By Jim Selman
In this 2006 speech, Selman investigates the conversation we have about aging and shares his three rules for growing older. He then applies those new rules to the five things that are at the core of anything we might want in retirement.
Good Evening. I have been invited to speak with you today because you and I are becoming what are politely called ‘senior citizens’. Most of us are either retired or will be retiring in the next few years. The rest of you are probably just thinking about retirement. Now I know that not all of you qualify for the discount tickets at the movies—yet. But every one of us was born sometime roughly between 1940 and 1965, and since I am not here to talk about statistics or demographics, I don’t want to nit pick over a few years give or take. In fact, from my perspective, the “Baby Boom” is just shorthand for a state of mind, a cultural distinction, and a possibility.
Personally, I don’t like being lumped into a single category with 70 million other folks. This sociological category of “Baby Boomer”, which is now almost synonymous with growing older, makes it easy for us to slip into generalizations about age and aging that have been here for generations. Even when we attempt to show how Boomers aren’t like other generations, we are subtly reinforcing a profoundly negative and disempowering stereotype of what it means to grow older.
There are a few things we can say about who we are and where we are in our lives that are generally true for most of us. For example, one thing that is absolutely true is that we are all going to die. That fact is at least a niggle in our minds. We are more aware of our mortality than we were when we were younger and that awareness can certainly make us more conscious and concerned about what we do with whatever time we do have left. I’m not suggesting that any of us are particularly morbid or morose about the inevitability of dying, simply that we are more thoughtful and are definitely engaged in a different dialogue with the future because of it.
I might add that this changing conversation about and around age isn’t just in my head. I remember the first time someone offered me a senior’s discount without my asking. I was initially confused and surprised to be offered a senior’s ticket at the cinema, then a little embarrassed. Eventually, I went laughing all the way to my seat. It wasn’t that I couldn’t understand that I was now a ‘senior’, but I hadn’t realized that others were also relating to me based on how they perceived my age. Another example of this, and this is a bit embarrassing to admit even now, happened a few years ago when I was still single. I became attracted to a wonderful lady in her early 40s, twenty years younger than me. That certainly isn’t robbing the cradle, but for a long time, I resisted any romantic overtures because she was the same age as my daughter and I felt that she was too young for me. The point is not a commentary on mid-life romance: the point is that I was afraid of appearing foolish and I wasn’t allowing myself to be myself. I wasn’t allowing nature to take its course because of how I perceived my age in relation to someone who was clearly mature enough to make up her own mind.
We live in a culture that views aging as a process of decline. While we may influence the rate of decline (and God knows there is a huge anti-aging industry), the fact is that most of us do not look forward to growing older, from whatever point we are at now. I’ve been fascinated with our cultural perspective on growing older all my life. Over the years, I’ve asked a few thousand people —both young and old —if they could be really be any age they wanted, how old would they be—and with very few exceptions, almost no one says they would choose the age they are if they had a choice. Of course, there were a few who want to experience it all and keep a perspective on age that values maturity as well as the vitality and enthusiasm of youth. But almost everyone under twenty wants to be older and almost everyone over 40 wants to be younger.
When a large number of people are even mildly discontent with some aspect of life that they can’t do anything about, then it begins to tell us something important about who we are and the paradigm that shapes our experience of the world and of life itself. When that something is so basic to our definition of self as our age, then I would suggest we need to take the time to really look at who we are in relation to age and give ourselves an opportunity to examine our interpretation of the world and how we choose to relate to it.
I first became age-conscious sometime in my late 40s or early 50s, It was like coming to a fork in the road. I began to notice that my internal conversations began to change. I began to think about how old I was in relation to how old I felt and how old I thought I looked. Maybe it doesn’t happen to everyone (or maybe it happens at different ages). I do know that when I look in the mirror and I see this 65-year-old face, I can’t remember when it changed. I don’t dislike it, but it somehow doesn’t quite match my experience of who I am. It’s almost as if we all have a magic mirror, like the one in the tale of Snow White, the mirror that kept on telling the witch how beautiful she was. Until one day, there was someone younger and more beautiful than her. The truth was that she was getting older and all her wishes to the contrary did not change that.
One day, when I was looking in the mirror, it dawned on me that my mind isn’t getting older. It’s just my body that’s aging. And this whole internal conversation about age was uninvited, unplanned and “unthought”: it just appeared in my head when who I saw in the mirror didn’t match what the 30 or 40-year-old I felt like inside.
