research on aging and stress gives us a profound window into the urge we have all felt (even if unconsciously) to be reborn and develop new focus as we age. In this way, stress is a primary driver toward early death and low quality of life, or increased freedom and a new, deep happiness.
Bruce McEwen, a neuroscientist at Rockefeller University who studies the effect of the environment and lifestyle on aging cells in both our bodies and our brains, has discovered that any significant, ongoing stressor you experience as you age attacks cells equally in the sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (the system that connects your body and brain). This attack signals the frontal lobe of the brain to try to compel personal and spiritual growth at a cellular level.
So, if you are under some kind of constant negative stress in your psychophysical environment—from lack of sleep to a diet of destructive foods to depression to relationship issues to overwork—your frontal lobe and parts of your limbic system (your emotional centers) will most likely try to deal with this ongoing negative stress by pushing/pulling you toward new activations, new ways of being, new solutions that will counter the stress. You may override your own antistress decision making with an even more powerful executive choice—that is, to disregard the chronic stress your cells are under and continue doing the things that are bad for you—but your cells, body, and frontal lobe will keep pushing you toward new decisions and new rebirth. If you avoid your age—avoid what your cells are saying—for too long, parts of your body will give out, your mind will feel even more cloudy at times, your sleep will get even worse until you drive into a tree, perhaps, your heart gives out, or you have a stroke.
Your body and brain are wired for this kind of self-direction genetically. UCLA neuroscientist Steve Cole has taken the body-mind stress research into the area of genetics. He has shown that our physical cells reflect our gene growth, and our physical genes are vulnerable to any significant stressor affecting any other part of our system—mental, relational, spiritual—especially as we move into and beyond fifty. Because the bodies and brains of people over fifty are not as naturally resilient as they once were, our immune systems are not as strong in their natural life cycle as they were in our youth or middle age; thus, our brain’s decision-making centers in the frontal and temporal lobes—centers tasked with guiding our thriving—must activate to protect us. This activation is manifest in our conscious (or unconscious) pull toward seeking a new spirit of aging, a new freedom, a “downsizing,” a “new approach to life” as we age.
This pull is not a pull toward a completely stress-less life. That does not exist. It is impossible to have no stress or to avoid crises in life and be crisis-free. Even while working to de-stress parts of your life in your fifties and beyond, you may be, like me and most people I know, working forty-plus hours per week; volunteering in service communities; still raising or launching your children through teens, twenties, or beyond; caring for your parents and your spouse’s parents; and, in all these areas, dealing with crises as they arise. To seek a new approach to stress is not to put on rose-colored glasses. Stress and crisis are a part of life.
But if you have felt the internal pull to figure out how to de-stress your life, you are feeling your cellular, physical, and neurological systems trying to guide you toward new freedom, which is freedom from the stresses you no longer need. Your physiopsychological and cellular systems are saying to you: “If I am going to flourish through the decades of my future, I must de-stress the parts of life that are destroying me.” They are pressing: “If you don’t choose this course, you have a greater chance of becoming mentally ill (to say nothing of physically ill) as you age.” Dr. Cole notes our genetic reality here: when we were younger, many of our cells, once destroyed by stress, could regenerate, but now many of our aging cells cannot regenerate when destroyed by stress. And even more troubling is the fact that stressed-out cells now can mutate genes such as our IL6 genes; this age-related mutation leads to increased mental illness. If we continue to live highly stressed-out lives in our fifties and beyond, the stress keeps attacking us until it kills us quickly or alters our cells to the extent that we spend the second half of life in battles with mental illnesses—depression, rage, dementia—that we could, at least in part, have avoided.
So the pull you may be feeling to “change your life” is a natural one. I believe it is the reason so many people in blue zones (and many in your own neighborhood, we hope) pursue freedom so consciously. As we move through the fifty-year-old milestone, our psyches stand at a threshold between two worlds—adulthood and elder. Our cells, bodies, and brains feel the threshold as a spiritual state, a very real but also somewhat hidden state. Stress creates opportunity for rebirth into a new lifetime. If we make the transition through this new time, it is going to feel physiologically and neurally like “less stress.” Spiritually, it will feel like freedom.
