Generations of Feminism
Red Hats Versus Blue Thongs

Who Am I Now That I’m Old?

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category_bug_journal2.gif Not long ago, writing about “Choking on Being Retired,” I said,

“Apparently, in the eyes of the culture, as is believed about elders in general, retirement causes stupidity and hence, retirees couldn’t possibly have anything of interest to say, let alone contribute to society.”

My belief about the culture in that respect hasn’t changed, but I’ve become more interested in who I am now that, according to the Social Security Administration, I’m officially retired and am not mainly identified by how I make a living.

We all wear many labels, the importance of which ebb and flow as we go through life: son or daughter, brother, sister, student, mother, father, citizen, worker, consumer, caregiver, grandparent and, eventually, retired.

In the middle years we mostly identify ourselves by our professions. I am or have been, among other jobs, a cocktail waitress, office worker, radio show producer, journalist, television producer, writer, editor, web producer and now blogger.

But they are only what I do, not who I am and I have been taking on a new sense of myself over the past couple of years. Who am I? is a question I didn’t consider much when I was young. In my earliest years after schooling, I was waiting to become something by which I seemed to mean some combination of wife, mother and a profession I had not yet found.

By the time I was into my forties and a decade divorced, I had removed wife and mother from the list and pretty much settled on my work title as the cultural/social definition of myself. After all, “What do you do?” is one of the first questions we ask of one another when we meet and it mostly suffices to explain ourselves. Unless one has more of a philosophical bent than I, you don’t get much further than that.

But none of this is what I mean. An (admittedly quick) trip around the web on this question results in a whole lot of religion, more new age-y than not, including a fair amount of self-help blather about empowerment and being more than you think you are. Please. I have no patience for this sort of Bandaid for the psyche.

Closer to what I am feeling are Carl Jung’s seven tasks of aging - most particularly, right now, the fifth which is the need to find “a new rooting in the self” bringing together opposites in “the most complete expression of our wholeness.”

Among the little that I believe for certain is that we each are, in the greater scheme of things, unimportant. Should anyone die unexpectedly, from world leader to lowliest peasant, there is someone to take our place and the universe continues unshaken. At the same time, on the micro level of our daily lives, we sometimes make a difference in ways others could not.

Perhaps accepting that is a small part of what Jung means about bringing together opposites, but I’m too practically-oriented to go flying off into theories of individuality versus the cosmos.

To keep myself grounded in what’s really important, I meditate regularly. For a while afterwards, I am more completely myself than at any other time and have no need to wonder who I am. But the feeling is short-lived – an hour maybe – and then I’m back to uncertainty about who I am.

I feel profoundly different at this age and less attached to previous ages than I have been at any other time in my life. There is a sense that a continuum has been broken and I’m in new territory I don’t understand yet.

Or maybe it’s just something I ate…

I’ve relaxed about the term “retired.” I don’t like the cultural baggage associated with it, but it’s a shorthand that in some circumstances moves the agenda forward and I don’t feel that it attaches to me negatively as much as I once did. But I also don’t feel attached, lately, to the obvious other labels - woman, blogger, “international bloviator on aging” and all the rest – but they will have to do while I stir things around in this cauldron of late life, all of which probably has some relationship to making peace with dying one day.

Is anyone else playing around with this stuff?


Comments

Glad you asked! Glad you are here with the rest of us to "play around" with this stuff. It's kinda' interesting & a true departure from what we did in our former, pre-retirement lives. BTW, bringing up Jung spurs me on. Hadn't got to him yet. Have a great day, Ronni. Dee

I think, whether you want to or not, admit it or not, you are working on this stuff.
I love your reflection. Pithy, and at the same time you made me laugh out loud. Don't often encounter that combination.
Do I have something to add? I'm working on it!

Interesting...
I know I still define myself by one third of my life (so far)... the Navy... and, as this current third of my life winds down, I do spend a lot of time thinking about where I want to go from here.

I read this post as I am off to a volunteer job at the local Wildlife Refuge - 60 4th graders will be there today. But I too am struggling with this phase of life which is made more complicated by current dealings with a mentally ill sister. I tell myself to have patience with it all - the important thing is to be there for friends, family and the world around us. Living the questions.

Great questions, reflectons, thoughts.

Hmm ... how I define myself? Now let me see ... why yes ... I would have to say that, that's what my whole blog is about.

And I haven't "arrived," yet!

As long as I can read, sew, and garden, I am completely myself. I find meditation difficult when I'm home alone (my mind won't quite be still), but I love qi gong and the standing meditations of Tai Chi. The combined feelings of relaxation and alertness last for several hours after a class.

