When we’re young, life seems like an endless journey leading towards infinite challenges and achievements. One day our kids are grown, our parents are sick, our eyes and joints ache, and an old friend dies before his time. The ticking of our biological clock grows louder in our ears, and we feel a flutter of fear, as we wonder and worry about the endgame of life. While we’ve triumphed over many of life’s challenges, this one seems insurmountable. We don’t know what to think about our own mortality so we try not to think about it at all.
Frightened by what might await us at the end of the road, we shorten our vision. Even though we may still have as many years ahead of us as we have behind, in our spirit we feel restricted, as if there is no tomorrow. As we settle for diminished goals and a diminished view of our importance in the world, dissatisfaction, an emptiness, starts to stir in our hearts. We miss the energizing passion of youthful hopes and dreams.
One way we may try to fill this vacuum is to run away into adolescence. To throw off the burdens of adulthood, we try to capture the intensity of youth, regressing back to a time when we believed nothing we do really matters. Ignoring our adult knowledge that our actions have consequences, thrilling to the risks and lack of concern for others that made adolescence so wild and crazy in the first place. We make choices for all the wrong reasons that, at best, get us nowhere and, at worst, could seriously hurt us and the ones we love.
When we believe we are finished with life, we may plan the rest of our time on earth as a long break of endless leisure. Justified as the reward for a life well-spent, leisure promises to give us the joy of unstructured freedom. While leisure, relaxation, and breaks are critical for mental health, a life made up of full time leisure is like eating only dessert. Focusing only on freedom, without goals, gradually depletes the soul. Goals, whether of service, creativity or spiritual development, keep us energized and rejuvenated, and give us a vital reason for getting up in the morning.
To look forward to the end as a full-time break can excite us the way a child eagerly anticipates recess. But we’re not children, and if we want to maintain a vibrant, energized involvement in life, we need to maintain some appreciation for the value of our effort in the world.
Updating our definition of self
Coming up in the world, we believed that the future would provide ever-increasing growth and reward. These beliefs, crafted in the enthusiasm of youthful exuberance, gradually fall out of step with the inevitable ups and downs of reality. As we gain experience, and assume mature roles in the family, job and community, we need to consciously reflect on the way we fit in with ever-changing circumstances. By regularly reevaluating and renewing ourselves we keep our internal compass adjusted.
But, in the pressure of getting through each day, it’s easy to forget about evaluating our position, instead allowing life’s events to shape us without the benefit of conscious reflection. One of the reasons we may skip this valuable step is a belief that the way things are is the way they will always be. By accepting, without evaluating, we give ourselves the least amount of opportunity for growing. With our compass stuck in the past, or erratically shifting direction, we find ourselves going through the motions without understanding where our motions are taking us.
Another reason we skip over the opportunity for renewal may be that our life patterns seem good enough. We have most of what we want, and if we continue on our current agenda, things will continue to be okay. Familiar routines have the advantage that we know what we are doing, and don’t need to worry about what comes next. But routines also have disadvantages. They can be tedious and eventually can make us feel stale and trapped. And they are not adaptable to changing circumstances.
A third reason why we may avoid considering that we are changing is that we may be defending our place in eternal youth. We may fear that by looking in the mirror, we will start to think of ourselves as going “over the hill.” By preventing ourselves from acknowledging the dreaded specter of old age, even as we grow older day by day and year by year, we leave our youthful, uninformed images of life in place. Denying the march of time we overlook its benefits, and cut off the wisdom of maturity and experience, and the wisdom of those who have gone before us and learned deep lessons about the journey of life.
We can avoid reflecting on our position for only so long, but gradually, evidence starts intruding on us that we are no longer youngsters. The way people look at us changes. Our kids, our job, and our body keep reminding us in small and large ways that we can’t hide the inevitable. So instead of surrendering, denying the truth, or running away, the most valuable option is to stare our issues directly in the eye and choose to understand more about ourselves and what we want to accomplish.
Now’s the time to dig back into the original story of our self and find new ways to envision our purpose and meaning, and to realize that even in the second half of life, we can tackle growth and development with the same verve and intensity as we did in the first half. By reviewing and renewing our commitment to our various roles, and bringing our actions into alignment with our long term goals, we can live a vital, energized life.
Earning a living year after year, some aspects of our job leave us feeling cold. As we grow older, and as the world of technology and business changes around us at an ever increasing pace, instead of hunkering down and hanging on to the past, which may have been boring us anyway, we can use our time of renewal to branch out into more satisfying aspects of our career. Exploring ways to pump up our energy, we can search for new challenges, perhaps ones we have been avoiding, or felt were impractical. We may find ourselves energized by learning a new skill, taking a course to increase our depth of knowledge about our job, or to prepare for a different one.