“My husband and I are tired of the grind we’re in just to keep up,” Elaine, fifty-nine, wrote in our survey. “Our kids are grown. We’re going to sell our house. We’re downsizing.” Paul, sixty-two, wrote, “I’m letting go of some of the ‘having to always be right’ that drives people away from me. I’m listening better, detaching myself from some things that used to be important—now, I don’t understand why I spent so much time stressing out about them.” A client, fifty-five, said, “I have become more patient now. I had to. My impatience was killing me.” Another client, sixty-one, said, “My job is literally killing me. I have to find a way out.” Another client, fifty-one, wrote: “We have to end our marriage. The stress isn’t good for me or him.” These survey participants and clients felt the need to change attitudes and, in some cases, shift relationships; they felt called to develop freedom from what they feel is, literally, killing them, and freedom toward new life.
There is an ancient Chinese story of a sage who walks one day to the ocean, sits down on the shore, and uses a knife to cut boils and sores off his body. As he cuts each one off, he tosses it into the sea, and as it touches the sea, it grows gills and fins and swims away. When he is finished cleansing himself, he walks away from the sea, back to his daily life, feeling lighter, reborn. I see this sage as someone who has come to the sea because he or she feels an internal and very real pull toward freedom. Feeling that pull, he acts: he gets rid of the boils and sores (chronic stresses) of his previous self. For the Chinese sage, doing something about his stresses—freeing himself from them—altered who he was.
And so it is with us. Research in epigenetics conducted at Rutgers University confirms that our bodies and brains can regenerate some cells if we de-stress our lives as we age. It is getting more difficult for us to regenerate cells when we are under profound stress, but if we follow the “pull,” the primal survival urge, appropriate to our fifties and beyond, to take control of who we are and where we want to go, and if we plan our lives in ways that allow us lowered stress and higher quality of life for the second half of life, we can grow new cells; we are, literally, reborn.
But It’s Not Always Dramatic, at Least Not at First
Recently a client in her late fifties, Tammy, came to my clinical practice and asked for help to become healthier as she aged. She said, “I buy the idea that I have to make changes, especially in my stress levels, but I just can’t do anything dramatic right now that involves life change: I still have a kid in college, and I’m just climbing to the place I want to get in my company. So, you’ll lose me, Mike, if you don’t just give me a few things to do to de-stress myself physically right now, in the middle of my busy life.”
Part of my counseling practice is giving resources and best practices, so even though I am not a doctor, I felt comfortable helping her look at certain ways to deal with physical and cognitive stressors. After listening to her describe her everyday life, I homed in immediately on her sleep patterns. She slept, it seemed, too little for her aging brain’s health. She was always exhausted. “I can’t sleep anymore,” she said emphatically, “but there’s nothing to be done.” She described a schedule of rising at four a.m. to commute to work and needing to spend time with her husband and child in the late evenings, and then an hour of e-mail at eleven p.m., just to catch up, and time for only a few hours of sleep. I told her point-blank that this was killing her, and she agreed, but she said, “I don’t want to hear ‘Don’t do e-mail before bed’ or ‘Sleep more’ right now. What else do you have?”
Unable to help her alter her stress levels in huge ways, I settled for four concrete things that might help decrease stress and increase freedom under the parameters she gave. I practice these myself, and Tammy promised to concentrate on these in the midst of her very stressful life.
If you are a person who feels the pull toward new freedom, but your life is immensely busy, these four things will at least help you start heeding the call toward a new spirit of aging. They are baseline stress relievers for anyone and everyone, though we all need to go even further than these to fully realize the goal of freedom.
■ Food. Food grounds body and soul. A good breakfast gives Tammy’s body and mind fuel for the day, which decreases unnecessary stress on her cells and primes them for growth all day. If, however, she eats a huge dinner, her cells will need to process the food during the night—carbs are more likely to turn to dangerous fat during the night, when she’s not active, which increases cortisol (stress hormone) levels in the brain.
■ Water. Tammy didn’t drink enough water during the day. But she drank a lot at night, she said. This was most probably increasing her stress hormone levels. Lots of water during the day could help allow her brain to be more oxygen-filled and thus more intelligent, vital, relationally savvy, and spiritually at peace. But lots of water near nighttime was probably interrupting her sleep, which is a life-threatening stressor.
■ Alcohol. A little bit of alcohol can be healthy, especially a glass of wine a day. Too much alcohol, however, especially as we age, can have a negative holistic effect on us. It can become such a stressor as to lead to ongoing mental and physical disease and destruction of spirit. Tammy confessed to me that her husband was saying she drank too much. If someone we trust is telling us we drink too much, we probably drink too much, especially in a high-stress life like Tammy had.
