Archive for the category “Meaning and Purpose”

When I Grow Up I Want to Be Wise

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I asked my 8-year old granddaughter, Sofia, what she thought “wise” meant. Her response: An older person who is smart and makes good decisions. I guess I would say that at age 8 she is wiser than most of us.

I then began to wonder if we aren’t wise at a young age and for some, again in older years. In between, we are deeply focused on gaining experiences, power, possessions and love, creating a false sense of wisdom.

Why “false”? Because true wisdom as Sofia tells us is not only being smart (“experience” smart, not intellectually smart) but also “making good decisions.” Believing that life experiences and success alone leads to wisdom is not a good decision.

The wise elders I’ve known have had a broad range of life experiences—some held powerful positions and were wealthy but most were of lesser means. Some were religious and others more spiritual. What they have in common is a believe in another power because they know that we can’t get through this life alone and the ability to incorporate life experiences at a “soul” level—a place where we can listen, see and “be” without all the layers of judgment that we learn throughout our life.

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Why is wisdom easier in youngest and oldest years? In younger years we haven’t yet incorporated all the taught and lived family and social biases, prejudices and expectations of power and possessions that become the basis for how we view ourselves and others. In older years, as losses accumulate, we realize any success or power or position is fleeting. At that time, the wise elders focus on incorporating all that was good and “not so good” in their past, realizing that all that has happened has made them who they are today and that even in oldest old years we continue to learn, to change, to wake up to a new opportunity to improve and focus on what truly matters in life.

However, choosing a path towards wisdom doesn’t come to everyone. Many become bitter as they view the past as “the best time” or as a time when they made too many mistakes. Meanwhile they exist in a present filled with loneliness and losses—loss of independence, of friends and family, of power and possessions. They may see this as a loss of self and as a time when their God has forgotten them.

Living beyond such tremendous losses and into wisdom that frees us from the weight of a judgmental, power-seeking life is a spiritual journey requiring tremendous faith and forgiveness of self and of others regardless of the injustices we may have experienced. Until we see ourselves as one with all others—those we knew and those we didn’t and one with the universe and with God, wisdom will be elusive.

Finally, wisdom and peace is also about accepting that we aren’t traveling alone. God—whomever that is to each of us—is not only at the center of this journey but is next to us holding our hand, above us watching over each step and beneath us holding us up when we are certain we can’t endure another loss.

Susan

 

At Disneyland with Tonsillitis

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Unable to sleep at night, anxious with anticipation, I was days away from my first trip to Disneyland at age 8. Then, a day prior, I woke up with tonsillitis. I didn’t tell my parents because I wasn’t about to miss out on the Magical Kingdom. Although my throat was on fire, the pain was more tolerable when I walked through the gates and into the make believe world full of characters I had only seen on TV on Saturday morning.

Pain—whether emotional or physical—is often with us throughout our lives and we often tolerate discomfort by focusing on something external similar to my childhood trip to Disneyland. As adults, this is often a materialistic reward—a new dress, piece of furniture, a vacation or a new car.

As we age into oldest years, both emotional and physical pain from illness, loss of independence and death of loved ones surrounds us each day. Tolerating these injustices by looking forward to diversions is more difficult as we are limited in what we can do or experience.  We can’t plan a day at the park or a visit to a friend if we don’t have transportation. We can’t “buy” our way out of pain if we are on a fixed income.

Yet, according to research, while most older adults will admit to multiple illnesses or physical limitations, they also claim to be happy and in good health. Why is that? Fortunately, for most, they have given up the false comforts of materialism and instead, they enjoy reflecting upon an inner strength that allows them to live in a state of hope and purpose that helps them tolerate pain. Many older adults and researchers refer to this inner strength as spirituality.

Spirituality for some is about a structured religious experience; others reflect on their inner strength that comes from a God that they have defined; others look to nature to provide meaning; and for others, their inner joy and healing may come from the experience of their creative selves.

In working with the oldest old and I am touched by the heroic efforts to mitigate the pain and loss that is present for most. Their simple, pure expression of spirituality gives joy, hope and purpose. We all have the opportunity to call upon this strength but it requires a conscious exploration of what spirituality means to each of us individually.

