Bernie Sanders: Elders' Best Political Candidate
Elders' Fading Five Senses

What We Are When the Striving Ends

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.

Comments

I was born to be retired. When I was teaching all my creativity when into planning engaging lessons for my students. Now I can use my creative talents for my own devices. I also have learned to really appreciate Nature and being outdoors...just walking, exploring and swimming. It is soul soothing for me. I love these later years of life when I know myself so much better and appreciate who I am.

I learned a great lesson when my husband died 9 years ago, albeit over a period of several years. A lot of my "identity" was tied up in HIS life and career. I had outlets, but HIS career always came first. We never had kids, so I wasn't tied into the "motherhood identity." It took me a few years to adjust, to look around and then delve into who I had always been, but somewhat subdued due to marriage. I'm on firm ground now, more "myself" than I have ever been -- though that doesn't necessarily mean I'm striving/doing/being anything other than just the authentic ME.

Cara...
How interestiing. I had forgotten about how much I identified myself by my husband's career (I produced his radio show).

When we broke up in 1971, it took a year or two or three before I found my own identity and became my own self again - as I had been before marriage - separate from him.

There are a lot of transition periods in life, and now I'm working on a new one, something else about growing old I had not expected - or, had not expected how it has begun to happen on its own rather than my consciously pursuing it.

Good Morning,
This is my favorite post! It's like we just had a conversation and you put it all down in words. Thank-you so much. I am struggling with this issue right now. I have a great deal of trouble relaxing because I feel like I should be doing something. I am struggling right now with all that is in your article. I am still fortunate to have my husband and he always finds something to do. He did have a difficult time when he first retired years ago. I just want to be comfortable being me and not feel guilty because I am not doing more than I can do. I always feel that push to strive for more when all I want to do is enjoy who I am and what I have.
Jessie

This is a glorious piece of writing and I'm rereading sentences several times because they are so well put.
Ronni, an item of passing but serious interest to you and your readers. Tomorrow here in the UK there is a general election. If David Cameron and the Conservatives win ( our republicans ) it's because the promise of jobs, no matter how insecure and poorly paid, won the day. If Ed Milliband and Labour ( our democrats ) win it's because the promise of a full renationalisation of our National Health Service won the day. Nothing, nothing in Great Britain is held in higher esteem, not even the Royal Family.

I try to keep it to doing whatever I feel like doing without impairing my health.

Welcome to the club, Ronni. I've found my place, out in the woods.
Not too impressive to the younger ones, but there's a lot more meaning to life out here.

Wonderful post! Am going to share in the classes I teach... Thanks Ronni!

I look forward to reading more about this.

Jessie, I was glad to read your post. I just did not feel like doing my pre-planned chores on Saturday. I only allow myself to "relax" either on a schedule or when I'm too tired to do anything else. I would like to do a little more nothing.

I love this post!! I think you speak for many-if not most-of us, Ronni.

That quote from Joan Chittister, "...on another level, I am only what people see when they look at me now.” reminded me of something one of my favourite spiritual teachers, Richard Moss, taught me thirty years ago which was that none of us (at any age) really have anything to offer except the quality of our presence.

Thank you for this. Doesn't this connect to the current political discussion about extending the "retirement age" by several years?

Sue...
Oh, yes it does and I will get to that in a future post.

Thoughtfully written, Ronni. Striving and doing as a way to define oneself.

Sometimes the absurdity of it strikes me...at least two-thirds of the national economy is represented by consumer spending. What if we didn't lust after so much stuff? What would life look like then?

We try so hard to be what others want us to be, as if these 'others' have any better idea of how to live than we do.

Discarding these stressors is what I like best about getting old.

I wonder if there is something between utterly letting go and exploring and being with one's self--and continuing to do the things that have been connected to one's former work life. I am struggling now with writing this memoir, a very different book than all my academic books, but it is a real task, one that I am terrified I won't be able to complete. At the same time, it is work that gives me such pleasure [even though it resembles what I have done much of my life, which is reading and writing]. Work that I consider work, but that feels vital to me.

Maybe that is what the blog is for you, Ronni.

