A COMING OF AGING: THE EXQUISITE COMBINATION OF WISDOM AND LOSS
I was totally unprepared for getting old. In fact, I was clueless. I had tons of intellectual knowledge about the process, and lots of observational data from watching relatives age. But I had absolutely no sense of what it felt like to become an old person. Part of this was a result of growing up with a mother who fought aging like a Roman warrior. I don’t think anyone ever saw her without makeup or not dressed impeccably. She had an “outfit” for every activity she engaged in – shopping, eating out, gardening, walking the dog, and every other human activity. Her body started to slide downhill, in her 80’s, but she never looked “frumpy.” When she died, at 92, she weighed not an ounce more than she did at 22.
So I have lived almost all of my adult life acting and feeling like I was quite a bit younger than my chronological age. And then, one day, 17 years ago, I woke up one morning and startled myself with a stunning revelation – I was 62 years old and I had no idea of how it happened. I remember saying to myself – “I was just 40, and all of a sudden, I’m 62.” Why this happened at 62, I have not a clue. But it changed things. At first, imperceptibly, then after a few years, more dramatically.
The most significant change was the transition from being smart, to being wise. As far as I can remember, I’ve always been very smart. I was that kid in elementary school who finished class assignments as other kids were getting started, and began pumping my arm in the air so there would be no doubt who finished first. High school, college, and grad school, with a few exceptions, were not compelling, nor challenging. When I began my professional life, I had much success because I diagnosed my clients’ problems in minutes, and gave them almost instantaneous feedback that cleared up any confusion they had and gave them an initial feeling of relief. As my practice and my consulting grew, it became clear that my brilliant insights were having less impact. Thankfully, I had a number of courageous clients who started giving me feedback. They told me, in the nicest possible way, to shut up, listen more, and ask more questions. (This was not the first time I had heard that feedback. Arleah had told me that before, but why listen to the person who cares the most about you.) This lead me to a life changing revelation – smart people have great answers; wise people have great questions. And if all you do is solve people’s problems, they will become quite articulate in telling you why they act dysfunctionally and why they’re stuck. Wisdom requires patience, with oneself and with others. And trying to speed up the process, diminishes the worth and resources of others, and creates an addiction to putting out fires and never creating sustainable change.
The other significant change was the steady loss of mental acuity and the equally steady erosion of my physiognomy. I used to have a mind like a steel trap – I never took a note throughout my formal education, and I could remember my clients’ histories and challenges, the moment I saw them. I struggle now to pull up that information and for the first time in my professional life, I take notes. So my mind has gone from a steel trap to a vegetable strainer, and my short term memory regularly fails me. I periodically lose my phone in my own house, and I occasionally shock myself when I realize, just in time, that I’m about to brush my teeth with Preparation H. And lastly, I have nostalgic lust, when I wish that Arleah had the figure she had in our youth (our 50’s). I’m quickly disabused of this fantasy, when I confront my body, after a shower, and lament the reality of my own age erosion – bald, pudgy and boobs that an evolving adolescent would welcome.
This all requires a patience with myself, and an acceptance without resentment. Both take a vigilance and an appreciation of what we’ve created over the past forty years. It also requires a periodic gut check and a constantly renewing commitment to always be learning. Being in the last part of my life compels me to live in the present and the future, and appreciate the past, without succumbing to it. I can remember, as an undergraduate, reading Sartre, and wondering what he meant by facing the existential dilemma. I now know what he meant.