Relationships and emotional well-being
After years of routine, we may find ourselves in a rut with our life-partner, or now that the kids are grown, we feel the emptiness of our home. Instead of taking these feelings lying down, we can tackle them head-on by consciously cultivating the wisdom of our couple and ourselves, through self-help, introspection, counseling, and other rejuvenating activities. Even if we don’t feel our relationship is in trouble, couples counseling can increase mutual supportiveness, and clear out congested channels of communication.
Body and Health
The endless energy we once took for granted is no longer available whenever we want it. Our athletic activities leave us with sore joints. Over the age of forty, our eyes begin to act up, requiring awkward bifocals. Teeth, hearing, hair, and memory remind us that we can’t escape the effects of time. And illness becomes a more serious concern. While many of the biological effects of time are outside of our control, we should be receptive to ways that our choices can improve our health and reduce the risk of disease. For example, regular exercise is one commitment that can make a difference. Regular exercise, at any age, and especially as we grow older, can make us feel better immediately as well as reducing the risk of many diseases associated with aging. In addition to the traditional exercises of walking, running and playing sports, eastern disciplines of yoga and tai chi offer a wealth of wisdom that can improve our health and sense of well-being.
Hobbies, life-long learning, creativity
At any age, when we feel trapped by uncomfortable feelings or saturated by old routines, we can stay fresh by branching out to activities whose main purpose is renewal. Hobbies, sports and other activities fulfill the thirsts of our multi-dimensional minds, giving us an opportunity to express and fulfill other parts of ourselves in movement, mental challenge, play and creativity. As we grow older, we can discover and deepen our connection with such activities. By keeping our mind engaged in a variety of tasks, we feel more vibrant and supple. For example, we might take on the challenge of contract bridge, with its sophisticated requirement for memory and playful negotiation. We may cultivate our garden to new levels of creative expression. To exercise our visual imagination and problem solving skills we might take our crossword puzzles more seriously, or keep a jig-saw puzzle going on the coffee table. We can keep a journal to exercise our writing skills, as well as to explore our inner world. By taking courses and reading books, we deepen our appreciation for culture, history, language, and other areas of civilization. Learning enriches our mental health and our experience of life.
Above all other activities, artistic ones most rejuvenate and strengthen the spirit. Painting, drawing and poetry exercise our mind and give us sublime pleasure. And the prince of all activities to rejuvenate the mind and soul is to create music. When we regularly create music, and when we increase our musical skills, we light up corners of our mind that would otherwise lay stagnant. As a bonus, creating music gives us a joyful and soulful way to connect with others.
Making peace with our identity, our parents and our past
As adults, we feel that to a large extent our lives have been a product of our choices and actions. We’ve shouldered the responsibility of life, and feel proud about owning our accomplishments. But when we dig deeper, we realize that the self who accomplished all of this was formed at our parents’ knee. From the time we were conceived in the womb, to the time we went out into the world, our caregivers taught us who and how to be. The foundation that they provided for our identity stayed with us, and formed the basis of the self that we became. Despite the importance of these roots of ourselves that run deep into our family and past, we rarely spend much time evaluating how we got to be who we are. As we reach midlife, we begin to recognize that some of the things we don’t like about ourselves and our lives may benefit from exploration and evaluation. Realizing we do still have a future, we can invest in ourselves by learning what makes us tick. Through counseling, self-help, couples counseling, making peace with our aging parents, and other agents of self-awareness we can improve our life journey now and in the future.
Embracing the values of maturity
As we grow, we may fear that we are on a downward slide of reduced vitality and importance. We may believe that we are becoming increasingly useless and helpless and will be put out to pasture while we wait for the end. While this perspective may seem all too real, and give us the “true” picture of aging, it is only one perspective. Another one could be that we see ourselves as acquiring wisdom, sensibility, and the ability to operate effectively and generously in the world.
As we try to maintain our mood and the quality of life, we may find that the attitude we have about the process of getting old to a large extent determines the way we feel. By embracing the image of a downward slide, we do gradually give up our activities, feel worse about ourselves and see ourselves as less important. On the other hand, by embracing the image of an upward climb, we stay vital, continue to contribute and grow and feel alive. We help to determine our fate by choosing which of these images we will use to guide our lives.
