I’m getting older, just like all the rest of you. Even my five year old grandson has stopped wearing Spiderman pajamas and has graduated to T-shirts and shorts for sleepwear. We age, we grow, we decline in some ways. My interest in aging, my own and yours, is not so much with the physical changes we each experience, or even the mental and emotional ones, but in how our aging affects our motivation to change ourselves.
In my thirties and forties, and even my fifties to some degree, I was too busy interacting in the world to spend the time and effort it might have taken to make any significant change. Oh, I’d try to be less prickly if a boss asked me to, or more attentive when my husband told me about his day, but I had no time to make fundamental changes to my character or even to my physical self.
In my sixties I find that I do have the time suddenly. I also have the awareness that I’m mortal. Although I knew this earlier, it seemed so far off or so remote that it was easier to deny. So I’m aware that I will die sometime in the next 40 years, and I’m aware that there are things about me that I want to be different, especially if I do live that 40 years!
I’m really interested in how you feel about change as you age. Are there things about yourself that have become intolerable? What have you done about them? Are you enjoying new experiences that you’d not known about before? How does your aging link to your ideas about and actions toward change?
I knew she would come. Even though I didn’t cry or brood when I was gently rejected by the editor I’d been trying to entice into a book contract for almost a year. My husband said, “Well, you knew that one was coming anyway.” I did know, and yet, of course, I didn’t want to know so I kept hoping. (I just read that John Maxwell writes that hope is not a strategy. It had been mine as I recrafted, and recrafted the proposal, responding to the editor’s suggestions).
During this past year, an editor at another publisher had written and asked me (or one of my colleagues, as she emailed me but addressed my colleague) to peer review a book proposal. I asked her if she wanted me or my colleague to do the review and was assured that she meant to ask me. I submitted the review and asked for feedback, two months ago. No response. No honorarium as promised.
In the middle of the night my demon came. She hovered over my head whispering, “You can’t write anything that anyone wants to read. You can’t even write a review or a proposal for something that anyone might want to read. You’re not really a writer. Your books were just a fluke of circumstance.” The demon wakes me up. I’m caught in her web of critical and demeaning pronouncements. And I believe her.
I get up as I know this is the only solution for me. If I engage with my waking life–read my students’ work, get dressed and brush my teeth–the demon goes away, or at least I cannot hear her so clearly. I feel the residue of her visit, however. My energy is sapped. My self esteem is barely over the -0- mark on the dial.
I have tools for fighting this demon. I know to replace her negative message with a positive one. I have published three books with established publishers. I have written and published many articles. I have collaborated effectively with editors and other authors. Still, the demon hovers.
So I sit with the pain of rejection and ask what it has to teach me. I have been wandering with this book, seeing water and finding it is mirage. I know from the experience of having been here before that I will emerge into the next project, the next piece of writing, the next collaboration. This morning the demon keeps me company. I can see her just outside my door, watchful, keeping me in her sights.
I’ve had three superbly gifted coaches in the last five years. You are one of them. You brought me through a professional crisis (with reverberating personal consequences) that I wasn’t able to get through on my own. We agreed to work together again in different circumstances. You would be our coach, rather than mine. Our coach meant coach to my husband and me. You had the credentials I was looking for. You had studied the master (the person and process I thought equalled mastery) and you were looking for clients. So we three embarked together.
Your work, and the work you were studying, recommended one basic way to a good marriage. The marriage could have money troubles, lots of arguments, and struggles over children or health. However, it had to have many more positive interactions than negative ones. This prescription (initially stated as long ago as 20 years) is born out in the work of much of positive psychology today.
Almost from the beginning there was trouble. I cried through every session. I felt more discouraged about my relationship than hopeful. I felt that I took our assignments more seriously than my husband did, and I felt you let him get away with behavior you’d call me on. If I didn’t mention my husband’s shortcomings for a whole month, we got along better, but I felt hamstrung and invisible. If he did the same thing, he reported feeling the same loss of identity. This was tough for at least two of us. I believe that you wanted to enable a more peaceful path for us. I believe that I wanted this too. In some way, I also believe that my husband wanted it. But our spiral was definitely downward.
