Looking for meaning, changing old habits and accepting the passage of time are the keys to enjoying your ‘wisdom years’.
There is a lot of pressure to “age successfully.” Magazines in the checkout lines tell us that “70 is the new 40” and proudly display people who are going full tilt at 75 or 80, pursuing their careers, yoga practices, and love lives with the same vigor they had at 30. This “successful” variety of aging means moving through time basically unchanged — slowed down a bit, sure — but with ambition undiminished by time and a body that’s strong, even youthful.
Who could argue with that?
For many years I didn’t. As I moved from my fifties into my sixties, I assumed that the poster for successful aging would have me on it. I was a lifelong body builder and I’d had a career that sent me around the world talking about how people can reach the pinnacle of success as Peak Performers. How could I not get an A in aging? I imagined that I’d perhaps be operating at three-quarter speed when I hit my late eighties and nineties, but I was certain I’d be the same as I ever was.
Switching out of autopilot
Not long into my sixties, my hip gave out as I was stretching, throwing me into agony and upending my plans and expectations. I’d been developing arthritis for years, apparently, and suddenly my body insisted that I pay attention. For the first time, I felt old. I had to sit down on benches to rest on walks, put space in my calendar to accommodate my halting steps, and ask for a hand. Afraid of going under the knife for a hip replacement, I struggled for four years, trying alternative therapies, hoping massage or vitamins might do the trick. Nothing worked. I had to slow down.
It’s true that I could’ve skipped directly to surgery, but it was a life-changing gift that I didn’t. Those slowed-down years helped me make the transition to what I now know is a distinct new phase of life. Forced to interrupt my habit of staying in constant motion, always striving and priding myself on how busy I was, I realized that I’d been on autopilot for quite some time, rarely asking if my goals — or my focus in life — still suited me. With time to think and feel and reflect, I began to see that I had changed. Not simply because of my bum hip, but because my life had carried me to the border of a completely different place, with new priorities and new desires.
It’s time to discover how you truly like to spend your wild, precious life.
The call of meaning
As I took time to listen to myself, I realized that what I was seeking now wasn’t competition or more gold stars. I longed for deeper connections to people; I wanted to be sure I finally let myself do what I was born to: things like writing, which I’d so easily set aside because it never made it to the top of my endless to-do list. I was weary of pushing myself aside. I wanted to spend my time on what felt meaningful to me.
If you suspect that you’ve similarly been on autopilot and feel pulled toward a new and deeply personal agenda — even if you don’t know quite what form it will take — you, too, might be at the brink of what I call the Wisdom Years. What I can tell you from the other side is that it’s safe and endlessly rewarding to cross the border into this phase of life (instead of clinging to the idea that you must “age successfully,” going on as before). Here are three reasons why:
1 Letting go of who you were lets you see who you most need to be.
Because “successful aging” is often synonymous with “staying active,” people often balk at the idea of an empty calendar and fill up their days with obligations. But when you’re willing to leave outworn habits and duties behind, you make room for discovering what holds meaning now and how you truly want to spend your wild, precious life. What would happen if you dropped activities and routines you no longer enjoy? What would happen if you rested without apology and let yourself be still? What would you dream? You can’t find the fertile space at your center if your every moment is filled because you “need to stay busy.”
2 Accepting the passage of time —not fighting it — frees you.
One tenet of “successful aging” is that if you succeed, you’ll somehow keep death at bay rather than steadily move toward it. But by this time of life, you’ve certainly been brushed by death. And you’ve seen how powerfully it brings your core priorities and values into sharp focus when it comes near. If you’re like most of us, I’m sure you’ve sworn, when a loved one died or when you faced a health crisis, that once and for all you would do what matters. You knew, in the intensity of that time, that life is urgent. And then the urgency receded behind the hope that there was a way to will death away. It’s liberating — and powerfully focusing — to let yourself know that your time is brief. You can finally take a chance on being and becoming exactly who you were meant to be, rather than trying to hold on to who you were.
3 This time of life is about interconnection, not independence.
Independence is a highly touted virtue in the world of “successful aging”, but as losses come in later life, a vital truth reveals itself again and again: we are, and have always been interdependent. Even the loneliest of lone wolves find that they will need to flow between asking for help and offering it. Rather than trying to avoid this intimate connection with others, embracing it brings us some of the deepest satisfaction in life as we pull closer. Our vulnerability becomes our empathy, and love becomes more central, wherever we find and give it. We can’t “successfully age” our way there, but if we’re willing to cultivate interdependence, we can open ourselves to the joy and wisdom of an open heart —one of the greatest gifts of age.
Charles Garfield is a psychologist and best-selling author. His new book is Our Wisdom Years: Growing Older with Joy, Fulfillment, Resilience, and No Regrets (Central Recovery Press).