Some Wisdom for When we are Growing Old
Notes from a Panel Discussion of the Psychotherapy Institute of Berkeley on the experience of aging, taken on December 5th 2008:
H., aged 86: “Growing older faced me with a very steep learning curve. One’s body fails in many ways and one has to pay more attention to it. One asks, ‘What is too much to do?’ And yet, that is not an excuse for doing nothing. Self acceptance means knowing your limitations. It is important here to keep the relation with your own psyche and the relation with your inner world going.”
J., aged almost 80: “I am winging it.” She described herself as an extrovert. She is conscious of her energy and what she can do. She keeps her awareness and attention on things that really matter. She will say, “No I can’t do that by myself, but I have to make it happen.”
B., aged 73: “I found that I went from being an extrovert to an introvert and back to an extrovert. There is feeling integrated versus faking it until you make it. (I’m not sure of the context of that comparison.) One needs to relax and listen and be with people. One is forced, faced, mandated to come and face oneself.”
H.: Age becomes our advantage rather than our liability. The body may fall apart, but our psyche relaxes and grows and focuses on what really matters. “Live in your mind if your body fails you.”
J.: She has become infinitely more interior. As an extrovert, to be action-prone was her default position.
H., having been a psychoanalyst for twenty years: “Now I’m my own kind of therapist. One psychological theory does not tell you much about a human being. To learn these theories gives you a theoretical framework, but you have to leave it behind you, because you are treating a human being. Be more yourself. Dismiss theory and really pay attention. That issues into a much more genuine relationship.” She hated a psychological attitude, the stuffed shirt. She underscored the “I-Thou relationship” of Martin Buber.
J. worked with Gestalt therapy. “I come out and find that there is very little space between what I think and feel.” Someone in the gathering offered, “Life can only be understood backwards, but you have to live it forwards.”
Questions and responses: “How do I know when I should retire? How do I get out of my position? When do I stop?”
Someone offered: [I can tell when] “I need to stop. Your dreams will get you out. [If I cannot tell myself, then] “When I’m floundering around, friends have to tell me to stop.”
Questions and responses: “It becomes necessary to face end-of-life issues, to face your own death. Write a will.”
Someone said: “It is odd to be out here on the edge, living in this place where I’ve never been before.”
H.: “Being an introvert makes aging easier. For many years I lived in a way that was way over-extended. Make your life reflect who you really are.”
Question: “How does one do that?”
H.: “Nurture yourself each day. Think, meditate, and read.”
B.: “You can get recharged in a surprising way.” For retirement he gets into his sailboat. He no longer does therapy, but now writes poetry.
Questions and responses: “With aging the body slows down. What if the mind slows down?”
B.: “Make a deal with a friend: ‘Friend, tell me if I have to quit.’ The issue is all the over-extension. How do I get to do what I really want to do and not get bogged down in all the adiaphora?”
H.: We do not become undesirable when we age. We are struggling. But my heart has opened the way I’ve never seen before. We are up against it, because of the crises we face. And we have to have real solidarity like teenagers.”
B.: [At times we have to say to ourselves] “Like a kitten hanging on a clothes line: hang in there.”
Questions and responses: What about self-disclosure of the therapist versus no self-disclosure?
H.: Do not create distance and distance from yourself any longer, but feel, think, and experience. Do away with counter-transference. Now I experience co-transference.
Question: But what to do if something comes up that doesn’t belong there?!? (I did not hear an answer to this question.)
Question: “What about considering your mortality?”
J.: “Being aware of my mortality makes everyday more precious.”
H.: “Indeed,] and more precious all the way. We never thought that we would live forever and now we know that we won’t. When we grow older, we need younger friends and learn to look at the world from a younger perspective. Aging and death is a process we all go through.”
B.: “You know what Woody Allen said about his fiftieth high school reunion: ‘None of my friends were there; but all their parents were.’ You should feel no shame about how old you are, because it is a badge of honor. When necessary play the age card. Ram Dass’ last word was ‘Shit!’ It pays to have a sense of humor. The secret of old age is love.”
[My own input here about last words: Erasmus of Rotterdam was the illegitimate son of a priest. He was careful never to speak his native Dutch. He spoke only classical Latin. But his last word before he died was “God!” in Dutch!]