Late life development is riddled with paradox: We grow more comfortable with who we are (Authenticity) and at the same time become less concerned with ourselves (Self-Transcending Generosity). We are generally kinder and more understanding of others (Contentment and Compassion), but are also more willing to be ferocious when something important is at stake, and subtler methods have proven ineffective (Necessary Fierceness).

Being raised in the late forties and fifties to be a “good girl,” it took me a long time to recognize ferociousness as a gift or grace of later life. And in today’s volatile world, it is important to emphasize that Necessary Fierceness is not raw rage, violence, or vengeance. And it does not involve the destruction of innocent people for a cause, no matter how holy. It is a blend of anger’s heat and discerning restraint that is sometimes necessary to stop a bully in his tracks, to restore justice, or set an important limit.

Kids of Bhopal

Humankind has long looked to its elders to provide the fierceness that is necessary to protect the innocent, initiate the young into adulthood, address injustice, or offer correction when needed. These are not easy roles, nor popular ones, and they require qualities of character that typically flower in the winter of life, such as compassion, wise discernment, and the courageous willingness to do what must be done for the greater good, despite the cost to oneself. In many Native American tribes, for example, if the Grandmothers determine that a chief is not serving the tribe well, they give the word and he steps aside. Saying no to the status quo is one form of Necessary Fierceness.

Another way to think about Necessary Fierceness is to liken it to being a wise warrior. In its most primitive form, the warrior archetype epitomizes the underbelly of power and aggression: it is self-serving, ruthless, and obsessed with winning. However, wise warriors, says Jungian analyst Carol Pearson, are respected “for their toughness and for their intelligent assessment of people and situations, so they can fight when fighting is called for and seek compromise when that is possible.” (Awakening the Heroes Within, p. 104)

If anger is the fire that fuels fierceness, restraint is the virtue that refines it into a force that brings healing rather than more suffering. Restraint means being thoughtful and disciplined about our speech and actions, rather than giving into the heat of the moment and striking out at those who are causing others to suffer. In Refuge, author and conservationist Terry Tempest Williams tells a story of rage and restraint that occurred when she discovered that a nearby bird sanctuary had been completely and deliberately destroyed. “I knew rage,” she writes. “It was fire in my stomach with no place to go.” At the same time she recognized the importance of restraint—“the steel partition between a rational mind and a violent one.”

Witnessing injustice and the suffering it causes can ignite fury and rage in our bodies that could easily lead to violent retaliation, were it not for that steel partition and our willingness to honor it. Restraint is the willingness to pause—to not lash out — to see the situation in all its complexity and to discover a life-serving way to address it.

Serious Older Woman

Taking a stand on behalf of a just cause can easily degrade into a hard-hearted stance against those on the other side of the aisle, the street, or the border. Without compassion for everyone involved, advocates quickly turn into adversaries. It is very easy to slide into blaming, taking sides against some as we defend others, or becoming attached to being right and winning, all of which inflame rather than alleviate conflict. Hard as it is in the face of suffering, remaining respectful and openhearted toward everyone involved, especially those with whom we disagree, is vital if fierceness is to be effective and healing.

Nonviolent activist Barbara Deming emphasizes the importance of meeting those we oppose with a combination of powerful assertiveness and respect because “we can put more pressure on the antagonist for whom we show human concern.” (We Cannot Live Without our Lives, p. 51) In addition to its non-harming effectiveness, nonviolence has another obvious advantage: unlike violent speech and action, which add fuel to fire, peaceful resistance breaks the cycle of violence and retaliation so prevalent in the world right now.

Attitudes have been shown to have a profound effect on our lives, and two are essential for late life well-being: healthy defiance and optimism. Working free of the pervasive but mistaken idea that aging is an inevitable slide into misery (healthy defiance) and focusing on what is possible, rather than on what has been lost (optimism), both enhance emotional well-being and increase the likelihood that we will engage in behaviors that promote healthy aging, such as exercising regularly and maintaining nourishing relationships with other people.

Healthy Defiance

In his cross-national study of centenarians, psychologist Mario Martinez found that the single greatest determinant of vibrant old age is “healthy defiance” of limiting cultural messages about aging. In The MindBody Code, he writes, “While Western cultures tend to conclude that value, potency, and activity decrease with age, centenarians do not buy into this proposition; they view their journey through life . . . [as increasing] their worthiness, complexity, and passion.”