After perhaps six months, I ended our coaching together. I also told my husband that I didn’t know if we should stay together. He agreed. This was our nadir–no help, no hope, no connection.
Interestingly, during the same period of time that we had been coaching with you, I had been working with another coach on my weight. I’d lost perhaps 20 pounds during this period. I’d also been actively seeking spiritual practices and a spiritual community that would support who I wanted to become. As a result of pursuing these other two goals, I began to feel more confident about myself. As I noticed this, I wondered if I could go back to the possibility of keeping my mouth shut when I thought my husband was doing or saying something negative, critical, or hurtful, and feel differently about it. To be clear, I wondered if I could let his slights roll off of my back because I felt stronger and more powerful in myself. I wondered if I could do this without loss of my sense of self, and my sense of well-being. I found that I could.
It has only been two months that I’ve been experimenting with this. Here’s what I’ve found that I want to tell you about: when I ignore, or let go of, his slights (or what I think in the moment are his criticism, blame or denial), I have more of an attitude of curiosity than martyrdom. I wonder what will happen if I don’t say anything? The most amazing thing is that I sometimes find that he didn’t mean what I thought he meant. The second most amazing thing is that he apologizes if he did mean it (sometimes), without my asking or having to ask. The last thing is that we are happier together; we are laughing more, and we owe that, at least in part, to you.
There must be as many reasons to change as there are changes. It is therefore hard to fit peoples’ stories of change into nice, neat little cubes, like the shoeboxes I just saw featured in the Chronicle with clear plastic ends for labeling or sliding a photograph of your shoes into. Can you imagine being this organized? Or this obsessed with your shoes (I am this obsessed, but my shoes are in messy piles in my closet).
From the stories I’ve gathered from people over 55 who have answered the questionnaire on this website and the qualitative version that allows more storytelling, (I’ll send this one to anyone who wants to tell me a story of change) I’ve sorted the stories under seven themes. Here is the sense I make of each of them:
We have both less and more of it. We know because of our own experience and the experience of friends that we are, in fact, mortal beings. We’re aware that we have a finite amount of time (approximately 100 years at our upper human limit) to accomplish whatever we believe we were put on this earth to do or be. We also have more time due to changing and possibly diminishing work schedules, no work, and changing and perhaps diminishing family responsibilities. This gives both urgency and freedom to change now.
The recent financial crisis has changed what people reported a year ago. There is more concern now that our assets may not last through our lives and that some change in lifestyle may be necessary. Money seems to engender a survival mentality for some, a source of adventure for others, or acceptance for still others. Money may enable change or demand it.
For most of us this is a present rather than a future concern. We may be vigorous and joyful, and there are still arthritis, prostate problems, or some nagging back pains that take our attention at least some of the time. Our health issues also overlap with our sense of time insofar as we want to change. We know the machine is slowing down and we may want to maximize its capability for as long as we can with meditation, exercise, better eating habits or mindful decision-making.
I was surprised to read in Aging Well by George Vaillant that religion and spirituality were not big issues for the three populations studied for this longitudinal Harvard research project. For those who have responded to me, and for me, religion and spirituality are major themes. Whether we continue to be comforted by our lifelong religious tradition, or are moved by our search for some new definition of spirituality, we feel both the freedom and the desire to pursue this foundational aspect of our identity.
My brother has two: ride his bicycle across the country, and sail his boat across the Atlantic. He’s planning the second for later this year. I had three a year ago–lose 30 pounds, improve my relationship with my husband, and find a satisfying spiritual practice. I’m pursuing all three.
For most of us, these take a front seat where for some period of time they have had more of a back seat. We are newly aware of the preciousness of friendship, the comfort and pleasure of human touch, and the delight of grandchildren or nieces and nephews. Women, particularly, write about developing a more nurturing relationship with themselves.