I've had no difficulty with retirement, my days are never long enough, but then I've always been a "retiring" person and am content with my own company. I've "retired" to my home where I work tirelessly at things I enjoy. Life will become much more boring when these activities become more difficult.

Ursula K. LeGuin gave a speech at Wiscon 20 in 1996, in which she described herself as "an envoy from Senectutus, a Mobile from Geriatrica." Maybe many of us have to learn a new language and culture in Geriatrica...

I would call you a journalist or writer and whether you make money at something or not, it's about what someone spends their most time doing and thinking about that gives them a defining word.

I don't know why we all have such a need for boxes in which to put people, but it seems to be needed by others to figure out how to deal with 'us.' I admit I do find it interesting to know what people spend their time doing.

Having been a stay at home mother and what was called homemaker back then (or less flattering terms depending on who was doing the defining), this was always a problem for me to come up with words that helped others catalog me as my time even then also went to writing, painting and sculpting. But since writing, sculpting and painting didn't return much in the way of financial rewards, people had a hard time with it. Our culture defines us based on where the money comes in. By that definition, Van Gogh was not an artist due to being supported by his brother, making very little money during his own lifetime. So I say it's what we spend our time doing, what we have the drive toward that we can use to define ourselves. In your case, to me, that's journalist. But if you do a book on this all someday, which seems likely, then it'd be writer with the definition changing only because you'd then make money doing what you do now as a contribution to the world.

Yes.

Exactly.

Your digital hammer nailed this one.

Nice to know I have company in this crazy life.

Strangely enough I've always known who I am. Not necessarily in terms of roles played or anything like that, but certainly in the sense of my "self". And fought like hell if anyone tried to define me as being something I didn't feel I was.

I haven't always been happy being me, but I've always been me. And these days, pretty much happily so.

I think this feeling of detachment comes from loss of the easily accepted and fairly accurate cultural labels we had for the various stages of our earlier life (ie. 'young mother', 'career woman', 'manager', etc.) Like you, I have flashes when I am well satisfied I know who and what I am, the rest of the time I feel quite detached. I like to think it's because the world wants to describe us as less than the others, but in truth we have blossomed and outgrown any descriptions of culture or label. How can they accurately describe that which has bloomed beyond its bonds in wisdom, experience, heartbreak, joy, etc...?

I'm intrigued. Just discovered your blog for the first time. I'm sure I'll be back to explore a bit further.

That all pervasive question: "What do you do?" is our status-conscious world's way of getting a quick picture of your relative power; Occupation gives a view to whether I owe you deference or should expect it. Utter nonsense in my book, but there you have it. Whether they admit it or not, people use it to measure us up according to how much education we have and how much money we are likely to make.

I've often wondered what our interactions would be like if INSTEAD of caring about those sort of things in became the norm to ask OTHER questions. What might they be?

The video at the Retirement Living link which addressed caregiving was very good, pertinent, and accurate which you provided in your post. Right side bar link does not appear on my screen.

Interesting thoughts and questions you pose, as usual. Since I continue to work part time, I continue to define myself to some degree by what I do. Though in many situations I often don't introduce myself by adding what I do, I can't help but notice when at some later date the information is revealed, casually or incidentally when pertinent to some new topic, there can be a significant change in attitude toward me. I'm sure the reasons for that are motivated by many of the views mentioned in comments above.

Perhaps that's just human nature and/or a reflection of our culture, an individual's values, but does seem to influence attitudes of some toward me and my words. I wonder if the same is true of me toward others to some degree, also.

I find others have to some extent defined me by my interests, engaging with me in mutually shared areas in that regard. The result can often be I'm only known by some part of myself, the shared interest part they see and know, to which they may prefer to limit themselves.

I believe I know who I am, but am keenly aware I have a number of compartmentalized "mes" which different people know by how they engage in my life. Sometimes the walls come down between compartments with some, others clearly prefer the compartment with which they are most familiar. I rarely feel compelled to alter that dynamic.

I do find myself wondering what my life will be should I cease working completely, since the expected activites I thought I would be sharing with another, long since ceased to be possible and now are permanently ruled out.

I don't think any of us should ever minimize the micro effects we have on others lives for it is the multiple micros that make the macro. The absence or change in any micro can alter the shape of the macro, often invisibly, unconsciously, unknown to all.

As for you, Ronni, blogging is something you do, as is writing and are other activities; as were all your work experiences. They may influence, even reflect who you are, but they are not you. Who are you? What kind of person have you become? How will you continue to evolve, and what kind of person will you be?