Often, we find the time to explore our inner strength only when the artificial diversions that come from a materialistic life are removed. No Disneyland, no trip to the mall, no trip to the Caribbean; just the quiet to explore the strength within.

~ Susan

Ten Minutes

Tired from a turn-around trip that began with a 6:15 am flight out of Portland, I waited at San Jose Terminal B, gate 23 for my return flight on Southwest. I had spend much of the past week preparing for the new business meeting that took me to San Jose. As I sat in the terminal following the meeting, I contemplated business, the slow economic recovery, money and retirement. Looking up from deep thoughts, I noted an older man, somewhat disheveled walking unevenly and tentatively toward the gate counter. With shaky hands he withdrew his ticket from his shirt pocket handing it to the gate agent, “Am I in the right place?” She responded automatically, “Yes” and offered nothing else. He looked around and walked towards the empty chair next to me. Knowing he was uncomfortable, I wanted to make up for the insensitivity of the gate agent.

I began, “Hi, are you flying home to Portland or visiting someone?”

“I’m going to visit my son. I haven’t flown in a very long time and I feel so unsure of myself.”

“It’s fine. Together we can listen for the boarding call and then I can show you where to line up. Has it been a long time since you’ve seen your son?”

Tears filled his eyes as he replied, “No, he and his brothers and sisters have visited me often recently. Their mom died three months ago after being on life support for too long.  It’s an awfully hard decision to know when to say “it’s time’ after more than 60 years of a life together. I just couldn’t let go and I think I made her suffer too long.”

 

Filled with his pain, I offered what seemed like empty platitudes, “There’s no way to know when the time is right and no one can guide that decision. It’s something you worked though, and when you were ready and you felt she was ready, you let her go.  There’s no timeline for letting go of the person you’ve loved so dearly.”

His smile of appreciation felt undeserved.

“I’m John.”

“Hi John. I’m Susan. It’s so nice to meet such a brave man.”

With a weak chuckle he said, “I’m not brave. In fact, I know this will sound bad but I’m not sure I will choose to stay around much longer. That must sound awful to you, but each day when I begin to wake and reach over to the empty place on the bed, I can barely breathe. I lay in bed sometimes till afternoon. Just waiting for the pain to leave, for her to talk to me, for something…I don’t even know what. I’m so empty inside.”

Frozen in grief I couldn’t find words, and I knew that nothing I said could answer his need.  Still the energy connection gripped me. His heaviness was now mine as well.

Slowly and painfully I offered, “I don’t judge you. I have told my children that I when I’m done, I’m done. My father died recently—he was 95 and he very much wanted to die for the last two years of his life. It hurt me terribly to watch him. He even asked me to help him die and I could do nothing.  He thought he wanted to die when he was about 85 and my mother died. The first year was the worst.  After that he began going back to church, getting out a little more, and he found he had more life to live. Meaning and purpose may shift for you too.”

“I don’t know. I can’t see beyond today. I don’t really want to visit my son although I love him. It takes so much energy and I’m exhausted. I’m hoping that if I force myself, I might find some relief.  Traveling is hard on me. I’m uncomfortable asking for help or directions. I feel like people look at me like I’m just a helpless old man. I’m getting forgetful—happens when you are old.”

“John, I’m forgetful and I’m 63. I don’t know when this “forgetfulness” started for you but it started for me in my 20’s when I had four children!  It’s not exclusive to being older. It comes about because we accumulate years and years of to do lists, of birthdays, of 85 years worth of schedules and memories we want to hold onto.  People think so many things are old age related when in fact aging begins the day we’re born.”

He laughed and his hand grabbed my hand and he simply said “Thank you.”

The gate agent called for A boarding—my group. I asked John to move closer to the lines and told him that when they called for B boarding he would line up in the first column pointing to where he should stand. Noticing a seat near the line I suggested he sit until it was time to line up. As we walked together, I noticed a young woman making her way toward the seat. Touching her arm I asked if she’d mind if John sat. She nodded to him and said, “Of course not.”

John looked at her slyly and said, “Or I could sit and you could sit on my lap.”  Pleased with himself he lit up and we all laughed.

