Western culture is uniquely concentrated on striving. It is the whole of our lives.
Even in the womb, the fetus is barraged with Mozart. Toddlers must learn to walk and talk and eat without drooling, to run and jump and not put square pegs in round holes.
In school, there is reading and writing and 'rithmatic, history, science, government and a heap of after-school activities college admissions officers require of successful applicants.
From there it is the pursuit of career success: money, fame or – ideally – both as the ultimate prize. Workers are programmed by media, experts, coaches and bosses to strive, compete, perform, accomplish and achieve.
There is no time to think. If you're not busy 24/7 in pursuit of winning and, these days, crushing your competition too, you are ipso facto, losing.
There is always, whatever you have accumulated in the mid-years of life, a better job, more money, a bigger car, a more impressive home and a better school for your kids to strive for. Gotta keep moving forward.
Never a moment to think about anything else, about the value of what we are pursuing. It's just busy, busy, busy. Do, do, do.
Then after 40-odd years of working and striving, the busy-ness comes to a halt. We move into retirement and wonder what to DO. Even the word “retire” assumes work is the center of life and without it, the question automatically follows, what is my value now?
But wait. Before we can consider that important, universal question, there's more to do. Even in ageing, we are pressured to do it “successfully.”
By that, the mid-life adults still running the world, require that we must behave like younger people, like them. Seventy is the new 40 and they like us best when we hike and bike and run marathons, start businesses, learn a language or two, volunteer six days a week and never, ever admit to being tired.
Dr. Bill Thomas, in his landmark 2004 book, What Are Old People For?, speaks to this phenomenon:
”Anywhere adults are gathered together, you can hear the 'Adulthood Forever' anthem being played if you listen for it. It starts slowly, modestly: 'My mother is eighty-seven, but she's still as sharp as a tack; she lives by herself in Phoenix.'
“Such an unassuming claim is sure to be followed up with something more substantial: 'Well, my grandmother – she's ninety, but you would never know it; she manages her own stock portfolio and is finishing her master's degree in French literature.'
“Then comes the coup de grace. A man, silent until now, speaks up: 'My great uncle is ninety-six years old and he's just got back from climbing K2. He spends his winters in Florida because he likes to barefoot water-ski, in the nude.'”
Lots of old people are complicit in this adult game of one-upmanship in derring-do until we die. But it doesn't have to be that way and I don't believe it should be.
Dr. Thomas tells us that we don't need to buy into the cultural imperative to pretend to be young.
”The first sign that a person is preparing to grow out of adulthood is the dawning awareness of how heavy a toll is taken by the things he or she 'has to do'.”
Four years later, in The Gift of Years published in 2008, Joan Chittister took up a similar theme:
”This is the time of coming home to the self. I find myself stripped of all the accessories of life now. I am face-to-face with myself. And the fear is that there isn't one.
“I have spent my life being somebody important, and now there is nothing left but me...
“What am I when I'm nothing else? What's the left over of me when everything else goes: the positions, the power, the status, the job, the goal, the role, the impact – and all the relationships built up and woven around those things?
“...Of course I am all the experiences I have ever had, on one level. But on another level, I am only what people see when they look at me now.”
Because it has been shown to me so many times (and I firmly believe) that if it happens to me, it happens to millions of others, sometimes what I'm going through is what you get in the these electronic pages.
That is what this post today is about. I've been busy, busy, busy all my life. I didn't even stop when I was forced out of the workplace ten years ago; I already had this blog and I just kept going.
Now, three weeks into cutting my writing days from six to four per week, I have for the first time, run into myself and I have time now to seriously think about these and other questions that are part of what old age is meant to be.