■ Chocolate! Chocolate is, potentially, a physically, mentally, relationally, and spiritually useful food. Really? Really. Unless your doctor tells you otherwise, you might think about having a bit of chocolate every day. I asked Tammy to consider it. Chocolate can de-stress our brains and thus lift our spirits. It tastes good and can help our mood, especially in the winter when life can seem gray and somber. Some people have even reported a sense of spiritual euphoria from eating chocolate in the middle of a particularly dreary day.
Whatever large and small things we can do, we should do. Whether stress catches up to us quietly or dramatically, it catches up to us. Whether regarding food, sleep, relationships, work . . . or all of the above . . . stress is a factor. The earlier we let dialogue about our stress levels enter our personal, familial, and conscious conversation, the sooner we engage the primal, protective drive within us toward developing our own new spirit of aging.
Embracing Our Age
Positive attitudes are somewhat correlated with genetics (some people are naturally more optimistic than others), but everyone can alter their attitude toward increased optimism in given situations. This alteration has an internal logic to it, and it is not just an “attitude” task but also a spiritual task. To set a foundation for positive attitude as we age, we have to each, personally, decide what we mean by “positive attitude” and “optimism” for us. “Optimism” and even “positive attitude” are clichés and are easily scoffed at. Let’s look a little deeper into them.
Someone you know—or you yourself—has stopped dyeing his or her hair, letting it go gray. This is a symbolic gesture for this person that says, “I’m here, I’m ready, let’s see what’s next.” The person is being both realistic and optimistic about age in his or her own way. “Okay, I see reality,” he or she is saying, “and it’s not going to be easy, but I’m going to enjoy it, live it, be with it as it is, and see what happens. I’m going to be free of the fear of aging.” This is all a part of the pull toward freedom for this person, an inherently positive pull, a part of optimistic thinking. As with all of life so far, things certainly won’t go as planned all the time for this person or you or me, but whatever happens, it’s going to be interesting.
This combination of realism (things won’t necessarily go as well as I wish) and optimism (things are going to be fine indeed) is of great value. It is an attitude that embraces age on both fronts—the reality and the dream. Nancy Snyderman, sixty, a physician and throat surgeon, who provides medical reporting for NBC’s Today show and NBC News, has traveled to all continents in her work. In interviewing hundreds of scientists and researchers, she understands the term “realistic optimism” to stand for “significantly important attitude adjustment as we age.”
She recently told me, “I’ve seen the power of this attitude in blue zones, and just recently I attended a forum on aging and interviewed former president Bill Clinton, who is just hitting a new stride in his late sixties. He said, ‘I’m just getting started!’ There is no scientist or doctor I’ve interviewed who doesn’t agree: if we look at issues such as stress, loneliness, what we eat, how we interact, how we transform our identity, we become the greater for it, and it comes hand in hand with changing our attitude toward aging.”
I asked Nancy to define this attitude shift. She said, “It’s about being both happy and real, in equal parts. For instance, if you have tried to hang on to your youth, there is nothing wrong with you. You are doing something natural—you love the success you had in your youth, the feeling of running hard, playing every sport, attracting other people’s healthy looks and glances. But to be healthy now, you may need to bust the myth of the fountain of youth. While it can be very useful to use hormones, dye your hair, take a food supplement . . . your intention in doing these things is important.”
About “intention,” Nancy said, “Your doctor should be able to help you decide your intention as you discuss with him or her the ‘why’ of what you are doing. If your intention is health, you’re probably fine with using the product, cream, or dye; if your intention is to avoid your age, you might need to rethink. Embracing our age does not mean letting ourselves go completely. It doesn’t mean thinking, ‘I’m over the hill.’ Just the opposite: research shows that we can negatively impact our emotional and, in turn, our physical health if we think we’re done, finished, over. But it does mean taking control of what is real and what really makes us happy.”
I hear Nancy saying that it is freeing of the soul to embrace age in a way that is both real and projective of best results. While we may think initially that “freeing” would correlate with staying young, and while, at times—especially when we are ill or in pain—we might think it is quite enslaving to grow old, still, in the long term, it is actually enslaving to avoid who we are. Avoidance of identity is always slavery to another person or ideal.
New research regarding the biochemistry and neurology of happiness confirms this idea. Happiness is a feeling of immense emotional and spiritual freedom—freedom to be who we are with the people we are with. Happiness is directly linked to aligning ourselves with positive attitudes and realistic goals. Happiness as we age feels like an embrace rather than an avoidance, a source of power rather than a sense of irretrievably sad loss. As science-based research in “happiness development” has confirmed over the last decade, we can especially feel it manifest in our lives through basic elements of happiness: a prevailing sense of gratitude, engagement in the world, discovery of meaning, and a sense of faith. The more these are active in our everyday lives, the more we should be able to feel realistic optimism.