How many of you have experienced the disconnect I’m talking about?
How many of you don’t ‘feel’ as old as you are?
That’s interesting. What I’ve noticed about getting older is that a lot of us seem to spend a lot of our time and money working on staying young. We’re influenced by the overwhelming advertising and propaganda that says young is beautiful, young is valued, young is where it’s at. Look at the creams, the surgery, the vitamins, and the effort we put into having healthy, active lifestyles—just to show everyone (including ourselves) that we’re still in the game and that we aren’t quite ready to disengage from society just yet. I think this is terrific by the way. However, I think there is also a big difference between trying to ‘stay young’ because we’re resisting getting older and simply choosing or inventing a healthy, active, productive and satisfying second half of life.
Who Is More Important Than How Old
If we think about it, our age is pretty basic to who we are, or at least who we think we are. It’ s so basic to our lives that we almost never really examine what it means to be a certain age. Sure, it means how much time we’ve been breathing since the clock started. But that is just the biological story. What age means isn’t about biology. The meaning of age is dictated by our culture, our consciousness, and our experience of how other people relate to us and how we relate to other people. I don’t think that other animals are aware of their age and getting older. Our pets may age from our point of view, but I think they just keep on being and doing whatever dogs and cats do until the end. In addition, how we experience getting older, the possibilities we create, and the choices we make are totally a function of our interpretation of life and a worldview that is itself a human invention.
Let me tell you about how I began to see my own prejudices about age. In 1979, I was designing a marketing seminar and wanted to focus on seniors as a target market segment. I believed that everyone at every age is afraid of dying and was working within that assumption. I interviewed a number of people, mostly in their 70s and 80s, and began to see that, after a certain point, they weren’t afraid of dying at all. What was surprising to me was that they were afraid of dying without having left something behind for the next generation or without having made a difference. I began to see how they—and everyone else—saw age as a fact of life that is anchored in each of us as individuals, like having the flu. In fact, the more people I spoke to, the more I realized that everyone was in the same conversation about age, what it means, what they could and could not and should or should not do at particular ages. I began to see an analogy in which our ‘age paradigm’ is like a pond and individuals are like fish in the pond. The problem is that we treat people as they age as if they are ‘sick fish’, rather than observing that the pond itself is polluted.
My remarks here are about what we can do, and more importantly, who we can be as we grow older. Specifically, I want to challenge you to confront the fact that most of us in North America do not believe we have a lot of choice when it comes to aging. As I said earlier, it is true that our bodies will change and we will die someday. Anything else we have to say about age—what it means or the future—is purely an interpretation and, therefore, subject to being changed. It is a paradigm, a worldview, an historically determined point of view of reality that is not true or false. It doesn’t have to determine what happens in the future—unless we give our power to it—in which case, the past becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I’m committed to creating a new interpretation or paradigm for the second half of life.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle once said, “Life is a likely story”. If we take that perspective, then what is the story we want for our future as we enter what Sam Snead once called the ‘back nine’ of life? If you and I are the author of this story, I propose that the plot begins with discovering who we are and that the story is a love story, one with a happy ending in which we have as much possibility on the last day of our lives as we had on the first day.
Unlearning Unexamined Assumptions
If we’re serious about creating the rest of our lives and not having the future just be a kind of unconscious extension of our pasts, then it is always a good idea to kind of clear away any old beliefs that can limit us or suck us back into familiar patterns that keep us stuck in the status quo. For example, here are some questions I asked myself as I began writing a new script for the rest of my life:
Do I really believe it is possible to create my own reality?
Is it really possible to re-invent myself, to be whomever I choose to be and commit myself to any undertaking that I wish? (This covers everything from my lifestyle choices to learning, relationships, career, creative self-expression and my contribution in the world.)
Can the rest of my life be as rich, as exciting, as full as my life has been up to now, perhaps even more so?
I can tell you that while these questions are easy to ask, they are difficult to confront. They have required me to be responsible not only for my age, but for myself, my choices, my successes and failures and, most importantly, my future. On many occasions, I doubted if it was possible for me to create the future, to change—I would watch myself mentally reciting aphorisms like “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” or rationalizing that it was okay not to exercise because “I still look okay and a few extra pounds is normal for guys my age…”. At one particularly low point in this inquiry, I was feeling like all this thinking was just too hard and was just becoming surplus baggage for me to carry around as I got older. I was ready to throw in the towel and buy into the cultural cynicism and resignation about getting older when I remembered the best advice I ever got. A teacher of mine challenged me:
Can you afford to live your life as if there isn’t something outside your system of beliefs and experience the knowing of which could transform the quality of your life?