Not sweating the small stuff/letting go of control OR Being more cautious and careful
Both of these attitudes are represented in my respondents. Some say they need to be more careful about decisions in general and money and health in particular. Some say they are now making more decisions based on “what feels right” than they did as younger people. Many spoke of having a better sense of their core values and being able to stand in those values as non-negotiables.
What themes would you add? What stories do you have to tell about these themes and any changes you might have made in the last five years? What do you want more of or different in your next five years?
The Freedom to Change: What it means in later life
I’d been busy, way too busy, living my life, even rushing through my life, to pay attention to the things I deeply wanted to be different in it. I’d given myself occasional opportunities to slow down and notice—a series of sessions with a meditation teacher, intermittent meditation, writing two books about change—without really confronting those things that nicked at me when I did notice them. I would journal about what I wanted to be different. Occasionally I would write myself a plan, and sometimes even begin to implement the plan. But other things swept in as higher priorities for most of my adulthood. For me there were three themes that kept surfacing—my weight and general health, my marriage, and my spiritual life.
As I have aged, the signs for change have become apparent, of course. I have taken medication for hypertension for about two years, and cholesterol medication for a year. I knew I wasn’t getting enough exercise. I would vacillate between giving in to a thickening waistline, and swimming five days a week. I often felt logy and slept poorly. I was carrying 30 extra pounds. These were the same 30 I’d gained and lost for almost 20 years. While I care very much about my appearance, there was no article of clothing I’d put on and look in the mirror and say WOW!
The marriage I was in was my third. I’d decided when we got married (my idea) that if I couldn’t see ways to make this one work, I’d give up on marriage entirely. This one was better in many ways than the other two. This husband was honorable, as smart as I am, and liked the same activities I do. He’d been rich when we married (I liked that) and was no longer rich due to market shifts and the industry in which he’d spent his adult working years. We bickered much of the time we were in our house together, and since he is retired and I work at home, that was a lot of the time. The bickering sapped my energy and made it harder and harder to remain positive about the rest of my life. I saw my parents’ marriage in my own. They had spent the years after we three were grown in much the same housebound bickering in which I now found myself. I’d hated visits to my parents when I was in my twenties and thirties and escaped after three days, using any excuse to get away from their constant tension. Yet, here I was, a card carrying member of “the Bickersons.”
Finally, I’d been a believer in some kind of God for my whole life, and had lost the plot in the years with my non-believing husband. I longed for some spiritual connection, some home that felt like a safe haven, but could no longer connect with my childhood or even my adulthood church home. I’d experimented, but only half-heartedly, with more liberal theology than even the liberal church in which I’d grown up. While my longing was real, my search was half-hearted at best. I’d think about going to Quaker meeting, but never go. I went to a Unity church for four months but quit when my travel schedule kept me away for a few weeks. For each of these change possibilities I knew I wanted something to be different, but I didn’t know how to go about making each area different in ways that would feel positive, and that would stick.
At 64 and with several false starts at a third book, I decided to see if I could make meaningful change in these three areas, and then write about them. Originally I wanted to connect the positive psychology movement to these changes, to demonstrate that by using only strength-based methods, I could make headway with three longstanding issues in my life, and with these methods I could, in fact, change them permanently. I don’t think I knew what a tall order changing three things that might even have been genetic, to some degree, would be. It must be said though, that I have a history of stepping off of cliffs into air that is previously unexplored, or thoroughly explored to the degree that others say stepping off into that specific air is impossible, and finding myself upright and unhurt at some landing point. And so I stepped off.
