Grieving the loss of our younger selves and negotiating the future with our older selves is one of the most challenging things we get to do in this life. It’s not only OK to not like some of the parts of getting older, it’s imperative. Venting, objecting, resisting, denying, and complaining about our aches and pains and our fears and dreads are part of being human. And, I’d argue, necessary for the passage through midlife. Reconciling the terms of life’s leasing program and discovering newfound meaning, peace, and joy in the third and fourth quarters of life requires faith and hard work. Uncovering the fullness behind the emptiness, courage behind the fear, acceptance behind the resistance, and humility behind the arrogance—and facing into life’s greatest mysteries—affords us sage wisdom and deep peace.
Asking oneself, “What time is it in my life?” is an enormously personal and profound inquiry. We may consider how many years we’ve been alive—and look at the life-expectancy hourglass to calculate how many days we may have left if all goes well. Or we may begin to assess how much “quality” time there will be after sleep, waiting in lines, washing dishes, and paying bills. In my Courageous Aging workshops, we explore what to do with “the time we have left.” Having these conversations with ourselves about the future, reflecting on what’s most important, we see how the things we say to ourselves when looking in the mirror add to or detract from our sense of self-worth, happiness and/or peace of mind as we get older.
So, how do you feel about your age—relative to your remaining years, attractiveness, place in your family, and/or job? What do you fear or dread about getting older? And, on the other hand, what excites you? Are you at peace and content—or feeling lost and in a state of unrest?
Here are three simple exercises taken from the Courageous Aging workshops to help you process issues of aging and begin creating your best possible future:
Exercise #1 Assess Your Stage of Life
Your age conveys a great deal about your social status. Which of these stages are you in?
Stage #1. Forever young and not yet in the game
In this stage, you’re forever young, bulletproof, unencumbered and, as the song “Fame” proclaims, “gonna live forever.”
Stage #2. In the game but not ready for prime time
In this stage of young adulthood, you get a job, form a serious relationship, join the rat race, and start a family. Unless you’re exceptionally bright, talented, and lucky in your work life, you’re probably not in the starting lineup.
Stage #3. In your prime
In this stage, you’re sitting on top of the world—riding high. Perhaps you’re a bit arrogant and ego inflated, but you’re thriving at work and/or in your family.
Stage #4. A bit past your prime (but still in the game)
Sports heroes stay in the ring and play long past their prime. Bright, talented people, convinced that they’re too old, retire prematurely and miss out on their best years.
Stage #5. Transitioning out of the game
The decision to take your foot off the gas, get off the highway, and retire is a major step. You’ll either reinvent yourself and find meaning apart from your work life . . . or stare into the abyss.
Stage #6 In elderhood
As elders, you may focus on anything from crossword puzzles, golf, and painting to grandparenting, lunches with friends, and/or mentoring young professionals.
Stage #7 Running out of time
Sooner or later you sense—or simply know—that you’re close to life’s end.
Now that you have a better feel for what time it is in your life, make a list of “the 10 things I can do right now to begin making this time in my life wonderful and set the stage for my best possible future.”
Exercise #2 Overcoming Age/Status Insecurity
Looking for love, acceptance, and approval/attention by elevating and inflating our age status in the eyes of society sets us up for eventual disappointment and failure. Being young in a youth-worshiping society, we’re afforded many privileges. We’re a part of something and in sync with the times. That is, we belong. As we get older, our status diminishes, and we’re prone to feeling that we most certainly do not belong. Unsure of our worth and riddled with status insecurity, we pressure ourselves to look and act younger—to fit in. And we feel despair when forced to face the inevitable.
To overcome these feelings, please read the following affirmations to yourself (in the mirror) or to a trusted friend on a regular basis:
Affirmation #1. I release all feelings of embarrassment, fear, and shame, as well as the need to apologize, explain, or defend myself when I’m asked, “How old are you?”
Affirmation #2. From this day forward, I greet my older self with love, acceptance, compassion, support, and understanding.
Affirmation #3. I summon the courage I need to move forward and let go of old fears, hurts, regrets, expectations, and self-limiting ideas about my age that keep me from harvesting the joy, peace, curiosity, and love in each day of my life.
Affirmation #4. I do whatever is necessary to put my house in order, simplify, and unclutter my life . . . and I pay the good forward.
Affirmation #5. I cultivate the emotional strength to make peace with life, let go, and find joy in each and every moment.
Finding and affirming your true value, worth, and wealth—and uncovering sources of joy and peace in this life—is a matter of self-care, compassion, lovingkindness, and true generosity . . . not chronological years!
Exercise #3 Freeing Myself Emotionally
Please complete the following sentences:
When it comes to my age:
I could be more self-accepting and less self-rejecting if I allowed and/or freed myself of:
I could be more at peace and less conflicted if I vented about and/or let go of:
The fears, resentments, resistance, and objections to getting older that I need to vent about are:
Some of the ways I could be more allowing of life (the way it is) and joyful are:
Learning to free yourself of the crippling fear and dread of getting old, and losing status and worth, takes great strength and courage. It happens one moment of sensitivity and self-compassion at a time. The next time you find yourself asking, “What time is it in my life?” and then realize you’re feeling down, take a deep breath, tune in, and whisper, “This is my time to live!” Let go of who you were—stop trying to be that person—and be who you are today. It’s okay to mourn the loss of your younger self, but count the blessings you have in the present. Allow the optimistic 30- or 40-year-old you were to become the joyful 50-, 60-, or 70-year old you are in this moment. Be the best human being possible, and give yourself a congratulatory wink and a smile in the mirror.
It’s all part of being alive—being human, that is. Sooner or later the question “What time is it?” comes to its natural conclusion. We look back at the end of our lives to see what kind of legacy we’ve left for others—and what we will pay forward. Sitting in the shade of a tree planted by someone from another time, we have the choice to calm our hearts and express gratitude for the life we were given—or turn our hearts off by becoming indifferent to what our children, grandkids, and future generations will inherit.
So, what time is it? Well, it may be time to kick up some dust and enjoy this season of your life. And while you’re at it, take a few moments to plant a “Giving Tree” in whose shade someone will sit in the years after you’re gone. Replenish a rain forest. Use your voice to plant seeds of hope, empathy, peace, courage, and civility in your community, nation, and the world. Or give generously to those in need. The life that goes on when someone sits in the shade of a tree you planted is a legacy of love that you, and those who follow you, can be forever proud of.