Senior Farmer with Thumbs Up

An essential first step toward healthy defiance is staying alert to ageist comments and questioning them, whether they come through others or from within ourselves. The air is thick with offhand remarks about how awful getting older is: “That’s age for you,” “I hate getting old,” and “It’s only going to get worse.” A simple heartfelt statement, such as, “I’m finding that a lot of things get better with age,” can move the conversation in a more age-friendly direction. Over time, gently challenging mistaken assumptions about age can help wear down ageist attitudes and stereotypes.

Being aware of our own age-unfriendly attitudes is especially important. For example, many of us terrorize ourselves with the fear of dementia whenever we (temporarily) forget a name, a word, or the reason we walked into a particular room. Statistically, it is far more likely that we are not paying attention, are under stress, or are getting insufficient sleep. Severe dementia, like debilitating frailty, is the exception, not the rule; the majority of older adults do not experience them.

In “Images Versus Experience of the Aging Body” social gerontologist Peter Öberg points out, “The problems usually ascribed to old age . . . do not correspond to old people’s own experiences . . . The [gerontology] field has been dominated by a ‘misery perspective’ focusing on ‘problems of aging.’ However, we know that it is only a minority of older people who experience these difficulties.”

Healthy defiance of inaccurate and limiting attitudes toward aging is vital because a loss-focused view of aging typically goes hand in hand with unhealthy practices like overeating and a lack of exercise. A 2016 (TILDA) study at Trinity College, Dublin, revealed that “if negative attitudes towards ageing are carried throughout life they can have a detrimental, measurable effect on mental, physical and cognitive health.” And in their 2002 study at Yale University, Becca Levy and Martin Slade found that internalizing negative stereotypes of age can reduce life expectancy by more than seven and a half years.

Happy Retirement Group

Optimism

Numerous studies have demonstrated that optimism tends to increase in later life. The reasons for the link between aging and optimism are not fully understood, but regardless of the mechanism, an optimistic outlook – about aging in particular and about life in general – contributes to late life thriving. An optimistic attitude toward aging entails focusing on what is possible (now what?), rather than on what has been lost.

In her extensive study of the long-lived Abkhasian people, anthropologist Sula Benet  notes, “Abkhasians are a life-loving, optimistic people . . . [They] expect a long and useful life and look forward to old age.” Quoting an optimistic and vibrant ninety-nine-year-old man from the village of Achandara, she writes, “It isn’t time to die yet. I am needed by my children and grandchildren, and it isn’t bad in this world—except that . . . it has become difficult to climb trees.”

Other researchers have found that a positive view of one’s own aging is associated with improved social networks (Menkin et al, 2016), better cognitive and physical health (Levy, 2003) and higher levels of subjective well-being (Steverink et al, 2001). Best of all, positive psychology, cognitive / behavioral therapy, narrative psychology, and neuroscience all suggest that it is possible to change our mindset by becoming aware of undermining attitudes and beliefs, seeking evidence of a more positive (and accurate) “counter story,” and actively working to “sculpt” our brain in a more life-enhancing direction.

This is the essence of healthy defiance coupled with optimism: question limiting and negative assumptions about age, seek accurate heartening counter-evidence, and frequently “marinate” your brain in age-friendly imagery. For some excellent tools, based in neuroscience and contemplative traditions, see Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius’s Buddha’s Brain and Mario Martinez’s The Mind/Body Code.

Yesterday would have been Marion Woodman’a ninetieth birthday. For those unfamiliar with her name, she was a Canadian Jungian analyst, a teacher, an author, and a remarkable human being, loved by thousands of women (and men) around the world. I only spent two weeks in Marion’s presence (one in Chartres and one in London, Ontario, where she and her husband Ross lived), but her books, workshops, and her way of being in the world have been an enormous blessing and inspiration to me – as a writer and a person – and this blog is written to honor her birth, recent death, and her enormous contributions to humankind.

marion

Photo used with permission from Marlene Schiwy and Lael McCall www.marleneschiwy.com

Trusting the Cycles of Life

“I was three years old when I made the most important psychological discovery of my life. I discovered that a living creature, obeying its own inner laws, moves through cycles of growth, dies, and is reborn as a new creation.”

