Do you remember being asked as a child: What do you want to be when you grow up? What image did this question generate? Dressing in a white coat and stethoscope to provide care? Writing on a chalkboard to teach? Performing athletic feats? Protecting the innocent and punishing the guilty? Making music or art? Nurturing your own children? Your response probably stimulated your imagination and planted seeds of possibilities. Many of us find that one or more of those seeds do take root, and over time we embrace the qualities of the roles we imagined as children.
As youthful adults, we busily till, plant, and cultivate the landscape of our lives. We are the architect of our dreams, goals, education, work, family, and material needs and wants. We choose what to do, and we are asked: How are you doing? Over time, we notice how we feel in the doing.
And then how quickly the landscape of life reaches full bloom, and the weather begins to change, suggesting the onset of a new season, new priorities. Interest in retiring from employment may arise when our preoccupation with the outer landscape gives way to a desire to create greater balance in our lives. “The actual task is to integrate the two threads of one’s life,” the French philosopher and Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, wrote, “the within and the without.” The inner landscape and the relationship between the inner and the outer become as compelling as being busy in the world.
The usual question at this transition point is “What do you want to do when you retire?” And the most frequent response, according to Tammy Erickson, expert on workforce and demographic trends, is “Take a cruise.” After decades of employment, most of us would benefit from a break and a significant transitional event. However, the most important question is not What will you DO? in retirement or your second half of life or your third age. The question is not even: What do you want to be when you retire? The question is: How will you be? And then: How are you being?
Doing and being, of course, are not polarities and cannot be separated. Doing is about activities, and quantity counts. Being is the degree of awareness manifested, whether the activity is bicycling, computing, or meditating. We all know the difference between being hyperfocused, distracted, or fully present. When we attend to the quality of our being, the what and how of doing simply flow. This is the developmental possibility of life’s autumn season.
Each season or stage of life offers opportunities to cultivate personal growth. For the infant, growth must be supported by caretakers. Throughout youth, developmental markers that bring us to independence are celebrated. Despite the coincident doubts, confusion, and heartbreak, many grownups never stop yearning for youth’s aliveness, beauty, and promise. But obsession with youth has created an “ever-summer” culture, in which they forever explore the adolescent fascination with sex and violence — bastions of Hollywood and network television.
A never-ending summer requires the denial of winter and diminishes the developmental benefits of appropriately timed spring and autumn seasons. The sweetness and slowness of childhood’s spring are sacrificed in the rush to summer; preadolescent girls dress for sex appeal earlier and earlier, while boys experiment with danger at younger and younger ages. The gradual process of development that extends the magic of childhood into the teens is arrested.
No less important than an appropriate springtime of life, an autumn season is the developmental stage that brings us to true maturity. It need not be the staid, boring, narrow maturity which we once repudiated in those over 30. We can choose a ripeness of being that is expansive, creative, embracing, accepting. Baby Boomers are now learning that an extended transitional period is important to make a shift from working for a living to living a next life stage. Most of us who have been actively employed for decades are not likely to be suddenly comfortable with a ”restful” leisure that does not include meaningful social interaction and activities.
Fulfillment of each adult life stage is more likely when it is preceded by a period of conscious transition. And our extended life span offers the opportunity to transition effectively into our autumn and winter seasons. Winter, especially, is more likely to provide fulfillment when it follows a developmentally healthy and satisfying autumn. The fact that winter’s life-giving importance lies beneath the surface makes it no less vital and purposeful; winter is the final stage of growth that allows us to become fully who we are. As James Hillman says, in The Force of Character and the Lasting Life: “Aging is no accident. It is necessary to the human condition, intended by the soul. We become more characteristic of who we are simply by lasting into later years; the older we become, the more our true natures emerge. Thus the final years have a very important purpose: the fulfillment and confirmation of one’s character.”
Aging is, in fact, very attractive to me about now. At 61, I’m one year into my seventh decade. I’m also a full-time librarian in an understaffed, underfunded, and nevertheless striving and thriving academic library. As a professional, I remain busy beyond a newly developing comfort zone. Although, given the fact that U.S. productivity grew by over 60 per cent between 1989 to 2010, it may be that my stamina is challenged due to not only my increasing age, but also expanding expectations of increasing performance with diminishing monetary compensation.
Whatever the complex of conditions, I find myself in the autumn of my life as overloaded as my younger colleagues and filled, not with their befitting ambition to achieve, but with longing for some of the enticements of age — more time for contemplation, more expansiveness, more space for evolving priorities. Despite the media’s offerings of lasting youth, I am not interested in staying young or getting younger.
I am, however, interested in “youthfulness,” as well as “agefulness.” Both youthful and ageful are qualities of being. And one of the pleasures of aging is that, while we continue to enjoy qualities that serve us, we also are positioned to consciously choose and develop qualities that may have eluded our younger selves, including those inherent in vocations that appealed to us as youngsters.
