COVID has aged me.
The struggles, the losses, the feeling of being trapped, the depletion of energy, the repetition of days, all have conspired to age me considerably.
It doesn’t matter if others can see that I’ve aged.
I feel it.
Mary Pipher who wrote the best-selling book on teenage girls called Reviving Ophelia, wrote a book on the topic called Women Rowing North, Navigating Life’s Currents and Flourishing as We Age.
The title got to me. I imagined all the women I know in canoes rowing north, against the current, paddling with ferocity while laughing and waving to one another. Just the thought of being part of something bigger than my own situation calmed me down.
One of my favorite quotes about aging is by Ingrid Bergman who wrote “getting old is like climbing a mountain. You get a little out of breath but the view is much better.”
For me, this is a poignant reminder of the gift of aging; perspective.
Mary Pipher writes:
“The core concern of this life stage, with all of its perils and pleasures, is how to cultivate resilient responses to the challenges we face. Resilience is built by attention and intention. We can take responsibility for our attitudes and focus on our strengths and joys. We can go deep and face truth squarely. We can learn the skills that allow us to adapt to anything. Yes, anything.”
Her advice sounds similar to what I share with my coaching clients of all ages.
Pay attention to what’s happening.
Be intentional about everything; your partner, your passion, your time.
Go deep by meditating and reflecting and face the truth squarely.
As we age, we don’t need to climb the ladder of success as defined but external forces and opt instead for more internal satisfaction.
We focus on thriving rather than striving.
Isn’t that what we want at any stage of life?
I am on the cusp of significant change in my life.
In fact, it seems that every conversation I have has to do with navigating change; in my work life, my parents’ lives, my children’s lives, my siblings’ lives.
I love the fact that Mary Pipher talks about her body aging while her soul expands. That's what I am going for and you can too.
We can hold seemingly diametrically opposed truths at the same time.
Most of us are struggling with one thing while celebrating something else. We can be facing tremendous loss and great possibility.
To be happy, Pipher continues, “we cannot just settle for being a diminished version of our younger selves. We must change the ways we think and behave..(and develop) attitudes and skills… to let go of the past, embrace the new, cope with loss, and experience wisdom, authenticity and bliss.
Seems like a prescription for life, not just for aging.
Pipher outlines a number of areas that we should devote ourselves to so that we ward off the negative side effects of aging. These are a few of her suggestions for thriving.
1. A commitment to growth and being curious about everyone and everything around you.
2. Acceptance, surrendering to what is.
3. Embracing friends and family and leaning in to how important connection is.
4. Becoming comfortable being alone; distinguishing solitude from loneliness
5. Getting to know and understand ourselves better; self awareness
6. Making intentional choices about our priorities and how to spend our time.
7. Giving ourselves “small treats” every day.
8. Creating community and giving of yourself to that community.
My favorite chapter has to do with “creating resplendent narratives”, by which the author means thinking and speaking about one’s life focused on one’s strength and resilience. Learning to share from a place of pride in what we have accomplished emotionally in our life, where we have shown our true colors, embraced and overcome challenges to become the extraordinary people that we are is critical.
In the words of the Native American poet Joy Harjo, “It is memory that provides the heart with impetus, fuels the brain and propels the corn plant from seed to fruit.”
“We can’t change our pasts, but we can still change our stories..Stories allow us to make sense of our lives, resolve our omnipresent contradictions and understand ourselves and others. They give us context for comprehending the flow of life that constantly surrounds us… We can remember our history of resilient responses. We can compose narratives that serve us… We can ask, How did that make me stronger? What did I learn from that experience? What am I proud of when I look back?
Creating meaning in our lives really is our only option. And that is the case no matter what stage of life you are in. We arrive at true meaning when we know deep in our core being that change is constant. The best parenting advice I ever got was to remember that "everything is a stage." Critical to hold onto during the toddler and teenage years! It's the same with life. We can learn a lot from the Buddhist tradition which teaches that everything is impermanent.
Practitioners have always understood impermanence as the cornerstone of Buddhist teachings and practice. All that exists is impermanent; nothing lasts. Therefore nothing can be grasped or held onto. When we don’t fully appreciate this simple but profound truth we suffer.The Buddha’s final words express this: Impermanence is inescapable. Everything vanishes.
Thinking about aging in this context is such a relief.
We are all aging at every moment. Every stage of life, just like every thing in life, is impermanent. Change is the constant.
So, we are better served to stop clinging, wishing we could stay in any particular life stage and surrender to the one truth: Everything is impermanent.
Striving is clinging. Thriving is letting go and being present.
I have learned a great deal watching someone I love dearly struggle with a terminal illness. His commitment to the moment is inspiring.
For him, thriving has replaced striving.
Meaning has replaced the unimportant.
Connection has replaced everything. He knows that nothing lasts forever and he lives live with a commitment, a love, a passion for whatever he is involved with in the present moment.
Whether we are young, old, vibrant or ill, we and everything around is changes. Nothing will stay the same.
It’s up to us to choose to create a life of meaning, filled with purpose and connection, making every moment count.
There’s something about the Six Perfections in Buddhism, that speak to me. The following qualities are considered to be the way to enlightenment. At the very least, they are, for me, wise lessons to live by.
Generosity or Giving. Rejoicing in sharing..
Ethics. Non-harming others, not stealing, not creating problems, being honest, truthful, and kind.
Patience. Tolerance. Forbearance. Not getting angry. Appreciating different situations and people as a wonderful opportunity to learn.
Effort - being enthusiastic in our efforts as we do everything.
Meditation, Learning how to make mind attentive so we gain insights.
Wisdom: Seeing things how they really are not how we want them to be.
We are instructed to use our daily life to develop to these practices. It’s all about brining awareness to everything we do. When we do that, we become closer to our truest selves. We can learn to dissolve the small self and become more present to the vastness of life and love.
These “perfections” align beautifully with the lessons in Women Rowing North and together offer a helpful, realistic and inspiring path to our own contentment.
Pipher concludes her book with “all great truths are paradoxical We are all together and alone. Life is joyous and tragic. In a state of bliss, paradoxes can be held without tension. Everything seems so connected and inevitable."
Let’s all breathe deeply together, allowing the sensations of both joy and pain, youth and aging, fear and love, disappointment and passion to co-exist.
Be open. Embrace it all.
In the words of the poet John Quinn,
A voice is sent
To calm our deepest fears
A hearty laugh
Will banish all our tears
Words will wing
Our dreaming even higher
A mind will set
Our imagining afire.”
May you listen to that voice, engage in hearty laugher, express your dreams and allow for wondrous imagining.. Heed the iconic words of Mary Oliver and consider, "what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" This is the question for us all, whether you are young, middle aged or older.
Embrace it all in this one short life. Hope to see you at a Gathering, this and every Sunday at 4 PT/ 7 ET. With love and light,