This opening sentence of The Pregnant Virgin was my first encounter with Marion, and I instantly knew I had found a teacher. She goes on to tell a charming, powerful story about the “sluggish” but steady transformation of Catherine Caterpillar into an apparently dead chrysalis, and then watching, with awe, the emergence of a shimmering butterfly. Marion’s words conveyed something I’d vaguely sensed in my own life but had not taken to heart. They also brought the realization that I was in a chrysalis of my own as a forty-something year old woman in the midst of a painful, disorienting divorce. And they gave me hope: “Birth is the death of the life we have known; death is the birth of the life we have yet to live.”

Coming Home to Ourselves

“If you travel far enough, one day you will recognize yourself coming down to meet yourself. And you will say – ‘yes!’” From Addiction to Perfection

Probably Marion’s greatest contribution was her wise, loving, sometimes fierce encouragement of women becoming fully and freely themselves. She was at home in herself and found her greatest internal allies in her dreams and in her body. In Dancing in the Flames, she advises, “If you want to live your own life, your [dream] images and your body are your individual guides. Together, they strengthen your inner core.”

Marion knew, from the inside out, that coming home to ourselves – for men and women – requires letting go of our illusions as well as years of practice in acknowledging the truth. In Coming Home to Myself, she writes, “A life truly lived constantly burns away veils of illusion, burns away what is no longer relevant, gradually reveals our essence, until, at last, we are strong enough to stand in our naked truth.”

Age is also an ally in our Homecoming, and it was from Marion I first learned that the word crone likely derived from corone, which means “crown.” She speaks eloquently about a woman’s journey toward becoming the queen of her own life in The Crown of Age (an  audiobook). And in Dancing in the Flames, she and co-author Elinor Dickson write, “Crone energy is energy that has been distilled through years of attempting to speak straight from our own reality. One day we are surprised by the sound of our own voice coming straight from its ground in our own body.”

Marion and me

Love … and Writing

“Love is the real power. It’s the energy that cherishes. The more you work with that energy, the more you will see how people respond naturally to it, and the more you will want to use it. It brings out your creativity, and helps everyone around you flower. Your children, the people you work with — everyone blooms.”

In the spring of 2007 or 2008, I had the privilege of attending three workshops with Marion – the first on yoga and the body, the second on dreams, and the third, on poetry, was held in the home she shared with her husband Ross, a professor of literature. Being in the presence of these two was an immersion in love – open-heartedness, deep respect and listening, humor, enjoyment, and mutual delight.

Marion talked a bit about writing on one of those days, and almost a decade later her words were a catalyst for publishing Winter’s Graces. She told us that at some point you just have to call a book complete, even though there might be a chapter or a section that could be better with more time. You just have to let the book go and see what happens.

Thank you, Marion, for that – and for everything else.

Late summer into fall seems to be the time that humankind sets aside time to honor its elders. Senior Citizens Day was originally celebrated in the US on August 14, the date on which Franklin Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act in 1935. Fifty-plus years later, in 1988, then-president Ronald Regan declared August 21 to be national Senior Citizens Day. Two years after that, the UN General Assembly proclaimed World Senior Citizens Day, which was first celebrated on October 1, 1991, but is now observed annually on August 21. And in Japan – where elders are generally held in very high regard – Respect for the Aged Day is celebrated each year on the third Monday of September.

Three themes echo through all of these elder-honoring observances: celebrating the ways in which older people contribute to the human family, expressing gratitude and appreciation to and for them, and ensuring that seniors receive the support and assistance they need. For example, on designating August 21 as Senior Citizens Day Ronald Regan wrote:

“For all they have achieved throughout life and for all they continue to accomplish, we owe older citizens our thanks and a heartfelt salute. We can best demonstrate our gratitude and esteem by making sure that our communities are good places in which to mature and grow older – places in which older people can participate to the fullest and can find the encouragement, acceptance, assistance, and services they need to continue to lead lives of independence and dignity.”

mom and daughter

Celebrating Elders’ Contributions

In many places around the world, from 21st century Japan to indigenous tribal cultures in Africa and elsewhere, the honoring of older people is a way of life. In Japan elders are regarded as “national treasures,” and in tribal cultures they play a variety of essential roles. As story-tellers, initiators of the young, chiefs and clan mothers, elders help transmit shared values to younger generations, serve as role models and provide guidance, and offer wise perspectives on important and complex matters, with detached concern for individuals, the tribe as a whole, and the natural world that sustains them.