On the days when, for one reason or another, I cannot be thinking or reading or writing about this project, I am distressed. Maybe those reasons consist of having a lunch with a friend, or catching up with a former student, all good things. Or maybe it is a not good thing, I am sick or something. But I would be very sad if those activities kept me away from my project for too long.

Not sure what I am trying to say.. But when I retired, I didn't leave my work totally behind. And I am glad I can still do it.

David Brooks describes in his new book "The Road To Character" the difference between {Soloveitchik's] Adam 1 & Adam 2. Adam 1 is the external oriented ambitious side of our nature. Adam 2 is the internal side of moral value including humility, understanding we are flawed and establishing vocation to reach inner maturity. A very good book on what you are talking about!

Ronnie, I've recently started to follow your blog. This is the best one I've read so far. It so clearly and honestly hits the nail on the head. Someone above mentioned the absurdity of it all. So true. Nonetheless, I'm only 2 years into this retirement thing (after 40 plus years of a very successful career) - and I am still adjusting and transitioning. A 40 year habit is a hard one to break.

Oh my goodness, Ruth-Ellen. No one, certainly not I nor the people I quote, are suggesting that it's all or nothing.

It's that our culture pretty well requires "all" and disallows "nothing."

Old age is our time for finding a better way.

When I retired from teaching 5 years ago, at the age of 58, I had to decide what my role would be. No one would hire a retired school teacher. It's been a learning experience but one in which I have given up on being seen by WHAT I do and seen more as WHO I am.

I've hated the whole "striving" put on me/us since I started nursery school and I've rebelled against ~that~ ever since. I don't think babies in the womb, in the 1950s, got that whacko attention like they do now to start "developing," even as a fetus. So, for me, this conditioning started when I entered the real world at 3.

Still, I do strive-- I am a product of my culture, afterall-- but I attempt to mostly only do what I feel called to do BUT sometimes, it's hard to parse the difference. Even the notion of being called can be sullied by striving. There's just so much emphasis, imperative put on producing product no matter what you are doing. Very oppressive and anti-creative.

Wonderful discussion, Ronni! Thank you for starting it.

Great conversation! It causes me to think of the quote by E.B. White: "I awake in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day." Though I'm about to turn 71, I still feel that I am here to serve--and much of this is out of a feeling of gratitude for what I have. So, in a sense that is now like my "work" and my "striving" and have not yet reached the stage of being completely happy with simply "being". It probably also relates to my being fortunate to still have a good amount of energy. I am not "pretending to be young" and only hope that by the time I do feel "stripped of all the accessories of life" and come "face-to-face" with myself, I can embrace it with acceptance.

My mother, at 94, is at that stage, and she is not terribly accepting of her limitations, complaining that she doesn't know why she's still here--if she were accomplishing something in the world--writing the great novel, etc.--she could see the point, but not otherwise. I think it must be a gift to be able to be accepting and comfortable with the changes in the last stage of life.

I don't remember consciously planning what I would do when I retired. I just continued doing the same things I had done all my life and it seemed to work out well.

I never thought about creating a new identity or analyzing my life philosophically. I simply found things to do that I enjoyed and suddenly had time for and I did them.

As the years pass physical limitations crept up one at a time forcing me to abandon one task after another and that is what I think old age is all about. It's a gradual acceptance that your body is failing and you must make adjustments; one after another.

The first 8 years after I left my career , I found all types of commitments to keep me busy. I could list off the activities and organizations I was involved in during that time to everyone I met. Then one by one I have dropped the commitments. Now I have been focusing on being healthy and just being me. Your post really described what the world looks like to me right now.

I agree with Kate R.--striving/working is a hard habit to break. By society's standards, my career probably wouldn't be described as "very successful". However, I worked almost 40 years for the same nonprofit and 18 years before that in a variety of other jobs = 58 years in the workforce, all but a few full time.

If my nonprofit hadn't been forced to close, primarily as a result of changes in the funding structure, I'd probably still be working at 78. I was unceremoniously "deep-6'ed" in December when a new regime took over. Despite their slash-and-burn approach, the agency closed last month anyway.