I was hopeful as I boarded the plane that his momentary joy might be a brief peek into a life of renewed purpose. He is such a beautiful soul and to have him leave this world early would be a loss for all those whose life he touched, including me. Ten minutes with John and my life is forever changed.

Susan Cain, Sometimes weary but recently enlightened life course traveler

Enjoying the Gifts of Aging

 

In our last blog, we wrote about the challenges of aging that can include significant loss but also comes with important gifts. In this blog, we explore how to find those gifts through reflection.

Reflection in older years, for most, is more than reviewing an event or a lifetime of events—it is an integration of all that one has experienced, of moving beyond the labels of “good” or “bad” and into a sense of comfort that, overall, we are complete.  In Aged by Culture, Margaret Morganroth Guelette’s beautifully speaks to the process of integration and the gift that comes:

If, in telling our state-of-being, we find some co-identities disliked but admitted; some discarded or defunct;    some unchanged; some improving; some in flux of new importance; some about loss and some about gain—all in all, the storied identities feel like possessions. Mine. Achievements of my telling and of my aging. Such achievements deeply and rightly matter to people.

English: Portrait of old woman sitting by a wi...

So if this “gift” is so available to all, why might older adults miss this opportunity? It’s not an issue of training or education—researchers have found that the desire to spend solitary time in reflection happens naturally for most. Yet, the compression of losses that often accompany oldest-old years can create a barrier to thoughts of anything beyond the very present pain and sadness that can accompany physical, emotional and cognitive decline.

As a loved one, friend or care provider, you can’t force anyone into seeking or walking the path toward integration. However, you can help create opportunities to connect with the deeper more soulful self that can lead to renewed spirituality and purpose.

It’s important that quiet time older adults spend reading, reflecting, and praying is respected as growth and not disparaged or seen and referenced as “living in the past” or labeling the older adult as depressed and withdrawn. Allow as much time as desired for the older adult to review, reflect, and rest in the quiet of contemplative thought.  If the older adult is open to talking about their past, ask questions and listen, listen, listen. If you are close to this older adult, your memory of an event may be different—avoid telling your version or offering any contradiction or correction, and instead embrace the process and the potential.

Some older adults connect to their integrated self through a more active participation with friends, relatives or others exploring and recording their autobiography. This can be approached informally by taping or writing either by the older adult or the stories can be told to someone who can transcribe the interview. Additionally, there are experts who can help create this opportunity including personal historians: http://www.personalhistorians.org/tell/find.php and Guided Autobiography (http://www.guidedautobiography.com/ ), also known as GAB. Some senior centers offer “narrative aging” groups. The Q Center in Portland offers such meetings led by fellow gerontologist, Susan Kocen.

elder kondeli yogi

Whether quietly reflecting over ones life or writing or telling one’s life story, the end result is often the awareness of one’s wisdom that comes from an accepted, honored, and integrated life. Recognizing wisdom that comes from a long lived life is not only a healing process leading to renewed purpose, but sharing that wisdom creates good will and connects generations that are often separated.

~ Susan

Changing The Discussion From “Age As Loss” to “Aging With Gifts”

Aging into “older” years is often feared and imagined as a sad time primarily marked by losses. The losses begin slowly—for most in their late 40’s: The graying and loss of hair and development of hearing and vision issues; loss of our ideal body image as we lose muscle mass and gain unwanted fat; loss of roles in leadership and power positions within the community and workforce. These may seem significant yet they pale in comparison to the losses yet to come: Of loved ones who precede us in death; of independence as we give up our driver’s license; of dignity as we find ourselves relying on others to help us overcome limitations caused by physical and/or cognitive losses; of our image of “home” as people move into our home to care for us or we move to assisted living facilities. The Government and science dwell on these losses. The Government worries about how to address the wave of Boomers that will all too soon become “needy” for financial support. Science sees dollars and interesting challenges in improving and prolonging life.

Interestingly, at any age or developmental stage, we can measure life by losses rather than gains. Our 30’s—a time of infinite possibilities for many—often includes tremendous loss as we begin our families: Decreased expendable income resulting from the medical bills, day care and education; the concern of childhood illnesses; increased expenses, demanding careers can leave us worried and sleepless. In our late 40’s we are often “empty nested” and find ourselves financially struggling in order to pay for college; perhaps we must downsize our home. Nevertheless, most see this time not in loss but rather as new opportunities to travel, to re-engage with our spouse, to identify a new lifestyle, to get back to a healthy body.