■ Gratitude. At some point in our new growth, we realize we have come to feel greater appreciation for what we have and focus less on what has not come to be or what has been lost—such as a youthful body.
■ Engagement. At some point in our new growth, we feel constant engagement of our personal energy in purposeful life, that is, less of a shotgun approach to doing “everything” and more of a directed approach toward the most important things and people in life.
■ Discovery of meaning. In both small and large ways, as we take time to experience life as it is lived, including “smelling the flowers” and connecting with people who build meaning in our lives, we feel more greatly like we are living lives of meaning, not futility or “I’m on a treadmill and can’t get off.”
■ Faith. Over a period of years, even decades, we may find ourselves exploring involvement in new spiritual thinking, mindfulness, and rituals as we move some of our life focus to mysteries of spirit and soul, God and faith, with a new energy to fully engage in the gifts of mortality.
Even if you are living a very busy life, and even if you feel you can make no changes right now, you can focus just a little more of your daily time and energy on gratitude, engagement, meaning, and faith. You really can. You can do it during your meditation time, during a walk or run, while you are reading or talking with a friend, or while in a state of prayer. Each of these concentrations will enhance your sense of being freer now than ever before, happier, more fearless. Life is coming at us hard as we age, and realistic optimism helps us move more freely toward a new, protective spirit of aging as we live this life.
Lori, 54, wrote to me:
“Two days before my 53rd birthday, I received the greatest lesson in life. My 22-year-old son was diagnosed with a life-threatening brain tumor, and every day since then has been a lesson in faith, perseverance, love, and progress. I quit my job to be with him 24/7 and in the process learned that I was a lot stronger than I had ever imagined. I started my own new business in the process. As my friend Wall Street Journal columnist Jeff Zaslow wrote to me in an e-mail, ‘Life is fragile. We don’t always see that—until we have reason to.’ Five months after that note, Jeff tragically lost his life in an automobile accident.”
• • •
Kathy Stevens, 62, a mother, grandmother, and executive director of our Gurian Institute, had been battling cancer for two years when she said, “I’m going through a lot, but when I read this blog (below), I look at my attitude and remember how good I have it. Since I am off to chemo this morning, it again made me stop and count my blessings . . . for having the past two years of treatment to keep me alive, getting to spend time with kids and grandkids, having time to collect my thoughts on life past and present, continuing to fulfill my legacy.”
The blog post Kathy referred to was this:
I lost both my only child, my daughter, Beth, and her newborn baby, my only grandchild, a few weeks ago. December 1st, 2011, was parent-teacher conference day. Beth, a teacher, was talking with a parent of one of her students when she suddenly felt light-headed, collapsed, and stopped breathing. The 911 call was made. An emergency vehicle soon arrived. At the hospital, we learned that Beth had a cyst, fed by large blood vessels, that was positioned in an area that hid it from ultrasound scans. The cyst ruptured, causing massive internal bleeding. All attempts at resuscitation failed. The loss of blood to her brain deprived it of oxygen, so that by the time she reached the hospital, there was no trace of brain activity. The emergency room crew performed a C-section in an attempt to save the baby. However, the baby had been without oxygen for too long as well. Her little organs began to fail, one at a time. Within a few hours baby Natalie Danielle joined her mother, Beth, in heaven.
Kathy finished with, “What do I have to complain about compared to this? Tragedies like this really make me want to change the way I treat other people. The world needs a lot more of my love and less of my negative thoughts, no matter the amount of pain I am in, and no matter how scared I get of cancer.”
Kathy passed away from cancer a few months later, on April 1, 2012. She worked part-time right up until her death, serving schools and children through a company she had cofounded twelve years before. At her memorial service, every eulogist noted in their speeches that Kathy was a person constantly focused on positive attitude and meaningful purpose.
Keeping a Record
If you have read the You books by Drs. Mehmet Oz and Michael Roizen, you will probably know the term “real age.” If you feel fifty but you are really sixty, your “real age” is actually fifty. Similarly, if you live the lifestyle that protects your “real age,” your real age will always be as young as it can be. By taking care of your real age, you are gaining happiness, clarity, quality of life, and longevity.