At the risk of being thought shallow I must admit that introspection has not been my forte. I think, Joared, you have covered the subject with acute intelligence. Who we are is not what we do. We are all a complicated summation of past influences, most of which were beyond our control. What we have done with those influences may be closer to the truth of "who we are." How did we meet the challenges in our lifetimes and did we become stronger as a result. Too many people associate themselves with their profession and are bitterly unhappy when they are forced to leave it, never realizing that they have not left "who they were" but only "what they did" for a living.

Good topic, Ronni.
Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950) - who was probably the most famous Indian sage of all time, used to recommend the spiritual practice of 'self-enquiry'. Which means repeatedly asking oneself the question "Who Am I?" On and on, every day, asking the question and answering it.
It's like taking the ego out for a strenuous walk and forcing it to walk and walk and walk till it finally falls down exhausted and we become free of the need to 'be' anyone. Instead, we can simply 'be'.
Not that I've got there yet, mind you. Just when I think I have, I turn round and sure enough there's the good old ego, catching up with me again. It's an interesting exercise though.

I've never been sure who I am and I doubt I ever will be. I'm too busy trying to survive in an unforgiving world. This has set me a-thinkin', Ronni, & there is a small voice telling me I should blog about this. Maybe I'll learn something important.

I like Rains thoughts that what you spend your time at, lend to a definition of who you are.

And Joared, and others. Great comments.

I am blown away. You hit such a sensitive—and right now, painful place in my life. This is interesting, and to show how that sense of "age" can be such a nebulous thing--I will be only 52 this spring, was able to "retire" last year, and have been struggling, painfully (self-imposed I'm sure), with this whole idea of "who am I." I was obviously ignorant of how much of my "self" I defined by my profession. And I am not at a loss for other interests—I am infinitely fascinated by so many things, but the loss of my paid profession has thrown me off balance. And at my age, Ronni, what you said resonated so keenly with me, it was a little scary. I find I feel a little embarrassed by what I'm "going through" but that's it, that's what's going on for me.

I was intrigued by your statement: “I feel profoundly different at this age and less attached to previous ages than I have been at any other time in my life. There is a sense that a continuum has been broken and I’m in new territory I don’t understand yet.” I would be interested in hearing your elaborate on that more at some time.

One of the reasons I read your blog is that I've always been drawn towards intelligent women and what they have to say. I appreciate the depth of what you write about--on all topics. Thanks so much, please continue.


Great Subjest today Ronnie! I have been there before however, today I feel like I know who I am and what my mission in life is at this time. Yes, I was a Wife, Mother, Office worker and friend and neighbor. After my husband died almost 8 years ago now I was asking that question daily. Then 5 years after that I retired and again I started asking myself the question "Who am I?" Now I have 3 beautiful smart grandchildren and I have arrived! I see them daily and I have so much time to share life with them and enjoy them so much more than I did my own child. I just hope that I can live long enough that they will be able to remember me. Most of all I know I am a loving Grandmother affectionly known as "mu" short for Mama Lu. This has got to be the most rewarding time of my entire life and I feel so blessed to have made it this far.

Our society as whole is materialistic and what you do is more important than what you are, if we continue down this road and we could look 50 to 100 years into the future at a time in which a great competition for resources due to our ever increasing population and at a certain age at which society would consider you no longer productive, you would be put to sleep.

Hi I'm 79 and living in an apt.Isaw you on RLTV and was impressed by everything about you.Now that the grandchildren are grown Ispend my time reading about the Middle East exerercise changed my diet,keeping my weight down.walking around the neighborhood and just doing as i please.Life is good.Much love,vera

Ditto jenclair! I love my busy days of learning; never have enough time to complete all I wish to do. At 73 I don't mind saying "I'm retired." I consider retirement a gift, because I worked diligently for 30 years. We're all important to ourselves and those who love us.

Love all the comments...each one adds to my understanding of this question and this time in life. I like to look at the big issues in context with other big issues that I've had to face throughout my lifetime. This whole aging process reminds me so much of what we faced in the early days of the women's movement and, I'm sure, in the Civil Rights movement of the 60's. It's about raising consciousness -- expanding our awareness and those around us of new feelings, new topics for discussions, new attitudes toward the joy of life. I lost my husband when I was 42 and didn't have a 'full time' career for ten years while I raised our three young children on my own. I started dealing with that question "Who Am I" a long time ago and realized that it had little to do with whether or not you're married or have a career.

The wonderful thing is to watch my kids and hear how they and their friends view women's rights or those who are handicapped or of a different color than white -- they don't see any difference -- they only see that they are humans and should be respected.
Hopefully, as we pass thru this age and help to raise consciousness, our children and their children will not see people in terms of their age, only people with different concerns who should be treated equally and with respect.

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