When it comes to aging and how to be happy in retirement, we are amateurs.
May we introduce ourselves?
Bill Simpson, a 68-year-old retired physician, is emeritus professor of family medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina and has special training in geriatric medicine from Johns Hopkins University.
For many years, he directed the agro-medicine program for MUSC and Clemson University. In retirement, he continues to volunteer at several free clinics around Charleston.
At 76, Bert Keller has eight more years experience in aging than Bill has had. He retired in 2005 after 34 years on the faculty at MUSC teaching bioethics and the humanities and, in 2010, retired as senior minister of a downtown Charleston church. He works part-time as a hospice chaplain.
Those professional titles raise the question: What do we mean by “amateurs?”
It means we’re all in the same boat: doctors, farmers, pipe fitters, dancers.
Does anyone really know the secret of aging gracefully, continuing to serve creatively, harvesting the fruit of interests sown like seeds during the years of heavy work and family responsibilities when there was never enough time to bring them to fruition?
Not us. We’re no experts, but we want to keep learning.
We guess many people wonder if you can be successful at aging.
How do you feel about aging?
Think of the retirement piece. Men and women who have a satisfying job or career outside the home and love their work may think of retirement as a scary thing. At least, a bewildering blank space. At worst, as being put out to pasture.
A crowd of both men and women look toward retirement with dread. What’s left?
We let the pressure off with geezer jokes. The internet buzzes with cracks about failing memory and pathetic body dysfunctions.
Those who have not loved their work may think of retirement in terms of relief: not having to get up anymore and drag themselves to the job every morning or night.
This feels good, but in a passive way, a kind of double negative, something tedious and disagreeable canceled out.
We ask the question: Is there anything really positive to discover when it comes to getting older and retiring? Realistically, can there be a heart for aging?
That brings us back to aging for “amateurs.”
An amateur is a lover — that’s what the words means — one who loves something such as painting or playing the banjo or birding. One who gets enthusiastic about something and spends a lot of time thinking about it, experimenting with it, practicing it, enjoying it.
You don’t start by knowing a lot about it. The amateur is willing to hug uncertainty and plunge into unknown waters with what Zen calls “the beginner’s mind.” A mind that is open to possibility and surprise. Not for pay, but for joy, for the love of it.
A fresh, lively mind like that closes up when we think we’re experts.
Frank Lloyd Wright said an expert is someone who has stopped thinking because they know. Amateurs don’t know, so they keep thinking. And exploring.
Those secrets we spoke of — aging gracefully, serving creatively, bringing interests to harvest — aren’t really secret. They sound more like goals, don’t they? Goals for aging. Aging with heart.
And if we approach those goals as amateurs, loving the questions and open to new possibilities, we may find ourselves wiser than we thought.
One thing is sure: There is nothing to lose when we think about aging and a great deal to gain. This column aims to draw on the wisdom of role models and teachers to endorse the senior stage of life, which we will call the “elder stage.”
We will search for insights to enrich the experience of being an elder — by questioning how to age gracefully, how to continue to serve creatively, how to stay as healthy as possible and harvest the fruit of our lifetime quests.
Please join us in discovering how to season a lifetime of experiences into modest wisdom!
Bert Keller and Bill Simpson write the occasional column, “Aging for Amateurs.” This is their first installment.