Fierce With Age:
Busting through the myth of serenity
by Carol Orsborn
||I’ve got an invitation for you that you won’t be able to refuse. It’s a multiyear, in-depth course that is designed to strip away your ego, confront you with ultimate questions about meaning and purpose, and give you the opportunity to come to terms with mortality while learning to appreciate the present moment.
It’s called aging.
If you are fortunate to live long enough, you won’t have a choice about whether or not you will be confronted with losses, challenges, and diminishments that accompany growing older. You will have the opportunity to choose whether you will become a victim of age or, alternately, transform aging into a spiritual path that at last offers the promise of fulfilling your true human potential.
When I refer to aging as a spiritual path, let me be clear. I’m not just talking about peace and serenity here. On the contrary, conscious elderhood demands a level of commitment that often seems to require more of us than we think we have to give. For starters, we need to fight the ageist images of growing older that we, ourselves, have internalized. We need to confront, grapple with, and ultimately transcend the dread and even revulsion that has sadly become the hallmark of the mainstream attitude about aging. Coupled with this, we must simultaneously resist the urge to romanticize or whitewash aging, defying an antiaging society’s denial of both the realities and promise that is the truth about growing old.
Central to this is questioning the myth of “serenity” as the chief characteristic and goal of what is known in the gerontology field as “successful aging.” To place serenity in its contemporary context, we need only trace its modern-day origins to the years following World War II. During the war, the young men went to battlefields around the world, leaving women and the elderly behind to keep the home front functioning. Older people and women worked the fields, ran the factories, and stepped up into leadership roles in every industry. At war’s end, it became their patriotic duty to step aside to make room for the returning warriors. In its place, Madison Avenue offered older folks the promise of romanticized suburbs, gated communities, and retirements of leisure — on the golf course or in a rocking chair. The “geezers” who resisted marginalization were portrayed as “eccentric” or “disloyal.” Serenity, in other words, was a way of marginalizing and dismissing older people. Serene people, after all, “make no trouble” and slip graciously out of sight and mind.
Of course, there is a place for serenity in our lives. But the mystics of many traditions have a much broader understanding of what it means to walk that spiritual path. While I have been a lifelong student of mystical and spiritual literature from a broad range of traditions, it wasn’t until I was personally confronted with my own aging and mortality that I transcended both the dread of growing older as well as romanticized fantasies of the future and replaced them with a more prophetic relationship to the divine. There are still times, of course, when I am quiet and peaceful. But I have learned that with six decades behind me, I am rabble-rousing more than ever. I am not above standing on the mountain top and shaking my fist at God, nor do I think there’s something wrong with me when I have sunk into the dark night of the soul. I have come to realize that as long as we keep growing, there will be anxious moments, regrets, and self-doubt. But there will be transiting, transforming, and overcoming, too. As a result, I have put being at peace farther down on the list of aspirations as I age. At the top is to be fully alive, no matter the consequences. This is the essence of what I refer to when I describe my current orientation towards life as having become “fierce with age.”
This knowledge was hard won for me. In my recent memoir, Fierce with Age: Chasing God and Squirrels in Brooklyn, I recorded the ups and downs of a tumultuous year spent facing, busting, and ultimately triumphing over the stereotypes of aging. Having landed a yearlong project in New York too good to refuse, my husband Dan had enticed me away from my beloved cottage in a Los Angeles canyon to move to a high-rise apartment in Brooklyn. As the year unfolded, I nurtured a love-starved friend through a doomed affair with a younger man, dealt with my own physical and social changes, and sought to regain my passion for life at the side of my squirrel-crazed dog, Lucky. One of the most disconcerting challenges I faced was that in the process of transiting out of my comfort zone and into the wild space beyond midlife, I’d somehow forgotten who I was and how to restore my faith in life.
One moment, I’d been a smart, high-achieving spiritual woman at the peak of her game. The next moment, it was as if I had forgotten everything I’d learned over the course of my life. Shockingly out of control, I could not get things to go back the way they were, complete a grieving process, or martial my internal and external resources to greet a life-threatening diagnosis. Apparently, I had entered a new, prolonged life stage: one that our entire society — in an effort to trivialize the stage — either denies, reviles, or sentimentalizes. In short, I had become old.
