Serene Ambition started out as a blog site for reflections on aging. While I get distracted by a variety of other interests, I am still interested in how we experience the last portion of our lives. Somewhere in our 50s I think, there is a shift in how most of us relate to the future and ourselves. There is a ‘fork in the road’ where our bodies and our minds begin to move in different directions and age at different speeds. My thesis has always been that how we experience age (and potentially find wisdom) is a choice, but that we’re also living into a culture and condition in which the prevailing interpretation and belief is that the process of aging is one of inevitable decline and loss. This conventional wisdom includes marginalizing or ignoring our seniors or embracing various midlife strategies for ‘staying young’ or living in a state of denial regarding who and where we are in life’s trajectory from birth to death.
I became interested in this topic of aging in my 30s when, as a young member of the California Commission on Aging, I realized that most of my assumptions about ‘being old’ were generally wrong. We’ve objectified older people and related to them as a constituency politically and as a market segment economically, but have very little or no narrative of what is the possibility of growing older? Over the past few decades as I’ve become one of ‘them’, as a ‘senior citizen’ and ‘elder’, I can now appreciate that I was not so much wrong, but blind and naïve about who I was and how much my relationship with the future, including my relationship with older people, shaped and determined many of my life choices.
As far as I can tell, there are no general ‘truths’ about age or about anyone’s personal experience. A lot of how it is to grow older has to do with our health, our economic situation, our network of friends and family and of course, our attitude and our moods. I also think that the issues of age and aging aren’t much different than the issues that we’ve dealt with most of our lives. Someone in the palliative care business once told me that people die pretty much the way they’ve lived. I think the same is true of aging. If you’ve played being a ‘victim’ most of your life the same is likely when you’re old. If you’ve been happy that is likely to be what you carry into old age. The point is that who we are and how we experience any stage of our life has more to do with how we relate to the circumstances than the circumstances themselves.
I’ve been coaching a number of very successful men in their 60s lately however, who seem to have something in common. By most standards, these individuals have won the game that the rest of us are playing. They are healthy, they are successful, they are acknowledged and appreciated by family and friends and they are financially well-off. Yet, they are all living in a mood of mild dissatisfaction with their lives. They are all engaged in various questions about what they want to do with the rest of their lives. And they all are hungry to reconnect with the kind of commitment and passion for whatever game they were playing that they had when they were younger. In the course of our conversations I’ve come up with some general guidelines for aging that I am finding personally useful and perhaps you will also.
- First and most important is that if we spend time comparing our experience today with other times in our past we stop living in the present and our conversations become either memories of ‘the way it was’, regrets about the way it turned out or resentment about ‘why it can’t be that way again’.
- Secondly, if you’re in a ‘what do I want’ loop, consider taking on a project to practice ‘wanting what you have’. This can not only bring a mood of serenity and acceptance but is often accompanied by an enormous wave of gratitude and wonder. I’ve been learning how to savor life every day. Most of my life, ‘smelling the roses’ was a concept and nice goal to think about, but as I’ve aged, I understand that it isn’t something we do but how we relate to life.
- Thirdly, consider contemplating the fact of death and our finite existence, at least on this planet and that Socrates said, “we’ll never have wisdom until we learn to die”. Here is a link to another blog I wrote on this topic huffingtonpost.com/jim-selman/learning-to-die_b_242133.html. I’ve also worked with one of my teacher’s, Fernando Flores in a program called “The Dwelling” to explore this theme in philosophy and a variety of traditions. What I’ve been learning is that our serenity, our sense of living a meaningful life and our relationship with our own mortality are connected and that discovering this has been one of the gifts of growing older.
Wisdom isn’t about knowledge or even our experience, but it is about taking what we’ve learned and our experience and giving it to others in a manner that brings out the best in them. Until recently it never occurred to me that wisdom was a practice, a competency, an expression of our relationship with life. Like most human abilities, they are inherent in all of us and it’s only a question of which of our abilities do we cultivate. For example, we all have the ability to read, although we aren’t all equally literate.
From my experience (so far), the past decade has been the best in my life in terms of personal growth, satisfaction and fulfillment both creatively and intellectually. Further I feel more alive, more loving and more loved and generally happier than at any extended period in my recollection. If I could choose one year to live again, I can honestly say it would be this year and I am looking forward to the coming years even more. I am profoundly grateful for everyone and everything in my life.
My final reflection is that it is gratitude that makes growing old so satisfying, keeps my attention on others, keeps me learning, and what has me do what I can to be useful and of service to those around me. Many people my age say growing older isn’t for sissies, but I think it can and is easy to grow old. It’s enjoying the journey that takes practice, responsibility and resolve to keeping our eye on the prize — to have today be the best day of our lives.
Yesterday is a story. Tomorrow is a possibility. Today is just a conversation