I see journaling (keeping a record of your life) as a way of caring for your “real age” and your soul. I help my clients use this tool as a way of embracing age and furthering the cause of spirit, meaning, purpose, and happiness. Research on the power of self-expression through writing and the arts corroborates the potential of this action of body-mind as care of spirit. Sian Beilock, psychology professor at the University of Chicago, is the author of Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To. Beilock has gathered data from studies regarding attitude shifts and happiness. A consistent finding in the research, she reports, is this one: “Self-expression (as for instance through writing) decreases stress and focuses attention on positive success-outcomes.” Writing things down has been proven in clinical trials to relieve anxiety, focus the mind, and improve attitude.
If you haven’t already, I hope you’ll purchase a notebook of some kind or open a new document on your computer or tablet. Let this “journal” become a significant part of your journey as you embrace age with personalized, realistic optimism. This notebook can become a sharing of who you are now and who you have been—a sharing of your life legacy. If you haven’t begun a “memoir” yet in your life, this book might evolve into that kind of life record. And this record and sharing has probably already happened in your life through photo albums, oral stories to friends and family, videos or video clips, drawings or art, sculpture, recipes you’ve given to your kids, and any other form of expression. By starting a journal, you are now organizing the disparate elements of your record. Take time to look at photographs, video clips, and diaries you’ve kept. Take a week or a month or many years to do this, all the while devoting a new notebook to the efforts of aging with wonder. As you proceed forward, fill your notebook and memoir with new words, new doodles, drawings, insights, questions, answers, action plans, and many surprises.
The spiritual writing with which I begin each chapter of this book (my own morning reunions with God) are part of my notebook and memoir. I am a person who embraces age (and experiences a great deal of self-therapy) by writing about that embrace, exploring it in the action of revising my words constantly until they fully capture the spirit of aging I am living. I will pass on parts of this notebook to my family over the next decades. It is a way to be visible as I age, and thus work toward helping the next generations ponder this new second half of life.
While you don’t have to revise (over and over again!) as I, a writer, compulsively do, your notebook can still become your own expression and guidebook for your children and grandchildren (now or in the far future) as they understand you and see the world through your eyes. Your “doing” (writing and creating in your own way) can lead to greater visibility for the attitudes and spirit that aging needs. Your work can become part of your family’s “family bible.” Your ideas and thoughts will be sacred objects and ideas that rise above the over-information and detritus of your family’s busy lives, even after you are gone.
If in keeping this journal you write very private things that you want no one to see, tear those pages out and store them in a different place (or move them to a different file in your computer). And while I’m coaching you now toward keeping a journal and using words in a journal or notebook or memoir, please don’t feel that I believe words are the only way to communicate. If in the rest of this book I say, “Pull out your journal . . . ” and if you don’t like using words, please read my suggestion as a way of motivating you to turn to whatever media work for you. Make a video, take photographs, or develop some other way of creating and recording this life that is your beautiful and fleeting life, which is immensely valuable to record right now.
A Circle of Friends
Leo Tolstoy said, “True life is lived when little changes occur. The big changes take care of themselves if we make the little changes.” Looking at our stress levels, embracing new attitudes, asking, “What does freedom mean now?,” focusing on developing a new spirit of aging . . . each of these little and big changes can be made on our own, but, just as powerfully, each can be enhanced depending on whom we hang out with. As we age and our children grow up, our friends, to some extent, need to become our family. Science tells us why.
The Harvard neuropsychiatrist John Ratey, sixty-three, has studied the “social brain”: how the brain looks when we study “human beings as social animals.” When I met Dr. Ratey at our institute in Colorado, I met an optimistic, free-flowing scientist who provided his keynote speech in shorts and an aloha shirt. John is very comfortable in his own skin! We discussed together the social brain, about which John has written, “Our highest human virtue is our connection with other humans, and social activity is basic to our health and happiness. Our brains are preprogrammed to look for other humans from the moment of birth, and continuing social interaction is essential for normal development throughout our life.” To bring the point home, John said, “As much as individuals must be able to fight or flee in order to survive, we also need sociability if we are to survive . . . we have a central dependence on others. We are designed for group living.”
John’s research joins with that of numerous other scientists who study the effects of social relationships on the brain. This research distills to two main points: (a) people who become significantly lonely as they age die younger than people who spend more time in healthy social groups, and (b) healthy social groups can alleviate symptoms of depression, among other mental illnesses. We are wired to be together, even though, at times, we just want to be alone.
Developing and maintaining one or two small circles of good friends is essential to a new spirit of aging. It is healthy living at any age, but it is something specific to aging, too; as we age, we often need more help than we did before. We need a kind of support that a circle of similarly aged friends can give us—support, love, freedom appropriate to who we are now. We need the rush of dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and other brain chemicals that constitute the generous internal pathways of love and happiness. As John told me, “Friends make us stronger and happier—usually!”
