By Rick Moody
How long do we have to wait to become old? How long to see things as they really are? When Guatama Siddhartha, who was to become the Buddha, left the protection of his parents’ castle, he found himself on the road. On his journey he discovered three sights that shocked him: a sickened person, someone who was old, and a corpse. Sickness, aging and death were the shocks that impelled the Buddha to seek “something more.” He found it and people have followed that path ever since.
But if old age is a shock, then how can we speak of “positive aging?” I see more and more that the refusal to acknowledge the inevitable losses and diminishments leads to disappointment and eventually denial, even if unrecognized. Ageism is in all of us, and so is denial which fuels it. A prime example of such denial is so-called anti-aging medicine, which promises false hope for avoiding the shock that Buddha and all of us must encounter. A story about positive aging that does not prepare us to face inevitable losses easily becomes a “the power of positive thinking,” which is a recurrent American temptation.
But is there true hope, founded on reality? Viktor Frankl thought so, and he discovered it, not on the road but in a Nazi concentration camp. Frankl learned that, faced with devastating reality, denial and false hope were not an option. But it was, and it is, possible to say “yes” even in circumstances the limit our lives, as we all must discover in later life. He wrote about this in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, a gift across the generations. He describes those who managed to say “yes” to life:
“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. I have seen a sweatshirt that has the message: I thought growing old would take longer. As this sweatshirt says, growing old can come as a surprise—even to gerontologists. Have you noticed that doctors get sick, funeral directors die, and gerontologists grow old? Surprise is always the partner of denial, and none of us is exempt from the temptation for denial as well as from the reality of age.
Many have read Rowe and Kahn’s great book, Successful Aging. But, whether they admire it or reject it, they often miss the definition of “successful aging” given concisely in that book: “decrement with compensation.” Just three words. That’s all. Did you get the message? Decrement will come to virtually all of us. But how hard it is to find the compensation without denying the losses. That is the work of Positive or Conscious Aging.
Lars Tornstam, who I met but did not know well, described this path as gero-transcendence. A mouthful of a word, but what it means is stated well by Carol Orsborn in her new book, The Making of an Old Soul. It is both the hunger for, and the encounter with, “something more” than our roles and our egos—that something more which Orsborn discovered in what she calls “the great reveal.” And what is it that will be revealed? We will all have different names for it, because each of us follows a different path. And the path of human development becomes more and more individual in later life, which means that it becomes harder to speak of these things and generally impossible to give advice.
Connie Zweig, a long-experienced Jungian therapist, writes about this task in her new book The Inner Work of Age, where she defines it as a “shift from role to soul.” I’ve called Connie “The Queen of Shadow” because she is willing to look where few others have wanted to look, into the Shadow. Why look where there’s no light? Because for our society, aging itself remains forever in the Shadow, just as it was in Buddha’s time. If we don’t look, we won’t see.
So let us celebrate positive aging. Let us care for our health, let us help others around us, for as the Sufis say: “Those who God wishes to bless, God puts in their hands the means of helping others.” But even as we summon our strength and help those around us, let us also recognize that strength does not endure and that helping is often beyond our power. Seeing is believing, and I have seen a few of those who followed the path of conscious aging. They have inspired me. I saw Viktor Frankl only once, at a conference, where he stood up on stage before a crowd, a frail little old man. But when he rose up to speak, the world was lit up.
Can we, too, light up the world?
Harry (Rick) Moody teaches in the Creative Longevity and Wisdom Program
of Fielding Graduate University. He edits the “Human Values in Aging” newsletter.
For a sample or free subscription, send a request to email@example.com