As we consider the basis for these two very different perspectives, we discover a familiar lesson, that is: what we do matters. In fact, it was this same lesson that we needed to learn in order to healthfully cross the threshold from child to adult. As we were trying to leave our childhood behind, we learned that our actions have consequences, and that these consequences affect not only our own future but the health, safety and satisfaction of the people around us. Once we realized this lesson of adulthood, we were ready to fully engage in making healthy effective choices in our lives.
If we think that as we grow older, this critical aspect of adulthood starts to fade, and that our actions are no longer important, we suffer unpleasant consequences. If we choose to operate within the narrowed motivation of providing only for our own satisfaction, we begin to feel more isolated, and it starts to look and feel as though we don’t matter. If we buy into the social convention that older people will retire and disappear to have fun for their remaining years, we become disengaged from the community of humanity, and indeed do gradually feel more isolated and unneeded.
However, at any age, people do affect each other, and through our actions and attitudes we continue to influence others. Our energy and choices continue to be important in the world around us. By relearning the lesson of our young adulthood, and taking responsibility for our actions, we continue to feel engaged in life.
As we continue to see our value in the world, and feel that in each moment our actions matter, we engage in the vision of the human spirit climbing upward, and see our maturity as an endlessly challenging, ever energizing process, that allows us to strive for excellence every day of our lives, at any age.
If we fear that aging collapses our value to others, and makes us feel like we’re headed to the scrap heap of life, there’s a simple and powerful antidote. By serving others, we can feel alive and worthwhile. Serving others gives us a sense of connection with the human family. Whether we’re serving others at our job, taking care of an aging parent or grand-child, or volunteering in our community, when we see ourselves as givers and contributors, we gain the immediate payoff of improved self-worth. In addition to the contributions we make every day to the people in our immediate world, we can imaginatively extend our reach and offer ourselves to our community, for example, through entertaining, volunteering, teaching, or participating in the political process. The values of service can be enhanced by our own service-oriented attitude. If we perform every action with attention to serving others, we can increase our satisfaction in almost every task.
Religion, spirituality, belief
To stay energized as we grow older, we need to broaden our horizons and recognize those parts of our existence that are more vast than our individual, mortal body. Through the ages, people have thirsted for a deeper understanding of their place in the universe. By engaging in this inquiry ourselves, we link ourselves to the imagination and wisdom of those thinkers, great and humble, who have stood at the threshold of life and death and asked for deeper insight. By exploring our own belief system, and opening up to it, allowing ourselves to explore the inner universe, the soul, and our connection with a Higher Power, we can grow more tolerant about the presence of aging in our lives. Connecting with religious beliefs gives us a sense of continuity with the human drama throughout the eons.
Making peace with life and death
Running the other way from death leaves us feeling like we’re in retreat. The only option is to take our stand and look death squarely in the eye. But such a stand requires a profound reorientation of our perspective. To find a meaning that lifts us, we must reposition the center of the universe to a higher place than the biological existence of this body. Such a transcendent belief system goes against all of our ego-instincts that cry out for personal survival, but when we extend ourselves towards such beliefs, armed with the wisdom of the ages, we find our universe expanding to infinity.
With a deeper understanding of our place in the universe, comes the strength to continue to shape our own life and positively influence others. Our activities and challenges take on a broader context and deeper meaning that helps us maximize our potential. By making peace with death we make peace with life, and open up pathways to the depths of our soul.
While everyone grows older in years, we each have many choices in the way we mature. Our impulses to act out childhood desires may be signposts, pointing to opportunities for a new and deeper understanding of our dreams. By learning more about ourselves, who we are, where we’ve been and where we want to go, we deepen our grasp on life. By serving and caring for people and involving ourselves in a broader community, we evolve our skills as well as our emotional maturity. When we contribute our life experience to others, we nurture our world, and feel better about ourselves in the bargain. At this time in our life, as at any other time, we may find our appreciation and passion for life expanding as we broaden our contribution to the universe.
Using our years energetically, we continue to develop and grow. The best way to get a grip on midlife is to let go of our frozen images of eternal youth, replacing them with vigorous curiosity and thirst for knowledge and the future.
See also: Beliefs, Death, Goals, Leadership, Religion, Responsibility, Service
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
Care of the soul by Thomas Moore
Mozart’s brain and the fighter pilot, unleashing your brain’s potential by Richard Restak
Awaken the giant within by Tony Robbins
Still Here : Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying by Ram Dass
Seven habits of highly effective people by Stephen Covey