Gail, my wife, and I belong to two circles of friends. One for each of us is made up of “good women friends” and “good male friends,” respectively. These are gender-specific “kinship systems,” supportive and loving women and men who have become like our “kin” as we age. Each of us meets with these women and men spontaneously or in scheduled ways for lunch or dinner, book group or game night, and to support one another through both joyful milestones and difficult times.
As a couple, Gail and I also belong to a circle of friends that has grown together organically through our children’s lives. There are five couples in this circle; our children grew up together through our religious activities and through school and sports; we as couples gravitated toward one another. All five couples in our friendship circle are aging together; we are all between forty-eight and sixty-two (all in or around the first stage of age, the age of transformation, which we’ll look at in the next chapter). We all have grown children between the ages of nineteen and twenty-eight. We have similar interests—family, movies, books, conversation, sports, food, games, personal growth, health concerns. While we each also have our own personal interests and activities, we get together a few times a month, even if some of us will be missing from the social time.
No subject is off-limits in our dialogues, but we’ve agreed to spend little time in angry gossiping. We also joke, “Okay, enough about our health. Let’s talk about something else!” We try to keep our eye on being of use to one another. To that end, I’ve relied on Gail and our circle for help as I write this book, bouncing ideas off of them, sharing research results, and applying practical strategies.
I asked our circle of ten friends what they found most valuable in having a circle of friends. I heard:
“We (Mark and I) like to make dinner for all of you and get together that way because we feel really good being with you.”
“It’s fun to be together, the conversation is therapeutic, very healing. I understand everything better because I get so many different opinions from you all.”
“No matter what else is going on in my life, I always know that being with you will make me feel better.”
“The surprise party you threw for my sixtieth made me realize that all of you have become like my family.”
“Facing health challenges is less stressful because we have each other. I don’t know what I’d do without you guys.”
“You guys ground me.”
“We know each other so well, things make sense when we’re together.”
“Work is busy, life is busy, but I always know there will be some peace and companionship when we’re together. I trust you guys.”
A circle of friends is a spiritual ground, a place of health, a time of freedom, a concentration of life force, a source of passionate life-energy. It is good for our bodies; through a circle of friends, we can help one another through surgeries and illnesses, and we can keep one another honest about bad habits, such as overeating. It is good for our emotional life, as we support one another in working through life’s issues and challenges. A circle of friends helps us de-stress. It is also a source of hope; as concerns and cares arise regarding age, death, and dying, we are there for one another to find and give meaning to life. The love and friendship in the group unifies being and doing into a single experience; as we talk, cook, eat, play games, and “do” many things together, we also feel that we are just “being” together at a deep level. We often find that after spending time in this circle of friends, we feel immensely free and fulfilled.
My Circle of Women: I have always had a group of close friends, but it is my circle of friends who are constants in my life. They are my support and my trusted confidantes. This is a reading that I use in the women’s retreats I lead for our circle of friends:
A circle of women can provide a container for emergence in a way that a woman alone, or even a one-to-one relationship, cannot. Intimate relationships and even friendships can break or at least be greatly strained by life changes. But from the combined wisdom and energy of a small group of women who are committed to “hearing each other into speech,” a continuity and trust can develop that can be relied on over the long term. And, witnessing each person’s direct knowing of her truth, we can be empowered to love our own.
Seeing the many threads of my life come together to weave a tapestry of purpose . . . recognizing that all the events of my life, no matter how diverse, were strands on the same tapestry and what has emerged is quite acceptable to me now.
If you already have a positive, life-affirming circle of friends, celebrate and nurture it! If you are laboring under some age avoidance, pessimism, or loneliness, hopefully you can start looking around for one or two or more people or couples with whom you can form a circle of friends, have dinner together, go to movies together, do some fun activities together, watch sports together, take trips together, take walks together, and otherwise talk and be present with one another in the ways that can make aging feel adventurous, even when it is happening in your own living room or backyard.
Becoming an Elder
A family asked for my help. We met together a number of times to talk about the constant tension between the mother and daughter. Among the family’s particular issues was this one: the mother, seventy-five, was angry at her daughter, Pauline, forty-eight, and son-in-law, Hank, forty-nine, for not respecting her and not treating her “as a mother should be treated.”
As we delved into the situation, this conversation occurred (this is a condensation of a much longer set of dialogues).
Me to the mother: Do you act respectably toward Hank and Pauline?
Her: What do you mean? Of course.
Me: I mean, do you respect your daughter and son-in-law, keep good boundaries, not tell them what to do, that kind of thing? Do you treat them with respect?