In the US and other countries where attitudes toward older people are conflicted and less respectful, holidays that honor them are essential, for the well-being of seniors themselves and for our collective well-being. As Hubert Humphrey observed in a speech on November 1, 1977, “…the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life – the sick, the needy, and the handicapped.”

On August 14 or 21, or sometime in between, consider ways you might honor the older people who have enhanced your life or the quality of life for others. Here are a few possibilities:

Spend some time recalling older people who have blessed your life in some way – a mentor, a grandparent, an older author, someone in your community, or an elder you have never met personally but whose example and legacy have contributed to the human family.

Express gratitude to these elders in person if possible, or in a letter or by phone, letting them know specifically what you appreciate about them and how they have affected you and perhaps others as well.

If you know them well and they live nearby, invite them to do something with you that they would enjoy – going on a walk, attending an art opening, sharing a meal. Or suggest a visit and bring a token of appreciation – a small bouquet of flowers for a lover of nature, a card you and/or your children have made, or a container of their favorite food. If the older person is a member of your family, invite other members to join you and consider making such a gathering an annual event.

If the older person is deceased, you might pay tribute by making a donation to a group whose work he or she valued and supported. And if the elder is a cultural figure to whom you have no direct access, observe a few moments of silent gratitude for his or her life and contributions.

grandma and Grandson Gardening

Honoring Ourselves and One Another

Honoring ourselves as older persons is often more difficult than honoring others, but it is equally, if not more important, especially in cultures that are less than friendly toward age. In his cross-national study of centenarians, psychologist Mario Martinez found that the single greatest determinant of vibrant old age is “healthy defiance” of limiting cultural messages about aging. In The MindBody Code, he writes, “While Western cultures tend to conclude that value, potency, and activity decrease with age, centenarians do not buy into this proposition; they view their journey through life . . . [as increasing] their worthiness, complexity, and passion.”

Numerous studies have demonstrated that negative views of age, which are often unconsciously absorbed, can become self-fulfilling prophesies. Believing that “it’s all down hill anyway,” it is easy to become complacent and forego health-friendly choices and activities, thus helping bring to pass the very losses we fear. A recent (2016) study at Trinity College, Dublin, revealed that negative attitudes toward aging carried throughout life can have a measurable, detrimental effect on mental, physical, and cognitive health. And Becca Levy and her associates (2002) found that internalizing negative stereotypes of age reduced life expectancy by more than seven years, exerting a more powerful effect on survival than gender, socioeconomic status, or smoking.

We now know that the things we most fear about age, like debilitating frailty and severe dementia are the exception, not the rule. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, narrative therapy, and neuroscience all suggest that ageist attitudes can be replaced with more optimistic (and more accurate) views of aging through questioning assumptions, seeking accurate and heartening information, and actively “rewiring” our brains through a variety of meditative practices (more on these another day.) Numerous studies have revealed that having a positive view of one’s own aging is associated with higher levels of life satisfaction (Brothers et al, 2015), better self-rated health (Beyer et al, 2015), and improved social networks (Menkin et al, 2016).

If you are over 65 or so, take some time to reflect on your own gifts and the ways you contribute to others’ lives – with friends and family, through work / volunteering, in your community. What specific qualities and skills do recognize in yourself as an older person? how do they benefit others? Take some time to recall and savor memories of feeling connected and contributing to others’ lives.

Consider hosting a mutual appreciation lunch for a few older friends sometime between August 14-21, or anytime! Invite them to bring food to share, as well as memories and appreciations of one another. Set aside time during the gathering to acknowledge the gifts you see in each other and to share a favorite memory of each person there. You might consider providing some bubbly (alcoholic and non-) for mutual toasting.