Asking that question helped me reconnect with my original vision of inventing, creating and sharing a new worldview of what it means to grow older. And, as is the case with any new paradigm or worldview, it always brings up resistance and feels a bit impossible until, in the end, it becomes mainstream and what ‘everybody knows’.
Today, I am crystal clear that we do have the power to create our future. We do have a choice about who we will be for the rest of our lives. But declaring or creating the future as a possibility is just a vision without action. The first step toward action is being clear that the next question we must ask ourselves is:
Who makes the rules for getting older?
If we are going to become the author of our own stories (individual and collective), then we need to define where the boundaries are, if any. It is pretty clear to me that my future will look very much like my past unless I take different actions than I might normally take. Most people just kind of drift through the second half of life doing pretty much what they’ve always done and being the way they always were. They die the way they lived. So I can distinguish between whatever future is predictable, whether good or bad in my mind, and what I call my future as a ‘possibility’ (that is, my vision for the rest of my life). The possible future is any future I want, assuming I can commit myself to it and take actions accordingly. The point is that if we don’t commit to designing our future—including what is and is not seen as a possibility—then, by default, we get whatever our culture gives us and we will just have to cope with our circumstances as best we can.
For most of us, one very clear line that marks the beginning of the transition from younger to older is when we retire our jobs. (I prefer to think I retired the job rather than I retired or was retired from the job).
When you think about your retirement, what does the little voice in your head focus on?
Making sure you have enough money to do all the things you’d like to? Taking that long-awaited special vacation? Sleeping in? Playing more golf? Making a difference in the lives of your family, in your community or in the world?
I have been more or less self-employed for the past twenty years and doubt that I will ever retire in the conventional sense of the word. But I still have many of the same conversations about retirement and the future that my employed friends and colleagues have. For most of us, we are somewhere between “I can hardly wait to get away from work (in my case, to ‘cut back’) and really begin to enjoy life” and “I’m terrified about what will I do with all my free time.” Some of us are also worried about health or money. A lot of us are simply overwhelmed with all the possibilities. No matter where we are in this conversation in our heads, there are similar underlying concerns for us all: concerns about what we can or cannot do, about losing status and power, about what our families and children will think if we do something totally outrageous. For those of us considering making some very big changes in our lives, we question what will happen and where will we be if we seriously embark on creating our future.
* * * * * *
Charles DuBois said, “The most important thing in life is this, to be willing to risk who we are and everything we know to discover who we can become.”
What I got from this the first time I heard it was that no matter how comfortable I am or how confident I am in myself or what I think, from the point-of-view of what is possible, I am always at the beginning. If I am willing to risk everything, particularly those things I am most attached to, then there is no limit to who I can be in the future.
For most of us, the thing we are most attached to is our story about ‘us’, our self-talk about who we are, why we think what we think and what ‘everybody knows’ about life or whatever it is we are talking about. What is not so obvious is that most of this self-talk isn’t personal. That is, we didn’t invent our own story! Most of what we think about ourselves is either inherited from our parents or based on early childhood decisions we made and began to accept as truth. Beliefs such as “I am not smart enough, or pretty enough or talented enough” are mostly internalized from our culture’s constant and pervasive messages about the way it is or the way we are or are supposed to be. If we look at these cultural stories, we can see that a lot of them are based on age:
- Our children are affected by mass media at a younger age than we were.
- Rebellion is normal for teenagers.
- Youth focus on finding themselves.
- Maturity is about being responsible by society’s standards.
- Our peak earning years occur in middle age or just before retirement.
- In middle age, expect an identity crisis.
- If we take care of our bodies, they will last longer (that is, we’ll live longer).
- Retirement is about slowing down, smelling the roses and enjoying life.
- Old age is a time for reflection about our lives.
- Old people are wise.
- Very old age is about becoming feeble and, sometimes, returning to a state of innocence.
Our culture carries the meaning of what is and is not possible and who we are or should be at various ages. And the irony is that most of us go along with these stories, either by believing they are true or by resisting them in a way that actually reinforces them and allows them to shape our lives.
