One of the magazines I (Bert Keller) read asks some of the thought-leaders in my profession to write an essay about “How My Mind Has Changed.” I always read those essays. I love the idea of creative minds changing, and they jostle me to reflect on how my mind has changed.
Now there’s a challenge worthy of an elder’s attention. The challenge is to examine your life in terms of your mind: How you understood the world and yourself as part of it at landmark times in the past so that you can be more aware of why you’re on the path you are and have a guide for what to do next.
That means looking at ideas that matter: beliefs, attitudes, hopes and fears, not just surface happenings, but those things that lie at the spring of your motivation. Things, in other words, that can help clarify what you’re about now as an elder of the tribe.
How do you do that? I have no formula, but here are a few things to consider if you undertake to map out how your mind has been changing.
Mind changing about what? Whatever is most important to you. Whatever life-themes have given meaning and shape to your personal history, or ones that weigh heavily on you right now.
Recall a personal event in your past that brought important things into focus for you. Then picture how you were thinking and feeling then. For the event to be impactful and full of meaning, you’ve got the baseline for the story of how your mind has changed.
Example: This column comes on my wife’s and my wedding anniversary, so I’m prompted to ponder how my mind has changed over the years in regard to love, marriage, intimacy and faithfulness. When we reflect on that through all the phases of a long marriage — honeymoon, kids, balancing work demands, crises, empty nest, retirement, however you title your chapters — we are getting more clear on what the marriage means to us now. And how to make it better at this time in our lives.
That example makes it clear that “mind” doesn’t mean just a set of random thoughts or opinions. It’s more total than that. Our “mind” that’s changing is how we put together the world and our place in it. A better word might be “outlook.” And since love, marriage or partnership, and family are such a major part of life for most of us, it’s one of the main themes we organize our “mind” around.
Another example of spelling out a life-theme for examining how your mind has changed is to look at your work. What did you intend to do when you started out and how did you feel about your work?
And at midlife, when you were at the peak of your powers and probably busiest? What effect did the hiccups and disappointments have on you? What were the major changes in your work, and how were they significant for you at the time? Where are you now in respect to work? When is enough? What makes you feel complete and how do you affirm yourself with a “well done”?
When I think about how my mind has changed in respect to my work life, one of the danger signals of this exercise pops up. That is, my "Former Self" (middle-aged and busy saving the world) starts nagging me to get busy, make a mark on history (or at least maybe one cause), be more socially active, go to more concerts, have more fun. “Why are you sitting around taking up space?”
Our Former Self has the power to spoil everything! And it will, if we don’t bless our earlier attitudes as having been authentic for us then. One of the secrets of this process of maturing is accepting who we were then with some compassion, saying yes to our successes even if they seem outdated now, showing understanding for our mistakes and forgiving ourselves when necessary. Acceptance of who we were and what we did in the past can help us to move on.
Our minds naturally change as we get older: Our bodies change, our kids leave, and our sense of duty mellows. Poet David Whyte says, “We are each a river with a particular abiding character, but we show radically different aspects of our self according to the territory through which we travel.”
All that experience should make us more aware of who we really are. That’s why the second half of life brings a different consciousness (mind) than the first half of life. Both are good and we can affirm both if we see change as a normal condition of the mind.
Maybe it’s like the advice the Count gives to his teenage daughter Sophia in “A Gentleman in Moscow,” when at dinner one evening he urges her to take a risky leap with her career. The old Count says to the young woman, “For if serenity should be a hallmark of maturity, then impetuousness should be a hallmark of youth.”
Minds change. Sometimes moved by the natural physical and emotional developments of maturing, sometimes by major transitions marked by the death of a former arrangement and the struggle for a new life to carry on, and sometimes by both. Elders often realize it’s not just thoughts about this or that but our whole standpoint that has changed.
And so the challenge: How has your mind changed? And how has that change prepared you for the chapter you are living now?