A paradox lies at the heart of human development: in the winter of life we become more freely, audaciously, and powerfully ourselves (Authenticity) and at the same time, we grow less concerned with ourselves (Self-Transcending Generosity). A feeling of kinship with other human beings and with all of Life often intensifies with age, and the sense of being a separate, solitary self is muted by a deepening experience of interconnectedness.

As we come to know ourselves as part of the web of life, self-importance and self-centeredness wane, and a more humble and generous way of being in the world emerges. Our unique, authentic core does not disappear, but we grow more willing to transcend (literally, “to climb over”) our personal concerns for the sake of something greater.

Web of Life

Web of Life by Ajith Aravind, photographer. photos.ajitharavind.com

Self-Transcendence in Later Life

The broadening of focus beyond the personal self is a recurring theme in gerontology, human development, psychology, psychiatry, theology, and other fields. One of my favorite descriptions of this trend comes from Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward. “In the second half of life, it is good just to be part of the general dance. We do not have to stand out, make defining moves, or be better than anyone else on the dance floor. Life is more participatory than assertive, and there is no need for strong or further self-definition.”

Carl Jung was the first in Western psychology to recognize that in midlife we begin to outgrow our ego-based identity and are pulled toward a broader and deeper sense of Self that is uniquely individual but also collective. More recently, the Swedish sociologist Lars Tornstam has observed the waning of self-centeredness in later life and the evolution of a broader, more “cosmic” view of the world. Many of Tornstam’s older subjects describe an increased feeling of affinity with other people (including those in past and future generations) and a growing sense of communion with the mystery of life-and-death. Sensing our place in something greater than ourselves, says Tornstam, draws us forward and outward, into a more altruistic relationship with the world.

The 250 Japanese older adults who offered to take the place of young people assigned to clean up nuclear waste after the 2011 earthquake are a powerful example of Self-Transcending Generosity. A desire to give back often intensifies with age, and communities around the world are enriched by the large numbers of elder volunteers who collect and distribute food to the hungry, tutor children, offer professional or management assistance to non-profits, serve as foster grandparents, raise funds for disaster relief, and otherwise contribute their life experience, skills, and love to the greater human family.

Celtic knot

Celtic knot – photograph by William A. Young (feralwords.com)

The Spirituality and Science of Self-Transcendence

The endless, intertwining thread that runs through all of life is reflected in ancient art,  and recalling our place in a bigger, more inclusive Self is a perennial theme that runs through the world’s religions and spiritual traditions. The process is referred to by many names (ego transcendence, self-forgetting, cosmic consciousness, spiritual awakening, samadhi (union), and the realization of the higher self), but the theme is similar: originally and essentially, we are interconnected in the unending circle of life. For a time, we forget our true identity and unity, and the purpose of life is to wake up and remember who we really are – and to live accordingly.

In recent years, scientists in many fields have begun confirming the oneness of life that spiritual masters have taught for millennia. For example, neuroscientists have discovered that when one person witnesses another’s experience, certain “mirror cells” in the same area of the brain are activated in both participant and observer. Dr. Vittorio Gallese points out, “This neural mechanism is involuntary and automatic . . . It seems we’re wired to see other people as similar to us, rather than different.” In other words, we are neurologically designed to recognize and respond to one another as kin.

Physicists, too, have confirmed that we live in an essentially interdependent universe. Experiments have revealed that even when particles are separated by vast distances, what happens to one particle has a demonstrable effect on the other. And Albert Einstein’s observations convinced him that the fundamental truth of existence is relatedness, not separation: “A human being is a part of the whole, called by us ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts, and feelings as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.”

The shift from a personality-centered identity to a more inclusive one is a developmental inclination in the winter of life, yet such a fundamental change rarely occurs quickly or smoothly. It challenges the claims of the ego or “little self” and pulls us beyond familiar ways of seeing and being. In addition, this interconnected and interdependent view appears to run counter to much of what twenty-first-century American culture holds dear: independence, self-determination, and individual accomplishment. Yet autonomy and interdependence are not really opposites. We are both individuals and part of something larger, and our unique life experience and authentic gifts are what we have to share with the world.

As Bishop Desmond Tutu points out, “We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world.” Age is an ally in reminding us that we are each a unique and beautiful singer in the great chorus of Life.

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