Creating New Rules
Creating the rest of our lives is much like creating a new game. However, while anything may be possible, nothing will change without some commitment. We can begin by declaring or drawing a line in the sand and saying, “That is the past.” Now what will my future be? Standing on that line in the sand, we can choose the core ideas or ‘rules’ that will govern our future. As we pursue this inquiry, we can sort through the values we hold deeply as guidelines for our lives and our ideas of how we should live. We can begin to see that we are always living inside some set of rules or beliefs that ultimately define the boundaries of our experience and shape our decisions and actions.
I’ve thought about rules a lot, and even created a few new ones to play by during the second half of my life.
RULE #1: Age and the past don’t determine my future.
The only thing that determines anything is action. If I want a different future, the only question is what actions are necessary to have it? I make a distinction between the predictable future (what I call the circumstantial drift) and the future as possibility—what most people experience when they have a vision for their lives. Coming to grips with this idea requires we accept that the strategies and attributes that made us successful adults in the past don’t necessarily make us successful in retirement. Success, after a certain point, is not measured in the same terms—be they material or social. From my perspective, successful retirement is having life be what I want it to be and not having to rationalize or settle for less than having it all in terms of being valued, giving and receiving love, being happy, being healthy and fully expressing myself.
RULE #2: In every moment of my life, I have a choice about how I will relate to whatever is occurring.
That is, I am responsible for it all, not as the person who necessarily caused everything in my reality, but as the person who can ‘own’ it all as ‘my reality’. This is a necessary perspective if I am to have the freedom to take unprecedented, unpredictable and maybe even counter-intuitive action. To be truly free, I must see myself as being ‘response-able’ (that is, I have the ability to respond to any situation). I have learned over the years that anything, and I mean anything that I am not responsible for, I am a victim of.
A corollary of this idea of responsibility is, “If you don’t design your life, someone else will!”
RULE #3: Who I am is not a function of what I do or any particular attribute or characteristic.
This final rule seems to me the most critical element in designing my future. One of the problems I have faced in my own life and observed in others is the trap of believing what I think. While I have, like you, a ‘little voice’ in my head that is constantly chatting about everything and everyone I encounter, it is not who I am. I have thoughts, but I rarely, if ever, control them. I only get in trouble when I forget that and begin to think that my thinking is ‘me’ or that my thoughts are somehow a ‘true’ representation of reality. I think I knew this when I was a kid, until I bought into the culture’s interpretation of what is and isn’t possible and ‘learned’ what was ‘real’.
A corollary of this idea is that “I am not a thing”, in spite of what my culture and our prevailing worldview says to the contrary. We are not objects in an objective world so much as we are observers of the world that we perceive. I can distinguish and be responsible for my view of the world and how I relate to myself and others and my circumstances.
I am sure there are many other ‘rules’ but I think these three form a foundation for creating the basis of a sound game for creating the future. To summarize:
- The past does not necessarily determine the future. While there may be practical limitations, there are no inherent limits on what is possible in our future;
- We are responsible for everything in our lives. If we see it this way, we then have freedom and choice that simply doesn’t exist if we are not responsible; and
- We create, through our communications, commitments and actions, our own realities, including the interpretation of who we are.
Let’s apply these ideas to the five areas I think have the most impact on how we experience our lives and how we feel about ourselves. They are what I most want in my future and what I think most of us want:
- Being valued
- Being healthy
- Giving and receiving love
- Being happy
- Fully expressing ourselves.
When it comes to wants, these five areas comprise the whole story. They are at the core of anything else we might think we want, be it security, recognition, relaxation or material success.
Being Valued as a function of Valuing Others
Let’s begin by acknowledging the fact that, at least in the context of our careers, we are not normally valued as much after we retire as we were before retirement. I am not talking about how we feel or how it should be or some abstract idea that we’re all valuable human beings. That may be true, but as we age, we lose power ‘in the world’ and we aren’t sought after the way we were. The phones don’t ring as much. Colleagues who promised to stay in touch somehow forget or are just too busy—always apologetic, of course, when they do connect. Out of sight, out of mind just seems to be the way it is. Most of us have already experienced this with our own children when they moved on to create and live their own lives. Not that they don’t love or honor us. Just, as we age, we seem to have less and less in common and much of the time it feels like we are an item on someone’s checklist rather than inherently sought out for what we offer and what we have to say. We can think of exceptions of course.
