When I think about the millions of people who are in their 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, I wonder what brings fulfillment to their lives. As they disengage from the external world, by choice or by circumstance, most will question reality, much like Scarlett, Martin and Thomas do.
“When I was young,” started Scarlett, who is a beautiful, vivacious 80 year old, “everything mattered: What I looked like, what I wore, who I dated, where I lived, how many children I had, where they went to school. Everything mattered! I enjoyed waking up with a sense of purpose. Now I wake up and I miss feeling that energy that got me up in the morning. Now, I don’t know what to get up for. I’m okay once I get started and get busy, but now, nothing matters, really.”
Scarlett is not unusual. Those who are aging – like all of us – transition through stages of life from those times when everything makes sense & means something to those other times when nothing matters, . . . and who cares anyway? What we think of as a mid-life crisis – what occurs in the 40’s and 50’s, are founded on the shattering of the illusion of – what is significant should remain significant, and, what you want to be significant, isn’t. We’ve been trained to believe in THE REALITY, and all of a sudden it isn’t. The opportunity to question reality and ask – What’s the point – confronts the world around us and the world within. This moment can be a huge game-changer for many individuals. And it is happening at all stages of aging – there is no longer that demarcation of when mid-life begins or ends.
Thomas asks: “Who came up with the concept of THE GOLDEN YEARS? What a crock of S**T!” Thomas is finding that what used to be significant and important in his life, like his favorite NBA team, or money, or . . . just isn’t important any more. He used to look forward to being retired and to all the freedom that would give him. But now that he’s retired, Thomas knows that it isn’t apathy he is feeling. It’s just that, what was significant to him in the past really doesn’t matter any more. So now what?
Martin chimes into this conversation. “For me, I find that I just don’t care. And, I do feel apathy, like – what’s the point, nothing matters anyway! I’m disappointed that these golden years suck in ways I hadn’t ever imagined.”
Purposelessness and meaninglessness confront Martin at the moment of awakening each morning. He is racked with why’s, what’s, who’s and when’s. Martin finishes with: “When nothing matters, I’m like a rudderless boat leaving the dock – I don’t know where I’m headed or how I’m going to get there. So I consider just staying at the dock, which means, more often than not, staying in bed!”
As we age, so many of our identities that were critical to our sense of self fall away. I hear people say: “Who am I now that I’m retired, alone, arthritic? Who am I without my precious ‘things’ that used to be so important to me? Who am I in this moment with no purpose or meaning. Who am I in the midst of meaningless and purposeless?”
These aren’t rhetorical question. Someone inside you – regardless of age – is asking the questions, because you want to get to know who is having the experience of aging, of transitioning through various aspects of life. Who is having the direct experience as you, as the being within the experience?
Most of us are terrified to reflect on these questions. We avoid the emotionality that resides within. Nonetheless, I believe that in the midst of the experience of meaninglessness is an opportunity to step into the true rich experience of this – this exploration that is as meaningful and fulfilling as any other in the world.
Quite a few studies indicates that people die after retiring and after the death of a spouse or partner – it’s called the widowhood effect. Our work, partners and families bring meaning and fulfillment to our lives, or at least they are supposed to. It’s where we create a sense of identity, meaning, and purpose. When we stop working, when our partners die, when families are less involved, people are more likely to give up and die. “What’s the point of going on?” asks Martin.
Scarlett shared that though she isn’t experiencing the excitement of engaging in her day as she had done in the past, once she gets up and busy, she is okay. I encourage Scarlett to stay in bed a little longer, and to be with that part of her that is experiencing a loss of meaning and purpose. I ask her to imagine herself back in bed being with herself, rather than avoiding herself. Because Scarlett is curious and fascinated with life, she easily sees the value of such a conversation with herself. She says, “I can do that! I see how this can be a richly valuable exercise for me – for anyone!”
Later phases of life, within which one may experience meaninglessness, purposelessness, feeling insignificant or valueless, doesn’t have to automatically equate to depression, medication, isolation and death at an earlier age. These phases provide opportunities to have deep and important conversations with yourself. These conversations allow each of us to make sense of our reality – the one we are currently in – in relation to our expectations of this current reality. These conversations are meaningful and purposeful, especially when the intention is to discover and reclaim the vibrancy of the living energy-being that you are – always!
The intention of these aging articles is to cultivate curiosity and consciousness about who you are within, as you live in two worlds at once: the external world and the internal world. Creating dialogs with yourself can be challenging, and you may want to consider giving yourself some sessions with an individual who can support and companion you through this process of living with aging and change. There is wisdom in sharing yourself with those who know the path and the journey of humanness. You are not alone.
– – – – –
If you’d like to join Dr. Rosie in the AGING-Who Me in-person discussions at the Orcas Island Senior Center, they are meeting this coming Tuesday, Aug 8th, from 10 – 11:30 a.m.