Her: Of course. But anyway, it shouldn’t matter. I’m the mother. I should get respect from them.
Me: I’m not so sure. You will get love for being the mother, but respect might be another thing.
Her: “Honor thy father and mother” doesn’t make a distinction between the two. Kids should respect me for giving them life and raising them. Period.
My disagreement with her on this point became like a verbal 360-degree circle for a number of sessions. We kept returning to it, but she didn’t budge from her opinion that no matter what, she should be made to feel totally comfortable, always, in her children’s home.
Then, one day, I agreed to come to the daughter’s home. It made sense to meet with the whole large family there rather than in my small office. The day before, I had been phoned by three people in the family and told that the level of conflict in this family became severe enough that the granddaughter, seven, had run from the room weeping at her own birthday party because of a verbal conflict between her grandmother and her mother.
When I arrived at the house, I said hello to everyone, then we settled quickly into conversation. Gradually, everyone admitted fault for the tensions, everyone, that is, except the seventy-five-year-old mother/grandmother. So I asked her about her actions. She told me to “hold the bullshit” about “love and respect.” I confronted her again, suggesting that respect has to be earned. Our discussion echoed our argument in my office.
Me: What do you gain by saying people should just respect you because you’re the mom? It’s not working. People around you are just respecting you less, getting angry at you more.
Her: You’re blaming me. Talk to them. They don’t give me a chance.
Me: But what do you gain?
Her: What the hell are you talking about?
Me: You must be gaining something by causing all the tension you cause? What is it?
Her: This is bullshit.
Me: Let’s switch gears then. What are you afraid of?
Her: This is psychobabble. I’m not afraid of anything.
Me: You’re afraid of something. You see all the tension you’re causing, but you won’t give an inch. What are you afraid of?
Her: Nothing. I’m not afraid. I just want to be treated with respect.
This back-and-forth continued for a few minutes until finally I took the risk of saying, “Look, maybe you’re afraid you’ve failed as a parent, so you have to bully everyone to make sure you never have to feel that failure. Could that be it?” With clients who will not give an inch, one guesses at times to stimulate a dialogue.
Her: That’s bullshit. You’re taking their [the family’s] side and coming up with some psychological crap to justify it.
Me: I’m actually more on your side than you realize. If you don’t fix this problem, your kids are going to shut you out. They won’t want to see you anymore.
She turned away, looking toward the window. She knew this last sentence was true. Also, she was getting overwhelmed by the dialogue. “Please just think about what you’re afraid of,” I suggested. “That fear must be creating a lot of the tension and stress for you. Let’s talk more when you want to talk.” She walked out of the room. I spoke with the family a bit more and then left the house.
A week later, both the mother and daughter called. The daughter said, “Mom wants to see you. Some good things have happened.” The mother asked to see me a couple of weeks later. In my office, she confessed, “Until you convinced me about the difference between love and respect, I hadn’t thought along those lines. I just assumed I should get love and respect because of my age. It pisses me off that you were right about this, but I’m glad you were direct. Life is a lot better now.” She did not bring up our dialogue around fear at that moment, and so I did not. (In chapter 2 I will further explore the role of the fear of failure and inadequacy during our aging process.)
This anecdote is ostensibly about a mother becoming less domineering, and thus safer for, and more enjoyable with, her family members. I believe it is also useful in helping us define an “elder” in today’s complex society. As I compared the Gurian Institute survey and focus group research with broader research from anthropological studies, I could not help but note that “elder” comes up constantly, yet its meaning is often unclear. “Elder” is an essential component of aging in any generation, and it constitutes a crucial element of the new spirit of aging we are defining in this book. But what do we really mean by “elder”?
In the case of this mother and her family, while the climax of the confrontation took place over a few weeks, the journey of the growth of this mother and this family took a few years. As this mother matured toward a lower-stress, healthier way of being in her family, the word “elder” didn’t come up, yet it represents her intention. She felt an internal drive to become a respected elder in the family and exert healthy elder influence. She needed help in discovering how to do it because her assumption about how it happens was an assumption that might have worked a few hundred years ago but was not working now. However, she absolutely knew she wanted to have a positive influence on this family.
As she better understood what an elder was and could be, she moved into a more positive relationship with her family and the family with her, and she herself felt much freer as a person. Something almost indefinably subtle occurred, something natural to human development and something immensely valuable. During the next three years of her life (she passed away at seventy-eight), she and her children and grandchildren became closer, and she passed on a number of recipes, ideas, hugs, wisdom, books, and family stories that she would not have passed on had she not become an elder. She became the role model and identity model she was trying to be.