So I'm not only transitioning but still doing my best to accept being dumped like yesterday's trash after 39-1/2 years--miss the paycheck, too! Although I've never been a big athlete (haven't climbed Mt. Everest; never will), I'm not great at accepting physical limitations, but that will likely improve as I accumulate more of them!

Thanks Ronni...great reminder that I don't even have to fight the fight for elders (which somehow I've been doing lately). I find when I sit and sigh and think of a non-dualistic way of being - not any particular spiritual philosophy, just get off the "Them vs. Us" treadmill, I can really just be.

All I can say is thanks Ronni, and to the rest of you! I too am grappling, not so much with the identity thing as with the implied imperative to "make a difference."
My days are full and mostly happy. My work is writing and playing piano--both of which make me feel, when they are going well, that I need nothing else. Why, why cannot I accept this without guilt!! It's surely a holdover from youth and middle age, feeling guilty if I wasn't racing around taking care of - what - family, students, etc. Guilty if I struggled for time to do what I loved. And now I have it. I'm getting better at accepting this. But there are moments. . .

Thanks, everyone, for all your helpful comments. I am struggling and certainly 'run into myself' a lot after leaving work a year ago. I will be reading more. I have never written on a blog before and am really grateful for finding this site today. I read somewhere recently that it is good to do one thing every day that scares you . . .

This is definitely a "read twice, comment once" type post. This is the 3rd time I've read it.

I married at 16, then had 5 kids in 7 years. I didn't know I had a right or ability to be my own person until I was in my 40s. Then divorced, and no surprise I had no idea how to support myself.

Jumping to current chapter of "MissDazey Lives". My husband is kind and special, but I catch myself living through him. Well, talking about him because I have nothing to talk about. Mostly though I am still searching for the "passion, good health and wisdom" that people write about.

PS: I laugh a lot!

Ronni, you've hit a nerve. It seems we're all re-thinking our values these day - and a good thing too. So much of what we were taught falls short.

Our macho culture turns out clones. Same look, same think, same goals.

But hey, Bernie Sanders gets it! And I've got a feeling he's going to have a lot more appeal at the polls than we're expecting. Go Bernie!

Striving to be better is uniquely human. It's in our DNA. I don't know of any other animal that wants to be better than their previous generation. I'm sure even cave-man kids strove to find better ways to hunt and build shelter. Therefor, when we are told "Sorry, you have to stop working now", it affects us on a molecular level. We are not made to just stop. That is why retirement comes as a shock to so many people. The best thing society could do for old people would be to assign every retiree a job for a few years (if they want it) as a way of easing into the next part of our life.

Always the shy introvert, I relish my solitary, pressure-free existence. Still, I've been a bit adrift since I'm no longer Jack and Eleanor's daughter, John's wife, or the medical association's editor. I realized some time ago that my life was mostly directed by others, so I still have trouble finding and identifying my own inner motivation. I've always been the follower rather than the instigator, reactive rather than proactive. But I'm the decider now and I really enjoy deciding not to do anything if that's what suits me.

Comparing life to a circle, I accept that I have almost come full circle by that number of 76 that seemed to suddenly appear one day to remind me where I am in life.

I've lived through each stage that nature along with society has presented to me...birth, education, work, marriage and raising a
family, retiring. enjoying grandchildren, etc. Now I have finally arrived at the point where I have the time and opportunity to just be me and if I am perceived as old then so be it. I don't think it's such a horrible place to be.

I'm ready for the finality of it all when the circle closes but in the meantime, I find too many good things to wake up to each day, and with fewer expectations of me, I can enjoy a freedom I had never had in the previous stages. It can be setting up more challenges for myself or I can just sit for days and accomplish nothing and talk to no one if I choose and just be "old" if I
want.

So what if I don't have a title anymore? I don't remember that title making me feel any better than how I feel now. I am just
one little ol' human being among many others, whose titles will come and go and who will also, in due time, come full circle.

I'm just grateful I have made it this far and I hopefully will continue to face each day with excitement and acceptance and not fear the unknown nor dwell on the memories of my youth and what once was.

It's winter. You as a little kid pull your toboggan up a steep slope. You have energy to burn, you are excited, you can't wait.

