Paring down is a natural inclination as we age, and it can be an ally at this time of year when too-muchness tends to expand exponentially. Several late-life trends move us toward simplification—our physical energy wanes somewhat; the nearness of death and the preciousness of life become more palpable; appearances, achievement, and acquiring tend to lose their appeal; and our capacity for savoring ordinary moments deepens. All of these help us to learn that less really is more – and to live accordingly.
The Art of Relinquishment
In the winter of life, we become more aware that we can no longer do it all. Our energy and our time on this earth are limited, and it becomes necessary to let go of what is no longer meaningful in order to free ourselves to pursue what is. It is no accident that in myths and folktales it is most often the old woman who is called upon to cut away or burn up the superfluous, inauthentic, and unimportant. The inner strength, courage, fierceness, and wisdom that often ripen in later life enable us to discern what is life-giving and what is not, and to allow what must die, to die. The spare winter landscape is Nature’s reminder of the beauty and harmony that letting go of non-essentials brings.
Erik and Joan Erikson and coauthor Helen Kivnick observe that paring down in later life leads to greater aliveness. In Vital Involvement in Old Age, they write, “Old age is necessarily a time of relinquishing—of giving up old friends, old roles, earlier work that was once meaningful, and even possessions that belong to a previous stage of life and are now an impediment to . . . resiliency and freedom.”
Psychologist Robert Peck describes later life as a time of progressively letting go of limiting dimensions of our identity, beginning with the roles we have played in our families and careers. As we release our attachment to social standing and past accomplishments, we are free to discover and develop dimensions of ourselves beyond the borders of familiar roles.
Similarly, as we learn to work with and accept the limitations and losses of our aging body, we recognize that there is more to us than our physicality. Finally, says Peck, we transcend the ego, the limited sense of a personal, isolated self. This surrendering brings a sense of kinship with other people and species, and at the same time helps us come to terms with our mortality.
The fear of death typically wanes in the winter of life, and many have noted the paradox that befriending death brings us more fully into life. As Duane Elgin explains in his book Voluntary Simplicity, “Death, then, is an uncompromising friend that brings us back to the reality of life. . . . In consciously honoring the fact of our physical death, we are thereby empowered to penetrate through the social pretense, ostentation, and confusion that normally obscure our sense of what is truly significant. An awareness of death is an ally for infusing our lives with a sense of immediacy, perspective, and proportion.”
Savoring and Delight
As we simplify our life, relinquishing the nonessential and focusing on what matters most, we renew our acquaintance with the wonder, delight, and timelessness of early childhood. We become recipients of one of the sweetest gifts of later life: savoring.
In her late-life memoir, The Measure of My Days, Florida Scott-Maxwell describes the delight she experienced savoring ordinary moments in the winter of her life. “Now each extra day is a gift. An extra day in which I may gain some new understanding, see a beauty, feel love, or know the richness of watching my youngest great grandson express his every like and dislike with force and sweetness. . . . Who knows, it may matter deeply how we end so mysterious a thing as living . . . I’ve taken a long time to feel it as very truth: The last years may matter most.”
Paring Down as the World Gears Up
Simplifying is an ongoing process requiring flexibility, ingenuity, permission to change our mind, and the willingness to keep experimenting. Social visionary Duane Elgin explains, “This [simple] way of life is not a static condition to be achieved, but an ever-changing balance that must be continuously and consciously made real. . . . How we simplify is a very personal affair. . . . We each know where our lives are unnecessarily complicated. We are all painfully aware of the clutter and pretense that weigh upon us and make our passage through the world more cumbersome and awkward.”
At his time of year simplifying can free us from the burden of too-muchness and help us to rediscover the joys of paring down and savoring. Although we must each find our own way toward simplicity, here are a few suggestions that might prove useful for the winter holidays or for later life in general:
Keep to-do lists short and focused (limited to 2-3 high-priority items for that day only.)
Pay attention to your body, emotions, and dreams and take breaks when you need them – enjoy a walk in nature, share a cup of tea with a friend, take a nap if you’re tired.
Notice and savor “chance” encounters with other people and with animals and other creatures that happen to cross your path. All are potential messengers. (Jamie Sams’ Medicine Cards and Animal Speak by Ted Andrews are excellent resources for better understanding Nature’s inhabitants and what each has to teach us.)
Keep gift giving simple (less is more) and heart-centered. Rather than buying material gifts, consider making them, or sharing an experience, like treating a friend to a lunchtime visit or taking a walk together at the coast or in the woods.)
Follow the joy. I’ve found joy to be a remarkably accurate guide in helping me discern what matters most at present and what I need to relinquish. Joy is blessing in itself and is highly contagious. What better gift to give ourselves, our loved ones, and the strangers we meet?