An Elder’s Way
In this second half of life that so many of us now experience, we have the opportunity to shift from being an “adult” to becoming an “elder.” All previous civilizations have asked adults to become elders, so this concept is by no means new, but for us now it is a part of a living miracle: literally, billions of us will actually get the chance to become elders, if we will take that chance. Think of what the world will be like if that miracle—and all the wonder, awe, and good work it implies—actually takes place.
What does the word “elder” conjure up in your mind? Are you an elder or just “getting older”? Becoming an elder requires consciousness and concentration, especially in our present century when an elder’s way is not clear. For a starting definition, we can look up “elder” in a dictionary or on Wikipedia. We see that “elders are repositories of cultural knowledge and transmitters of that cultural information” or “elders are thought of as reservoirs of certain skills that need to be passed on to younger people.” In Sardinia, one of the blue zones researchers have studied in depth, elders spend a part of their days passing knowledge of their trade or craft to younger villagers. In Okinawa, elders seek out opportunities to support and help their family and community members “when asked.” In both these places, elders spend less time in sedentary lifestyles (sitting and staring at screens) than do older people in many parts of the United States. In Nicoya, Costa Rica, and in Loma Linda, California, elders report “having reasons to get up in the morning,” and they are known as “older people who are comfortable exploring and passing on their faith.” They feel that mentoring is a part of their “sense of higher purpose.” In Japanese, the principle of the elder has a name: ikigai. In all these places, many elders hold positions of wisdom and authority; they run families, tribes, marketplaces, governments; they are judges, teachers, leaders. They are not perfect—they are elders.
Summarizing all the research, I think we can say with some safety that an elder in our society is someone of fifty or older who:
■ passes on specific work and wisdom (occupies a niche, a “lifework,” a legacy, and teaches it to others, while also providing wise counsel when needed);
■ models life purpose and maturity (fewer power struggles with others, more insightful respect and admiration of others, more “drawing out” of others’ gifts);
■ remains as physically and mentally active as possible (takes control of damaging body-mind practices and transforms them so that the body and mind remain healthy as he or she ages, so that the elder can be “of use” and “enjoy life” for as long as possible);
■ connects young people and society to mysteries of success, compassion, freedom, and faith (takes the risks of modeling both humility and self-confidence in the face of real life, while protecting others’ rights to live their own way, in their own mysteries).
In some cases, in some blue zones (as it was for our own ancestors, if they lived long enough), some elders just ease into becoming elders. They are just bestowed the title and grace of the elder because they get older. But in our culture this happens more rarely. Part of embracing the wonder of aging is really taking hold of where we are as elders. We cannot turn back the social clock; we live in an age when “elderhood” is rarely bestowed on us just because we’re older. Our culture focuses more on young people and middle-age journeys, and we are challenged as elders to be visible. We can complain about this, or we can take our own responsibility for it and correct this course. We can take the elder role rather than waiting to receive the distinction. We can (and we must) concentrate so fully on what an elder is now, today, that we support one another in thinking, acting, creating, serving others, enjoying life visibly, and take our place. This “taking” is part of the redefinition of age that we can make happen. By embracing the wonder of aging, we can embrace a new role in the family, neighborhood, group, marketplace, and world, a life position we must not passively wait for people in today’s society to give to us. Each time we volunteer at a child’s school, teach a child a craft or skill, provide insight to others, or lead, guide, and help younger people sustain life and vision, we can be an elder.
As we continue together in this book, we’ll explore all this a great deal more. Each chapter of this book constitutes an aspect of becoming an elder. As we explore this together, we may need to support one another in realizing that in our day and age a person can live to seventy or eighty but still not be an “elder.” This is what the mother/grandmother ended up realizing. Becoming an elder means realizing that a person can still act like a child, not an elder, and our society and our families are relatively unforgiving of that kind of behavior, especially in America. A person can complain constantly, which an elder probably ought not do if he or she is going to be respected as an elder. A person can spend his or her last decades of life in power struggles with others, which an elder does not. An older person can withdraw from family and community, which an elder does not do. By now, an elder has generally looked death and mortality in the eye—through his or her own difficult illness, by losing a job or dream that cannot be regained, by burying a spouse or many friends, or simply by living long enough to see the inevitable. Thus, for the elder, free will is even more powerful than it might have been before we went through trying times. Having come through, an elder no longer avoids his or her deepest fears through manipulation and dominance of others. It is partially because we are going to die (a