‘Old age is not for sissies.”
How many times have you heard that?
Most of the time when somebody trots out that old Bette Davis nag, it’s joined to a litany of aches and pains connected with aging, deficits ranging from dentures to the doldrums.
We get the point: It takes a lot of fortitude to put up with all the things our bodies start doing to us when we get up in years. And that’s right, it sure does. Definitely not for sissies.
But there is an altogether different way of hearing “not for sissies.” Try hearing it this way:
First, aging means finding the courage to let go of former standards of self-worth.
The old standards we used to answer the question “How am I doing?” may have been based on what we had achieved, or what we produced, or how high we were climbing, or on youthful athletic glories or good looks. One or two of those marks of success may have defined us back in the day.
We all tend to hang on to those old measures and judge ourselves by them (or flog ourselves with them) long after they have become irrelevant to us and need to be replaced by a different standard of worth.
Not looking or performing like we used to is nature’s way of telling us to grow up. We are moving into more mature values. Getting that and letting go of obsolete measures of self-worth take courage, which isn’t for sissies!
Second, aging means finding courage to break our addiction to work.
In my old profession, we used to laugh about ministers so wedded to their clergy identity we guessed they wore their clerical collar to bed at night. You see it a lot, professionals who give in to work addiction. But people in business, sports, non-profits, housekeeping, raising children, or just about any other occupation can get so absorbed in their work that it uses them up.
This has a lot to do with needing to stay in control. Or getting dependent on a particular ego structure or self-identity that our work provides. It’s a fact that our work gives us not only something to do but somebody to be.
Letting go of a career is infinitely harder when it’s our identity and we’ve gotten addicted to it. That takes immense courage. Definitely not for sissies!
Third, aging means finding the courage to embrace the calling of elderhood.
The calling of elderhood! We take the idea from the late Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, one of our great teachers on aging.
Aging challenges us, he says, to find a new set of goals that are based not on achieving some ideal of success but are based in reclaiming and developing aspects of the self we sacrificed earlier to develop a strong ego structure and become responsible adults.
In other words, our task now is to grow into a more whole human being by recovering undeveloped parts of ourselves.
The challenge, he says, is to get new bearings, breathe more freely and deeply, take our place as elders in the tribe, and reapproach the Earth with reverence and deeper spiritual awareness. That requires a major refocusing of life with new aspirations in mind and different skills needed to achieve them. And, it takes courage to do that.
It’s not for sissies to give up success-achieving goals that drove us during our working years but aren’t appropriate now.
It’s not for sissies to grasp a vision for both ourselves and our community connected to the values of the inner life, values that stress being over doing, living in harmony over competing, deeper understanding of people we relate to instead of labeling and respect and love for the Earth instead of production.
Mature values and qualities of character, in our society, do not come easy.
Aging on these terms takes real courage because it requires personal change in ways that are out of step with forces driving our society. Growing older “ain’t for sissies.” It takes gumption to make changes that far-reaching.
Bert Keller, a retired minister, and Bill Simpson, a retired physician, write “Aging for Amateurs.” Keller wrote this column.