Why do some entertainers, teachers, politicians, speakers and pundits never seem to retire and their voices are just as strong or stronger than when they were years younger?
I don’t think it is just because of their talent, their earlier successes, or their reputations. I think it is because they are genuinely interested in and value others. Like many of us, they may not like what they see, but they are deeply involved and connected with their worlds. They have not succumbed to resignation and continue to create new possibilities, often where none exist.
I return again to the idea that age is a social construct. It really doesn’t mean anything at all whether we think we are ‘too young’ or ‘too old’. Given the problems and issues in today’s world, there is a tremendous need for people who are willing to be responsible for and take care of something to move into action. Whether we’re talking about entrepreneurial opportunities or social and environmental programs, there are as many opportunities for us to add value as there are people in the world.
Being valued is not an entitlement. No one is valued because of what they have done in the past. People value us based on what they see we can offer now and in the future. Next time you hear a retiree complaining that people don’t seem to need or appreciate him or her anymore, ask them what they have to offer and if they are committed to contributing whatever that is. It’s only when we are committed to being a contribution to others that people have the opportunity to see us as we truly are—as a possibility.
Health as a function of Being Engaged
Our culture’s philosophy of health, most of the medical profession and a good portion of the heath care industry is based on the idea that people are ‘objects’, biological machines that need to be maintained and fixed when they break. And the bottom line of this prevailing view is that we wear out. I am not arguing with this view, but I think it is only one way to look at mind, body and spirit. Of course, we all know that we should eat well, exercise and avoid or eliminate bad habits like smoking. We also know of healthy people who seem to break all the rules and live extraordinarily long lives; we also know people who do all the right things and are sickly nonetheless.
I suggest the one thing that all really healthy people seem to have in common is that they are engaged in their communities and all aspects of their lives. They are participating in life without a lot of attention on themselves. Yes, their bodies will change and may have some problems eventually (just as we are all going to die eventually), but they experience good health right up to the last day.
A little while ago, a friend of mine spent the last few weeks of his life in a hospital as his systems began to fail. Every day when I visited him, I would ask him how he was and he would say, “Great.” As we talked, he would share enthusiastically what he was learning about how the hospital worked and the fun he was having sharing his experience with the staff. He was fully involved and engaged in his own treatment with total awareness that he was dying, yet he did not seem to experience or feel anything but gratitude and appreciation for the health he still had. His passing was an inspiration to everyone in his network, including the hospital staff. All agreed that not only had his life made a difference, but also that his process of dying had made a contribution to their lives as well.
It’s no doubt wise to have a healthy diet, get plenty of rest and stay physically active. We will probably live longer and feel better if we do. If we consider that health is a function of participation, then we can eliminate health as a reason or excuse for not participating. For example, when I was 40 and I had a problem with my body, it was just a problem to deal with. There was never a conversation that “I have this problem BECAUSE I am getting older.” When we simply accept that health is always just what it is and never an excuse to pull away from living, we are empowered to keep playing right to the last day of our lives. Sure, we need to take care of the plumbing from time to time, but we can take health off the table as one of the primary limitations of getting older.
I find that when I’m participating in life, it is difficult to be stuck in my ego-centered internal conversations. I can be present in the moment. And when we are present, our natural biological processes tend to work better. Good health becomes a natural expression of living.
Being healthy and being valued are related objectives. Both are possible at any age. Both require that we get out of ourselves, that we focus our attention on others. That we connect authentically with people, see the possibilities in the moment, and take actions that demonstrate our commitment to being engaged.
Love as a function of Communication
I don’t think there is anyone who doubts that relationships are central to our lives, what we can accomplish and, for many, what makes life worth living. Without relationships we wouldn’t be who we are, have the possibilities we have or the capacity to coordinate action and create our world. To be sure, there are many ways to look at relationship—from sublime unions to horrific antagonism. I take the view that behind all relationships, be they good or bad, is a kind of universal love. By love I don’t mean “liking them”, having warm fuzzy feelings, or even caring about what they care about. I mean something like recognizing myself in the other, a kind of ‘mirroring’ phenomenon in which we always exist in relationship to another person.
I think the highest form of love is when we can accept and acknowledge that the other person is okay the way they are and grant them the space to choose to be any other way they choose to be—to grant them autonomy and dignity and ‘selfhood’.
