In the footsteps of the late cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien, I want to share some thoughts on aging through the second half of life. As my 60th birthday approaches this year, I have been struck by people’s aghast reactions to my age when I tell them how old I’ll be. My patients younger than 60 appear apologetic or in disbelief that I am ‘so old’, and many seem frightened about my age when they proclaim, “I hope you don’t retire soon.” I tell them that I have no interest in ‘retiring from doing what I love and loving what I do’. It is curious as to how conditioned we are to not embrace aging and to actually fear and loathe it. I have always wondered why this is so in the Western world. For as long as I have lived in the West, this collective attitude towards aging has not changed. Youth is honored, the elderly are invisible and most fight against getting old and passing through sacred gateways that are filled with wisdom and consciousness. I refuse to relate to myself and my aging process through society’s fearful and disrespectful attitude towards it. I find it lacking in love, wisdom and gratitude.
Now more than ever, our country is suffering from a crisis of character. Dr. Arrien’s perspective is that the second half of life offers us the tremendous possibility to correct this, to heal weak-heartedness and recapture courage. This time of life avails to us richness, beauty, texture, depth, integrity, authenticity and character. By the time we are sixty, most of us have survived tremendous suffering and can finally integrate and incorporate the meaning and wisdom we have distilled from the initiations and gateways our suffering has facilitated.
In our culture we have very few models and maps, and no healthy context for aging, in fact there is no cultural guidance to navigate the second half of life. As people age in our society, they become afraid of their aging process and engage many strategies to not look old and deny the sacred gateways that aging offers. This is not helpful to any of us, as rejecting who we are as we age is the rejection of our natural life process. In fact, the elderly find themselves becoming more invisible as they age. They feel patronized and talked down to and treated as though they are unintelligent and deaf. I hear about these experiences daily from my patients, observe this in society and also in the media’s portrayal of the elderly.
This is an area where I feel I can make a significant contribution (as we all should), as I join the billions in the Western world, who are aging through unmarked gateways with little to no guidance on how to treat and nourish our bodies and psyches to be able to embody the wisdom and grace as well as the ability and desire for mentoring we carry into our older years.
We have a golden invitation to restore and model a depth of character as we age.
The three tasks of the second half of life, according to Dr. Arrien are:
- How can we mentor and share what we have learned and pass on our wisdom to the younger generations? How can we foster the gifts of others?
2. How can we foster intimacy in our relationships? How can we heal our relationship with ourselves and our True Nature? And, how can we revive intimacy with ourselves and others?
3. How can we foster creativity, remain inspired and continue learning? How can we teach others how to live and die well?
At the end of the day, we can only fulfill these tasks if we are dedicated to living authentically and choose to depart from societal values and modes of behaving in favor of being who we truly are. In my medical practice I have found that my aging patients need guidance to make lifestyle choices that foster health in their aging bodies. Habitual (unhealthy) choices normalized by society that carry momentum from earlier years don’t work well for our aging bodies. The unhealthy consequences of these choices result in many of our current co-morbidities that cause tremendous suffering at so many levels. Our society does not value health or consciousness, let alone aging consciously. As our body ages, the many layers of who we are — biochemical, psycho-spiritual and emotional become more sensitive to insult and manifest as symptoms and diseases much faster than when we were younger. It is as if with aging, the instrument of our body becomes more attuned and aligned with choices that support and nourish cellular and psycho-spiritual health. So, our task is to learn how to reclaim our health as we age, gracefully guiding others to do the same. This is the only way to elevate healthy aging to its highest value. This is dreadfully neglected in the Western world. It is time we transform this.
So, as I turn 60, I am proud and grateful to be arriving at this sacred threshold of ‘elderhood.’ I for one never want to stop learning and teaching how to move through life with a dedication to integrity and truth, a commitment to health and a deep reverence for my life process.
Mine has been a very difficult life so far, with tremendous periods of suffering, isolation and separation, but where I stand today, I can honestly say that I would not trade any of it for what I have learned from deep suffering. It has left in me a depth of wisdom and deepened and redefined for me the meaning of healthy and authentic love. It has awakened more empathy and compassion in me towards others, and has also added a level of meaning, stripping any superficiality or societally upheld values from my core sense of self. I am deeply grateful for having learned how to align with my True Nature through intensely painful experiences, and to finally feel comfortable having individuated from unhealthy collective norms. My appreciation for the beauty and soulfulness I experience in doing what I love and being who I am, and finally having the ability to choose to participate only in respectful and authentic relationships, is a gift beyond words, a gift earned over the years through difficult and painful gateways.
I have also learned that even when the problems and sorrows of the world seem overwhelming, it is important to remember that in every moment we have a choice to add beauty and kindness to our world, and yes, it does matter. Every bit of it matters, and it makes a profound difference in our life and in the world at large. To choose to live honestly, truthfully and without denial or illusion is a good place to start, yet very hard to do, but it is the only way we can transform our world into a more authentic and honest one. I think deep inside, we all long to live in a world like this.