Tuesday May 19 2009
There are increasing numbers of theories and formulas for aging well. As far as I can tell, these fall into a number of categories that pretty much all revolve around the central question of “What do you want to do?” This is not a question that my grandparents spent much time thinking about. Even my father’s generation is more focused on the question of what needs to be done. The question of “What do you want to do?” is a modern question that comes with the fact that we have so many choices coupled with a somewhat self-centered fixation on ourselves as individuals—the ‘me’ generation. I know very few people who aren’t working on this question.
For example, consider that in the area of health and fitness alone there are hundreds of diets, exercise regimens, spas, and new age therapies (not to mention the entire medical establishment). How do we know what will be best for us? When you don’t know what to do, you can always hire a coach. The same abundance of options appear in the areas of where we live and our lifestyle. Do you want mountains, seashore, urban landscape? Even on a daily basis, we are confronted with an endless number of choices of where to shop, where to eat, who to spend our time with and, of course, what we want to do.
So why are so many people either bored or so busy being busy that they seem to be missing the basic enjoyment of being alive? Why are so many of us fretting about what to do with our future? It seems to me that we’re addicted to activity. Spend a few days just doing nothing and most of us will begin to feel ‘antsy’ and/or complain of boredom. Perhaps one of the benefits of the current economic recession is that it calls into question what we are already doing and whether we’re making choices or simply caught up in an automatic stimulus-response drift where our lives are determined by our ‘to do list’.
Even those of us who have lost much of our nest egg or have been laid off have more options day-to-day than most of our parents ever had. Technology alone is creating new areas and different ways for people to participate and relate to other people. One would think that boredom, loneliness and isolation would be obsolete, but studies show that these conditions are on the rise, especially for older individuals.
I think the answer is partially in understanding the difference between choosing and making decisions. Decisions are typically made based on some ‘reasoning’ process—weighing pros and cons, predicting probabilities, and so forth. Choices are commitments. Choices are actions. They are created. Choices are not the result of some mental model. They are the committed expression of a human being who is responsible for their actions regardless of whatever rationale may exist for the choice. For example, the ‘reason’ a person might jump off a diving board is not the same as the action/commitment to actually jump.
When we are choosing, we are present. And when we are present, whatever is happening is ‘all there is’. It is not possible to be bored (or to be stuck in any mood) when we are present. To be present means to be open and responsible for the context of a given situation—and to not be ‘stuck’ in our ‘internal dialogues’ or stories about the future or the past. A context is a space, an opening, a ‘state of being in our experience’. Consequently, a context frames our relationship to whatever we are doing or might do. When we are clear about our commitments and when our actions are consistent with our commitments, we are generating the context for whatever follows. It is then we can begin to make choices that we would not otherwise make…because we are no longer blind to the context and to the possibilities that we have.
Some of the most powerful and empowering contexts for living at any age are summed up in the four questions posed by Richard Leider and David Shapiro in their best-selling guide to growing older called Claiming Your Place At The Fire.
The questions are:
1. What do I care about?
2. Where do I belong?
3. Who am I?
4. What is my life’s purpose?
Nowhere do they ask, “What do I want to do?”
When we are responsible for the contexts of our lives, we are never bored or alone and life can be as engaging and full of possibility in our later years as it was when we were young. Moreover, whatever we are doing is exactly what we need to do to have our lives be fulfilling, satisfying and make a difference. If we choose what is present, then we’re always where we need to be to choose what’s next—and where we need to be is to want to be doing (and be responsible for) whatever we are already doing.