You arrive at the top of the hill, push off and fly downhill. This is your career, you wanted it, studied for it, you have earned your space.

You spin around trees, people, moguls, no one can stop you.

Boom! You hit a rock. Your boss calls you in, says you are going to be laid off, or, translation, they want a younger person, someone with more zip, drive and punch.

You pack your stuff in a box, along with the little icons on your desk.

You walk out, either totally freaked out by all the space in your future, or ticked off that you didn't see this coming.

Like Jack Nicholson in the movie "About Schmidt," you slowly come to the conclusion that what lies ahead has nothing to do with your past.

You are now faced with your authentic you.

What you choose to do or not do, is all under your control. Now you don't have to worry about dress codes, who you choose as friends, how you spend your time.

Some people try to recreate the past by trying to control or bully others, such as in retirement homes or condo committees.

But the truth is, once retired, we are all Joe or Josephine retired, and no longer the CEO of Smartfellow Inc.

The way I see it, I need to be able to look myself in the mirror every single day and know that I made a difference, in the time I lived my life on this planet.

This is one of your best pieces, Ronni.

The comments are fantastic.

I love being alive. I love looking at my wife of 40+ years. I love going for daily walks in the mountains, on the beach, in the neighborhood, with my wife or alone. I am on this planet once. I have outlived my sex life and am in the process of outliving my teeth.
Have had a great education, a great career. Never made a fortune nor lost a fortune. We have enough.
I get the extreme pleasure of reading this column and the comments posted and I get to smile.
What a great life!

For 20 years of retirement, I mostly had fun, did the things I wanted to and made a difference here and there along the way. The fun ended about four yrs ago when old age caught up with me, weakening my body and is gradually stealing my precious eyesight and, thus, my independence.

I'm having a difficult time with the acceptance part that Darlene mentions. My posting name, Tarzana, gives a clue to my usual outlook on who I am and how I approach life. How will this Wild Child deal with the decline of her powers?

I can't forsee it, but I expect that things will happen, opportunities will come and life will just be what it will. Understand, I won't be passively waiting but will be shaking a few trees, for sure.

To me, the key is to be doing what you genuinely want to do. Not what someone else wants you to do, or not what you think others expect you to do.

And, after all these years, do you know the difference?

Since I've spent my life doing "work" that usually came in spurts -- campaigns, particular research, etc. -- I've had a hard time knowing whether I was "retired" or not. Once, in a big way, I returned to the fray after I thought I'd left it. But these days I am telling people I've "retired" and mean it.

What I mean is what Chittister says: I'm living into "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?"

Like most everything else, I find trying to understand this new place I live in quite interesting. Not entirely comfortable, but there is lots to learn here.

I make plans still -- but today I broke a toe, reminding me again that I don't get to determine what's next. And that's okay. It simply is.

Loved the topic and the comments...all those years I was educating myself for a better paying job it was to provide for myself, and my family, and later as a single parent and a divorcee, to support myself!

No, I realized that I only had so much energy after putting in a 40 hour plus work week so, after the work day, I did many of the things I enjoyed: art classes, hiking groups, and reading for pleasure.

Retired at 68 after getting laid-off, 7 years ago, I now find meaning in tutoring for the library's literacy program, and just signed up to volunteer at a local no-kill animal shelter. I recently joined a Mahjong group and play weekly whenever I can. I realize that I do spend far too much time in sweeping the kitchen and cleaning up the dishes - still, by vacuuming every week, I avoid the ants, and my yucky sinus allergy symptoms. As Confucius says: Before enlightenment: chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment: chop wood, carry water.

It's interesting how many of us were forced into a retirement we weren't ready for. For me, it was an ambitious and ruthless new boss, less qualified and far less experienced, to whom I referred as the "she-devil" and to whom my continued presence was a threat. And yes, it's frequently another woman who blocks the careers of her women colleagues. The effect was that, having accumulated the necessary years of service and with a "golden handshake" coming at the right moment, I retired before I was 60 and that was much too soon.