I learned a lot about myself, aging, and life over the course of the year. And as our year in New York was coming to an end, once again surrounded by packing boxes, I found myself with my faith renewed. Because of everything I endured, I began this new phase of my life journey no longer ashamed or depleted about aging — curious and excited instead. While the contours of this wild terrain beyond midlife have not yet fully revealed themselves to me, I am clear that rather than experiencing myself at an ending, I have most definitively embarked upon something profoundly and unexpectedly new.
Happily, I am not alone. We have role models who hail from a broad range of religious and spiritual communities who are pointing the way. Here’s a wonderful quote from Henri Nouwen: “Aging is the gradual fulfillment of the life cycle in which receiving matures in giving and living makes dying worthwhile. Aging does not need to be hidden or denied, but can be understood, affirmed, and experienced as a process of growth by which the mystery of life is slowly revealed to us…The elderly are our prophets, they remind us that what we see so clearly in them is a process in which we all share.”
John C. Robinson, in his illuminating The Three Secrets of Aging: A Radical Guide, asks, “What if people began to experience age-related changes in consciousness as essentially mystical in nature?” Harry R. Moody writes, “In the most profound mystical tradition, the way of transcendence entails at its highest point the ‘loss of the self.’” You will find prophetic assertions equating aging with fulfillment in writings of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Sister Joan Chittister, Buddhist priest Lewis Richmond, and many more.
I leaned heavily on these and many other pioneers of the conscious aging movement while I was in the heat of my own transition to the wild side of midlife. And in the months following, I felt called to draw upon all my skills as a scholar (with a doctorate in religion and masters of theological studies), teacher, spiritual counselor, and retreat leader to help others utilize their own psychological and spiritual resources to more fully re-vision what this age and stage of our lives can mean for us.
Central to the spiritual practice of aging is a common theme: letting go of the illusion of control. Of course, most of us prefer the notion that we are calling the shots in our lives, applying ourselves to making things turn out the way we want, and feeling that we have mastery over our circumstances. But, the daunting part about aging is this: Some and eventually all of our old tricks no longer work. We realize how much of our sense of mastery over our fates has always been limited, at best.
As it turns out, when viewed through the lens of psychological and spiritual maturity, this is a good thing, Virtually every spiritual and religious philosophy centers on the shattering of illusions — be it the Hebrews tearing down false idols or the Buddhists seeing through the maya of surface manifestation. When we strip away the impositions, the fantasies, and the denial, we begin to view aging as holding the potential for activation of new, unprecedented levels of self-affirmation, meaning, and spiritual growth.
As I said earlier, this psychologically and spiritually healthy vision of aging does not feel like serenity. The truth is, as long as we keep growing through life, there will be anxious moments, regrets, and self-doubt. But there will be transiting, transforming, and overcoming, too.
In place of the stereotypes of aging, this prophetic vision of aging beckons us to take into account both the light and the shadow side of growing old, neither romanticizing nor reviling the years beyond midlife. This is no small order. In fact, waking up to ultimate concerns while maintaining both a hopeful and realistic vision of the aging process requires a level of spiritual maturity that is a challenge to the best of us. But it is also the stripping away of illusion and a thinning of the veil between our ordinary lives and the divine. This is the essence of the mystical path: the promise of aging as the fulfillment of our true human potential. In fact, rather than dreading age, we have the opportunity to become fierce with age.
The Opening Exercise
In answering the call to help others confront, face, and transcend the stereotypes of aging, I developed a retreat that I now take into churches, the aging community, and healthcare organizations. The retreat, which is also available in an online version, begins with a “wake-up” exercise. In this opening exercise, I begin by asking participants to consider their judgments of individuals their age and older. Here’s the exercise, for you to follow along.
So who do you think is an example of someone who is aging well — and someone who is aging badly? What I’d like you to do is make a separate list of characteristics for each of your examples. What adjectives, qualities, and characteristics best describe the essence of the individual you chose as someone who is aging well? On a separate list, what adjectives, qualities, and characteristics best describe the essence of the individual you chose who is aging badly?
The essence of this first lesson is this: The lists you came up with say as much about you as they do about the person you selected. The list that describes someone who is aging well gives you a vivid, concrete profile of the aspirations you hold in regards to aging. Not every adjective you put on the list may apply to you, but the list — as a whole — will provide you with interesting insights about yourself. The list that described someone who is aging badly also provides you with insight, but in this case you are provided a portal into what it is you most fear about aging: your concerns and your issues.
