I have been thinking about the process of growing older for a long time. In my 30s, I discovered I had all sorts of stereotypes about old people (which for me at that age was anyone over 60) and that most of my notions were just plain wrong. For example, I learned though conversations with a number of older friends that most people aren’t afraid to die after a certain point—but they are afraid to die without having left a mark or without having been able to pass on their life’s experience to the younger generation. I began to distinguish that we all grow old ‘into a cultural interpretation’ of what it means to grow older, into a story about what we can expect and what is and isn’t possible. I realized that aging isn’t personal, anymore than the weather is (or any other context we all share for that matter). Yet, our whole conversation about aging seems to be about ‘me’ and what I want, how I feel, why I am doing or not doing something, and what I think about everything and everyone in my life.
For the last couple of years, my intellectual interest in aging as a topic has begun to morph into a mission of sorts—a campaign to transform the cultural of aging from one of decline to one of possibility. I want to look forward to the future, to growing older and to being as passionate about life in my last years as I was in my first years.
In a meeting recently, someone introduced the topic of life-long learning by quoting Bill W., the founder of AA. As he’d gotten older, Bill had realized that, at the end of the day, he wasn’t able to do what he used to be able to do and that he was simply a symbol of the organization he’d created. He acknowledged that he had become a student again in a movement in which he’d thought he was the teacher. The ensuing discussion underscored the importance of ‘oldtimers’ (people with many years of sobriety in AA, and just older people in general) needing to always remember that it is their curiosity and openness to learning that keeps them growing both mentally and spiritually. Moreover, when we operate from a perspective of ‘we know’ or ‘been there, done that’ or any other similarly judgmental frame of reference, we actually are engaging in a kind of subtle denial and resistance to whatever it is we are talking about.
I was surprised, shocked and a little embarrassed to see how much of my day-to-day conversations and thinking was purely judgmental about the world: discrimination in the workplace, corporate greed, environmental degradation, public apathy, corruption, technology depersonalizing human beings, child labor, gangs and the breakdown of social order, ideological polarization, even the loss of security and opportunity at the threat of terrorism and the rise of nationalism that it has unleashed. The list could go on, but my point is that I was relating to many aspects of my world judgmentally and in negative terms even though I did not and do not think of myself as particularly negative. In most cases, I even have some sort of positive proposal or idea or activity that I am committed to either promoting or participating in.
What I saw, however, is that I am not relating to these things with any sense of profound curiosity—I cannot say I have demonstrated a desire to really want to know what is going on. Yet without a real and sincere curiosity about what is happening, why it is happening and what possibilities and the issues it raises, how can there be any authentic learning? Without curiosity, how can we do anything other than continue to justify our judgments and resist whatever we are perceiving either overtly as activists or covertly through some form of denial and/or resignation?
The implications for my life are immediate and severe. I must stop trying to ‘fix’ the world by focusing on the culture or aging as ‘the problem’ (or objectify any other topic as a problem) and refocus my attention on observing and learning without preconditions or expectations of understanding. I need to learn newly to “live in the question” and, as Rilke told the young poet, trust that someday I might live my way into the answers. What this suggests, of course, is that most of what I have to say about almost everything needs to be at best given and taken with a grain of salt. I don’t know when or if I will ever retire from the podium, but I think I will shift from attempting to motivate and inspire older people to take on a mantle of leadership and change and suggest that a first step to making the kinds of contributions we have to make will require that we recover our curiosity. Without this, I suspect we will look ‘set in our ways’. Even with the best of intentions, we will be marginalized and ignored as folks who don’t listen and are too busy teaching to truly learn about the world as it is today, unable to then engage with others of all ages to invent better tomorrows.