The autumn season offers an opportunity to create a deliberate blueprint for living — to notice how we want to be in order to choose what we want to do. With the advantages of youth and adulthood — experiences, skills, knowledge, and acquired wisdom — we are positioned to become the considered architects of our beings. With qualities of agefulness, we have the opportunity to mindfully, consciously fulfill life’s cycles — to embrace the heart of aging.
As I find myself feeling urged from within to enter into a more “age-appropriate” period in my life, it occurs to me that aging can be viewed as a “practice.” There are at least two reasons to practice. When we practice to get better at something — a musical instrument, sport, or skill — we do so to acquire mastery of something. There is also practice that one integrates into life, such as yoga or meditation, not just to do, but also in order to be masterful in life.
A PRACTICE OF AGING
So, how do we make a practice of aging? How do we integrate such practice into our autumn season, which often seems to hold as much busy-ness as ever? How do we build a practice that does not require lengthy or consistent chunks of time or even a foreseeable conclusion?
Here is an exercise that can be embraced without adding any weight or pressure to your life. In fact, you may find that it lightens stress and energizes your sense of purpose:
Deborah Windrum’s book,
Harvest the Bounty of Your Career, is an inspiring guide for exploring what has been gained from work in the first half of life in order to deliberately create a fulfilling second half of life.
The book's central metaphor — the tree — has been exquisitely translated into its design by fine artist/graphic designer Michele Renée Ledoux. The book's size and cover art are an invitation to pick up and hold the book, and perhaps savor it beneath a tree. The inspirational original full-color art plates and quotations woven throughout the text are not only integral to the content and experience of the book, but they also transform the physical artifact into a keepsake to be personally enjoyed and appreciated and shared with friends.
Harvest is not formulaic, prescriptive, or a set of ordered steps, and it is much more than text for passive reading.
Harvest offers options for personalized engagement through a variety of intrapersonal experiences. The questions and experiences stimulate reflection, remembering, dreaming, and imagining in order to discover your own answers from within.
Interpersonal activities are also suggested, as well as detailed outlines for experiencing
Harvest in small group settings. The text, activities, and artwork can each stand alone, thus appealing equally to those who prefer to just read, those who prefer active engagement without extensive reading, as well as to those who prefer to be visually stimulated by the artwork.
“An inspirational, reflective, and practical resource, reminding us in tangible ways that at any stage or season of our life, we can harvest and integrate our experience.”
— Angeles Arrien, author of
The Second Half of Life: Opening the Eight Gates of Wisdom.
Consider what qualities of youth and age you most appreciate. What traits do you admire in others? Which of your own attributes represent your best? What do you consider indicators of fulfillment? Allow the qualities you value to coalesce into an image or a sensation. A personified image may be based on a projection of yourself, an idealization of a real-life person, or someone completely imagined. A felt sensation may be represented with an abstract image, such as a symbol, graphic, shape, or color.
You may wish to collect pictures, or, even better, draw, color, paint, collage, sculpt, or otherwise manifest your image. Whenever you desire to soothe, reassure, or inspire yourself, experience the feelings evoked by your image. Notice and embrace each sign of aging as movement towards that image, and celebrate your progress. Claim and cultivate those feelings — they are the self-fulfilling blueprint of your ageful inner landscape.
A favorite colleague of mine, 42-year-old Andrew Violet, has long held an endearing image of himself as a wise, old man practicing yoga. Andrew finds it grounding to return to his yoga mat daily, and he believes the sense of groundedness will become amplified as he sustains the practice throughout his future. He calls it “simultaneity of timeline” as he joins his ageful self on the mat now. His image of the future yoga practitioner is his blueprint for aging.
My blueprint for agefulness derives from my maternal grandmother. Although she died when I was a young teen, I remember vividly the look and feel of her sweet, calm presence and her unconditional love for every family member. A revered matriarch, bonding the family together with her wisdom and warmth, clarity and strength, she was the steward of family traditions and provider of holiday feasts. (And, it doesn’t matter at all for my practice whether my memories are based on accurate perceptions or childish idealism.)
My heart’s depiction of my grandmother is my blueprint for agefulness. Every time I appreciate her qualities, I strengthen those same qualities within myself. Every time I savor the sweetness of her image, I embrace my own progress towards that future landscape. The traits she personifies are my vows to self, as I repeat the mantra that “I am the seed of her seed; she is a seed in me.”
Are you ready and willing to transition from summer without artificially prolonging the season? Will you embrace life’s autumn to experience it fully? Will you hold an image of agefulness now, practicing so that you will “become of age” in the wisdom of your winter season? That is aging in practice.