Several stints at post-retirement temp jobs didn't work out, maybe because I was much too accustomed to titles and authority and "important" work. The upshot was that I never again found anything I wanted to DO. I kept busy in a kind of quasi-domestic reality, decorating and gardening and family dinner parties. But I had no one to do it for who valued it as an accomplishment. I hadn't maintained professional contacts because I felt somehow my "lesser-ness" in terms of doing important or fulfilling work devalued me as a friend or colleague.

After awhile, it was a matter of adjusting to what was, instead of nostalgia for what was never going to be again, so I settled into a kind of "shlepping down life" (to paraphrase Anne Tyler). Which meant a life of daily sameness: books and newspapers, crosswords and pot (not weed) gardening, random internet research and virtual commenting.

I guess my point is that some of us, as we age, are not only the targets of the ambitions of those still climbing the power ladder, but because of our learned tendencies toward acceptance, might cooperate in our own obsolescence.

Come to think of it, maybe I SHOULD have been cultivating weed/marijuana instead of Geraniums. At least I could have been building a new and perhaps lucrative career in which I would have been my own boss. Or I could have been doing a stretch in the pen where maybe my age and accumulated wisdom would have earned me some respect. - Meg

Retirement lasted 6 months. Now I have a job, monitoring, instructing, caring for "special needs adults". It's intense, eye opening, and hard work, but I don't have time to reflect on getting old, not right now, at least. It's such a challenge, sometimes a joy, but really exhausting. Yet, they need me and that's a switch. How long will this phase last? Not sure, but I have, again, an audience. Six months of this might be good for everybody?

Ronni, You put this so well. Like Diane, I was born to be retired. Retirement allows a freedom to react in a new way.
How does the Real Me want to react? This is the time to find out.

After a self-chosen retirement at 62 I started writing and running and find I love both. I also love the time to travel with my husband and spend whatever time I want with family and friends. I love my life and the freedom of retirement. As I plan a return to the US (I've lived in Italy for the last 6 years) I'm asking the questions of what to do to serve and give back since I still have energy, skills and good health but I'm trying to keep the perspective of not needing to "do" to have value. I have value just in myself not as a result of doing. This is such a rich topic, Ronni.

Since most women outlive their mates/husbands and wive..why not reinvent oneself..Been married 41 years at the end of the mont of may only 67 but never drove a car, I do now, never really watched the budget I do now, my husband is prepping me just in case of some misfortune to him or to me..One can learn anything at anytime, we don't have parents, grandparents or aunts or uncles to care for anymore, we are sad about that our only child lives 4000 plus miles and is independent, we go to the beach all the time to have a hoot with others from our kindergarten class a motly crew of dear dear friend, we are not rich, but rich in love and outlook, if my hubs wants to go to the shore or to a big city we go, we have someone to watch over our only furr babes and to watch the house, we don't fret much, what the hell can anyone do, neither his mom or dad had any retirement not with 8 kids and no job most of his Dad's life at all, he abandoned my mother in law after the last kid was born in 1957 they had 9 one passed..The kids were like little criminals and my hubs had to be the parent and to tell the truth cook and clean and do everything, we married and lived about 1,500 miles from that clan, we moved back but tooo far from most of those so called relatives, she lived to nearly 87 still smoking and bitter over what could have been with the man she loved who did not give a you know what about her, he lived to 74 still smoked and was nearly homeless but he DID NOT CARE AT ALL..so I say seize the day and enjoy each moment when you are with someone you love and are alive!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I do what I have always done just a little less at this time and a little slower
at age 80.
Has been difficult to accept
but not going to change and better accept.
Life is good for me
at this time...

A very beautiful post. Ronni. I hope you are not only wistful, as you sound to me, but also joyous somehow. Perhaps I misheard.

I wrote a post recently, on the same subject. I'm a good deal younger, so it's not only a topic for 70+. I think that's simply the time we are most likely to have to face it.

Wonderful post, Ronni, which has set me off on some serious reflection ... and, from the great posts by many of your readers, others as well.
Redefining oneself ... it happens almost unconsciously for so many years and then all of a sudden ("Old age comes on suddenly", Emily Dickinson)you have to fill in a form and realize that there is no appropriate term/category for who you are now. And that is both liberating and unsettling.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Working...
Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.

Working...

Post a comment

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)