My plan was to engage one or more coaches. I was and continue to be both an executive and life coach myself and I’d had very good luck working with two other coaches when writing my last book. At first I thought I’d be able to lose weight on my own. My internist asked me to lose 15 pounds. No sweat, I thought. But after four months, I’d lost only one pound. Sitting next to me at a coaching meeting shortly after this rather humiliating appointment was someone I knew slightly, and knew to be a weight management coach. How obvious, I thought! I asked her to work with me and we began an exploration that has lasted for nine months now. For my relationship work with my husband, I knew I wanted to use the work of John Gottman, probably the best known marriage expert and scholar in the country today. As it happened a coach I’d been doing some personal work with, mentioned that she was taking a certification course in Gottman’s method. Whooppee! As it also happened, Jane (this coach) needed guinea pigs for her certification. I spoke to my husband and we agreed to be her guinea pigs. What luck. I felt like we were going to make progress here for sure! Finally, my spirituality goal was meditating every day. I didn’t do it. I had many excuses but no practice. I’d managed to meditate regularly for periods of six months in the past, but I just couldn’t find the motivation now. I live near several Buddhist retreat and teaching centers. I took meditation courses again. I loved how I felt when I did meditate but didn’t repeat the practice. It was like having the hiccups for a long while. I’d do it and then not for days and then do it and then not. I’d left the last fringy religious community of which I’d almost become a member—it was too Jesus focused for me. And I was adrift. I stayed adrift for quite a while until I met another coach, a speaker at our monthly coaching meeting, who happened also to facilitate a weekly gathering of folks interested in exploring their spirituality. This community felt like home the second time I went, five months ago. It is increasingly indispensible to me as resource, support and grounding. It has the intellectual teeth to hold my mind, and the openness and sharing to hold my heart.
I have lost 30 pounds. I did not go on a diet. I did not have lists of what I could or couldn’t eat. I spent lots of time figuring out with MJ, my weight coach, what had worked in the past and what new things I wanted to try. I kept track of everything that went into my mouth on a convenient website. No more looking every item up in a calorie counter. I’ve spent lots more time walking the steep hills around where I live. I’ve seen many more views of San Francisco Bay than ever before. I’ve watched seasons change and appreciated the rain as well as the sun. I’ve swum, but not compulsively. I have not given up chocolate. Not on your life.
My relationship with my husband has changed, with and since our coaching with Jane. Each of us has strong ego needs. We each are proud, often selfish people. We each want our own way. I’ve come to find that not fighting is preferable to getting my way, at least some of the time. If I don’t make a stink about every bowl unwashed or every forgotten favor, he is also more generous with is overlooking of my faults. We walk a fine, sharp edge. Sometimes we pitch over into hurling insults and sometimes we are able to catch our balance on the side of serenity, even humor. We can do that more of the time.
My spiritual needs are met. The community I’ve found feeds me such that I want to give more of myself, my resources and my gifts in order to grow in the community, and to grow the community itself. I have friends there. While I see them only on Saturdays when we meet, they are as precious to me as friends I see more frequently or friends who live closer to me.
My weight loss and resulting health changes (I no longer need to take hypertension or cholesterol medication) have been entirely positive. My spiritual life is a joy and a comfort to me. My relationship journey has had its ups and downs, but as a result of achieving the other two, I have a more compassionate and positive self image, and therefore a more expansive and forgiving approach to my interactions with my husband, Murray. I don’t mean by this that I necessarily have reason to forgive, not at all. What I mean is that I’m better able to hold my tongue and wait to see if something he has said is actually critical or only seems that way to my ears. Often it is the latter. My expansiveness is toward our relationship, not toward him or me. I can hold it better; see it in its entirety instead of the imagined slight of the moment. He and I are both less defensive, and better able to apologize. We are on the same page about many more things (the different pages were the source of much of the bickering). We laugh together about our children, both his and mine. We increasingly seem to see them as ours rather than belonging to one or the other. They are adults, of course, but even so, they’re not without parental challenge.
My interest now is in finding out about what other people want to change, or even if they have had something like the same experience I am having. I want to create community around this idea, so that we can share resources, helpful hints, and mutual support. My idea is that we might do this via a virtual community, a webinar that I’ll start in June. I’ll also continue to write about this and to offer what I’ve found as chapters for a very nominal fee to the participants in the webinar and (I hope) resulting supportive community.