Some think that the opposite of love is fear. That makes sense to me. When we are afraid, we pull away from others, put up elaborate ‘shields’, react, get our buttons pushed, try to dominate or control and, if we can’t do that, then defend ourselves against whatever we imagine is threatening us. It doesn’t seem possible to me that I can be afraid and be vulnerable and loving at the same time.
What makes relationships possible, of course, is communication.
Communication isn’t about just exchanging information. It seems to me that it always involves someone speaking and someone else listening, whether we are communicating with words or touch, music or body language, or with any of the myriad forms of language and action mankind has invented.
The key to communication, no matter what form it takes, is that unless we perceive what is being communicated (whether what we perceive was intended or not), then there is no relationship, no connection or even awareness at that moment. Without communication (and that can include talking to myself), I don’t see there can be any consciousness at all. We would simply be biological machines doing whatever our DNA has programmed us to do.
Without exception, whenever I have been in love or even felt loving, there has been a quality of communication that is profound and alive and flows between us in a kind of dance-like harmony. I don’t actually know what love is—and a definition wouldn’t help much anyway—but I do know that it’s inseparable from open, honest and authentic communication that expresses what I see, what I want, what I need and who I am. Love allows me to listen to others for what they see, what they want, what they need and who they are.
Most of us have told our stories enough times and listened to our own self-talk for enough years that we know, at some intuitive level, that we need to change our actions if we are going to have anything change in our future. We need to change how we listen and what we say to ourselves and what we say to others. Doing so requires relationships with family, friends and associates that allow us to get ‘out of the box’ of our past limitations, habits and patterns. Making change is not just a matter of individual will. It is a team activity, a social process—something that is possible only in the space of love that we grant each other as human beings.
Happiness as a function of Acceptance
There is an old adage that if we want to be happy, we need to want what we have. If you think about it, the source of most, if not all, unhappiness is living in a relationship with life as if it ‘should be’ different than it is. Expectations create a relationship with our world ‘as if’ reality or the circumstances of life are ‘the problem’ and we’d be happier if only they were different. Of course, this way of relating to the world also includes how we relate to ourselves. “I would be happier … if only I were thinner, or smarter, or prettier or had more money.”
Living life in a context of ‘should be’ is a way of being that is both cultural and historical. For that matter, being concerned whether we are happy or not is a relatively recent concern. Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs puts happiness pretty near the top of the evolutionary heap, something we think about after we’ve taken care of most of our other concerns about ensuring our own survival.
One of the insights available to us as we get older is captured beautifully in the “Serenity Prayer”. You have probably already heard it: it’s a short prayer to “accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”.
Acceptance is the key to happiness and learning to live in harmony with one’s current circumstances—whatever they are.
This notion is basic to many Eastern philosophies, and when you think about it, it is, in a way, obvious and logical. Reality is always what it is in the moment anyway. If we resist this truism, then we don’t live in the present. We end up living as if reality is the problem that is preventing us from having what we want. When we aren’t present, we are living in some form of a conceptual relationship with reality (in our heads)—which is one reason why we end up reacting based on what we think should be, rather than taking action based on what is.
Acceptance, in the most profound sense of the word, is choosing life to be what it is.
This is not the same as succumbing or tolerating or putting up with—all ways of being based on thinking we don’t have a choice. Nowhere is this more basic than in choosing to be however old we are. If we are to have a choice about how we experience the rest of our lives, we must accept that:
- We are however old we are
- Our bodies are changing in whatever ways they are, and
- That is just the way it is.
We need to surrender to age and be responsible for the finite nature of our own existence as human beings. We need to choose life on life’s terms if we’re to experience the kind of sublime happiness spoken of by sages and wise people throughout history.
One of the most important things I have learned in my life is that acceptance and surrender are the first steps to being free of my past, free of my patterns and empowered to change my conversations about myself and about life. This is the key to getting outside myself and creating a relationship with something or someone bigger than who I consider myself to be….a higher power, a coach, God, the Universe. I’m not talking in terms of surrendering as being the same as succumbing, giving up, tolerating or putting up with. Those are all subtle ways of continuing to resist and trying to control reality—to live in denial of the fact that while we are always vulnerable, we have a choice. The only choice that can create an opening for true happiness is acceptance of what is.
