When anti-wrinkle cream begins to outprice gold, it is hard to focus on the benefits of aging. Paradoxically, increasing numbers of people are living longer into their nineties while age is devalued and the quest for eternal youth intensifies. With this shift in priorities, the world will lose the accumulated wisdom of many lifetimes. It will be comparable to throwing every known map into a great bonfire, then expecting the next generation to find its way in an uncharted world. It is time for us to age consciously, defining the meaning of our lives well past the wrinkle-free years.
Sophisticated society is living an oxymoron. We speak of the “veneration of youth,” forgetting that by definitionHI, veneration is reserved for the wisdom and dignity that come with age. Where there are strong oral traditions, people eagerly harvest the wisdom of their elders. Most respected are the sages, those with the ability to learn from past mistakes and successes, and pass this experience on to the young lions they teach. But our society is so tied up in technology and the written word, that we neglect the importance of listening and tend to dismiss any idea that isn’t “cutting edge.” In the process, we are losing sight of the “sage-ing” process.
Young people aren’t the only ones caught up in youth worship, older people fall for it, too. Rarely do elders take the time to enjoy a chorus of well versed inner voices that can give vision and meaning to elderlife. It’s like ignoring a the wisdom of a panel of experts. It doesn’t make sense, but we do it. These experienced voices can open our minds to our own personal histories, teach us to learn from past mistakes, help us engage in the freeing work of forgiveness, find our place in the universe, and accept, even value our own mortality.
The goal of eternal youth is so alluring that many retirees don’t retire: instead, they pursue a most un-sage second adolescence or extend careers that distract them from serious contemplation of their lives. Increasingly, we view physical exercise not as a way to prepare for healthy aging, but to preserve the appearance of youth. Yet focusing on the physicality of life — a youthful body, a cure for every ill –inevitably forces mental and spiritual strengths into the back seat. Research shows that maintaining a balance of physical, spiritual and mental strength has a significant effect on the length and quality of life.
Living longer should not mean continuing to act and think as you have always done. It should mean appreciating a greater opportunity to be a sage: to conduct life review and life repair and to prepare for mortality with a sense of the wisdom others will inherit from you. By viewing the elder years as a time to consciously slow down, people step more easily into their elder years. And in the last the last stage of life, they can accept with grace the help of others.
Ethical wills are an excellent tool for conscious aging, and like traditional wills they are a work in progress that can be started at any time. They are highly individualized documents, but always seek to pass on accumulated wisdom. Your ethical will would state your beliefs and might re-tell the stories that taught you right from wrong, important from unimportant. They provide a tool for children and grandchildren who might never meet their elders, or listen at leisure when they are together. For fragmented, widely scattered families. ethical wills are creating relationships that will extend through many generations.
Writing an ethical will gives many people a comfortable knowledge, even anonymously, they will be the sages of future generations. And by reminding the writer of the importance of bequeathing spiritual wisdom along with the family china, they add dignity to life. Teaching always puts values to the test and can lend perspective to any subject matter. When you are the subject matter, a well-constructed lesson becomes paramount.
Life repair is a blend of life review and forgiveness. By taking the time to look back over our lives, we can examine our successes and failures. We find places we hurt others, and where we were hurt. But in these painful events are the most powerful teachers of what we come to value in ourselves and others. By looking them squarely in the eye, we extract the positive aspects and let go of the exhausting anger that lingers from hurt. New energy comes from that release, and of course, a new stage of wisdom.
As we enter the second half of life in larger numbers, it becomes more compelling that ever to find the meaning in living beyond the child bearing and child rearing years. As people age, entering perhaps the empty nest stage of their life, they have more time to focus on themselves. Without the demands of family and career building, they can find a part of themselves that they put aside after adolescence. This often included a sense of excitement, a determination to DO something important, to change the world! By reconnecting with that sense of excitement and locking into it, spiritual growth continues With this renewed sense of purpose, many people find they can increase their contribution tothe enrichment of self, community, even the planet. This will be their legacy.
Dr. Turin holds a doctorate, and is a licensed psychologist with offices in Lawrenceville. She was a facilitator of the Grief Support Group at the Princeton YWCA. Kate O’Neill collaborated with Dr. Turin on this article.