For the purposes of this exercise as an illustration of what it means to become fierce with age, we are going to be concentrating on mining the wisdom from your list of attributes for the individual who is aging well. So begin by taking a look at the list of adjectives, qualities, and characteristics you used to describe the individual who is aging well. To mine the lesson from this assignment, go ahead and circle every item on the list that is NOT necessarily dependent on one’s circumstances. As you circle the items that are not dependent on circumstances, keep in mind that the items you choose to circle will often require a judgment call on your part. For instance, we can probably agree that a person can have a great sense of humor more or less regardless of whatever else is going on in their lives. If you agree, you would go ahead and circle “great sense of humor.” Items like “resilient” and “has an optimistic attitude” would fall into this category.
Now let’s take another example: “Has a great job.” Having a great job is not always a matter of personal control. People get laid off or retire, companies merge, individuals develop a disability. Yes, we can do whatever we can to keep our jobs or make ourselves as employable as possible, but we cannot guarantee that we will have great jobs for the rest of our lives. I would suggest that you not circle this item.
How about “healthy” or “athletic”? Yes, we can influence our health and level of physical fitness — but we cannot guarantee that we will never develop an ailment or face some manner of physical challenge down the road. I would suggest that you NOT circle “healthy” or any of its variations. If you are confused or conflicted about any particular item, don’t circle it.
What you are left with is two buckets. In the first bucket are all the circled items: items that you admire and that you are clear are under your control to cultivate in yourself, regardless of the circumstances of your life now and down the road. In the second bucket are all the uncircled items that are certainly or potentially dependent on circumstances beyond your control.
Knowledge is power. Your original list provides you with a vivid and concrete picture of your aspirations for the future. Chances are you will have the good fortune of aging as graciously as the individual whom you have identified as aging well. You are way ahead of the game, knowing what it is you would like for yourself and using this as a spur to do whatever you can to make this vision your reality. But here’s something important to think about. The more uncircled items there are on your list, the more likely you are to be feeling unsettled about the future. If this is the case, it is because on some level you already suspect that you are placing faith in that which is ultimately undependable. Of course we should do whatever we can within our power to influence the circumstances of our lives, but there is a cost to denying that our power is limited. The good news is that once we break denial, we gain immediate access to the entire range of our abundant internal as well as external resources, to begin to build a spiritually and psychologically healthy vision of aging that can be counted upon to go the distance.
Key Take-Away Message
A key take-away from this first exercise — and the foundation of the discipline of viewing aging as a spiritual practice — is that those of us who can grow large enough to embrace rather than deny the shadow side of aging can organically have what the eastern traditions call an “awakening.” We don’t need books to help us understand the transitory nature of life. We are living it.
If this were all there were to it, however, we’d all be mystics basking on the river bank of old age. We all know, however, that getting older does not necessarily guarantee spiritual attainment, wisdom, or even peace. Who hasn’t encountered bitter, cynical, or resigned individuals who see aging only in terms of what is being taken away from them? As I said earlier, the truth is that the aging process requires a level of ongoing spiritual commitment that is a challenge to the best of us.
By continuing to immerse myself in the conscious aging literature, practice, ritual, and conversation, most if not all the negative connotations of being old have dropped away for me. I have stopped seeing age as illness and imposition, and have begun seeing it as increased freedom and activation of new, unprecedented levels of self-affirmation and spiritual growth. So now, when I say “I’m old,” this represents the overthrowing of the stereotypes and the reclamation of the integrity of the fullness of life I now see as my God-given right. In fact, I am excited about exploring this new stage of life. This initiation of a fresh life stage bears with it the hallmarks of all the previous life stages combined: the high anticipation, the celebration, and the bold, outright terror. In other words, aging has become transformed into a spiritual path, not only a continuation but an acceleration of the journey towards fulfillment of the true human potential.
As I conclude in my memoir: “Plummet into aging, stare mortality in the eye, surrender everything and what else is there left to fear? The way is perilous, danger on all sides. But we can be part of a generation no longer afraid of age. We are becoming, instead, a generation fierce with age.”