Acceptance also presupposes responsibility. If we aren’t responsible, then we are still making ourselves victims of the circumstances. In practical terms, we need to face the fact of our lives: our money, our commitments to others, the rules and ethics of the communities in which we live. Only when we accept these facts are we in a position to create something else. If we don’t create something genuinely new, then we will continue to resist and, in doing so, give our power to the reality we wish to change. We then become part of the problem and the process that has what we’re resisting persist. In other words, we ‘get what we resist’ (which is the opposite of acceptance). When we don’t resist what ‘is’, we have a choice.
Self-expression as a function of Responsibility
I have already mentioned responsibility as a component of health, love, and happiness. Anything we are not responsible for, we are a victim of. Now let me clarify what I mean by responsibility and why it is so basic to who we are and our ability to express ourselves.
Responsibility does not mean (and this is a common misconception) anything about who or what caused the circumstances or situation, or for that matter, what I will or will not do in the future. It literally means “response-ability”. It is the freedom to act. It is a relationship with life in which we are senior to whatever circumstance or situation we are perceiving. Responsibility is a context for living based on ownership of whatever we’re observing, whatever we are thinking, whatever we are feeling, and whatever we perceive or imagine exists in our reality.
Responsibility simply means that I own my reality, my world, my relationships, my future.
From this perspective, I can accept what is and whether I like it or not. But I also have a choice in terms of what commitments I make, what I do and how I do it. I can also be responsible for the consequences of my actions and the actions of others. I am always free in the moment to accept, correct, learn and act consistently with my intentions and commitments. This includes accepting my feelings and emotions, as well as granting others the freedom to have whatever experiences they are having, and to learn and grow from their own actions rather than feeling a need to impose my will on them.
Where this is particularly relevant as we grow older is that it allows us to put the past in the past, to live without guilt, regret or resentment. It is a foundation for designing interpretations that serve us and those we care about. It is how we can avoid being sucked into settling for our culture’s presuppositions and biases about what it means to grow older. It is the cornerstone of living the rest of our lives intentionally as an expression of our vision.
The thing that makes retirement such a big deal in most of our lives is that the event, whether voluntary or involuntary, is inextricably associated with age—what it means, how we experience it and how it affects and shapes who we are and how we relate to life and the future.
For myself, I use the concept of retirement as a kind of place-marker for the mid-point of my life. None of us ever really knows how much time we have left. So I just think of the second half of my life as being whatever I have left. If we can draw a mental line in the sand between the past and the future, then the only question is whether we believe that the future is up to us. Or do we have to simply cope with what happens?
I suggest we can and do create the future and that none of us are victims of any circumstance, especially the circumstance of our age.
Learning and living as an expression of our vision and commitments is more important than anything we know from the past. Our future can and will always include our past, but doesn’t need to be limited by it. While our culture generally considers aging as an inevitable process of decline, this isn’t necessary or true. It is possible for us to have the second half (all of it) be as rich or even more rewarding than anything we’ve experienced so far.
We have a choice about how we view reality.
That choice is the opening we have for action and experience. We all have the power to declare who we are in the matter and to commit to act consistently with who we say we are and our vision of the future. I reject the notion that my age determines my future, just as I reject the notion that I am an object that must follow some proscribed path though life.
Retiring from my career is no different than retiring an old set of clothes or putting an old hobby on the shelf. We’ve all done this throughout our lives. Most of us can see those moments of conscious change as the moments when we learned and grew the most.
I don’t have any prescription for what anyone should do when they retire, but I do encourage anyone who is in the process of retiring or thinking about it to focus on the larger question of “Who am I?”
And then to create their own personal vision or higher purpose from a blank canvas—without taking into consideration what they believe has limited their choices in the past. Start living life as if every day were a new beginning, a beginning founded on acceptance, communication, responsibility, participation and valuing others.
There are many ways we can judge the quality of our lives. For most of us, our quality of life will, at a minimum, include our health, being valued, our happiness, the experience of love, and our full self-expression. Creating a future based on having it all in each of these domains means challenging some of our closely held beliefs, our relationship with the circumstances of our lives, our relationship with time, and our relationship with ourselves and other people.
In the words of Father Alfred d’Souza:
For a long time it had seemed to me that life was about to begin—real life. But there was always some obstacle in the way, some thing to be got through first, some unfinished business, time still to be served, a debt to be paid…then life would begin. At last it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life.