Why is it we aren’t as willing to embrace the opportunities of late life as we are in our younger years? Perhaps because in our 30’s, 40’s and 50’s we have so much life ahead to change our direction, to make new decisions, to experience “more”. Life abounds with external opportunities to prove our limitless selves. In our 70’s and 80’s and beyond, the runway is getting shorter and we become a science and we re bombarded with messages of “age as loss”. Nevertheless research has shown that there are tremendous gifts available to us in our older years that are unavailable to younger adults.

These gifts include the beauty of solitude: of a time when we can spend long hours reflecting on the meaning and purpose of our lives, explore our creative selves, participate in the joy and promise of spirituality. Older adults tend not to dwell on “what if” or “if only”, nor do they become stuck on the “not so good decisions” they made in younger years. Instead life shows itself as a rich integration of each and every experience—the good and not so good decisions. They come together to make us who we have become. This quiet time of reflection, of letting go of the materialistic and even power over our own bodies is a gift that can bring comfort and peace to guide us through the challenging terrain of aging into our final years.

As with any developmental stage of life, this path to an enlightened older self isn’t a direct path and it isn’t automatic or even easy. There is no denying that those experiencing older years will suffer physically and emotionally. However, as we give up control and power, we attain the ultimate gift: the wise spiritual self who is now freed to imagine and embrace that which is yet to come.

The older adult may need support in finding this time as “gift” rather than loss. But that is another blog. If you want ideas about how to support the enjoyment of being an older adult or how to support your parents’ opportunity in older years, watch for my next blog: “Enjoying the Gifts of Aging”.

~ Susan

Creating a Path to Wisdom

We can’t deny that aging can be challenging. Those living into oldest-old years may experience tremendous loss: of family and friends through death; of independence as they become limited through physical and cognitive changes; of loneliness when isolated at home or in a care facility. As discussed in an earlier blog, “Moving from ‘age as loss” to ‘aging with gifts’’’, the gift of reflection, spirituality and creativity are resources available to all that can connect or re-connect one to purpose, peace and confidence, providing important coping tools for overcoming loss. However, finding, holding on to, and enjoying the gifts may require support.

Reflection in older years for most is more than reviewing an event or a lifetime of events—it is an integration of all that one has experienced, of moving beyond the labels of “good” or “bad” and into a sense of comfort that, overall, we are complete.  In Aged by Culture, Margaret Morganroth Guelette’s beautifully speaks to the process of integration and the gift that comes:

If, in telling our state-of-being, we find some co-identities disliked but admitted; some discarded or defunct; some unchanged; some improving; some in flux of new importance; some about loss and some about gain—all in all, the storied identities feel like possessions. Mine. Achievements of my telling and of my aging. Such achievements deeply and rightly matter to people.

So if this “gift” is so available to all, why might older adults miss this opportunity? It’s not an issue of training or education—researchers have found that the desire to spend solitary time in reflection happens naturally for most. Yet, the compression of losses that often accompany oldest-old years can create a barrier to thoughts of anything beyond the very present pain and sadness that can accompany physical, emotional and cognitive decline.

As a loved one, friend or care provider, you can’t force anyone into seeking or walking the path toward integration. However, you can help create opportunities to connect with the deeper more soulful self that can lead to renewed spirituality and purpose.

It’s important that quiet time in reading, reflection, and praying is respected as growth and not disparaged or seen and referenced as “living in the past” or labeling the older adult as depressed. Allow as much time as desired for the older adult to review, reflect, and rest in the quiet of contemplative thought.  If the older adult is open to talking about her past, ask questions and listen, listen, listen. If you are close to this older adult, your memory of an event may be different—avoid telling your version or offering any contradiction or correction, and instead embrace the process and the potential.

Some older adults connect to their integrated self through a more active participation with friends, relatives or others exploring and recording their autobiography. This can be approached informally by taping or writing either by the older adult or the stories can be told to someone who can transcribe the interview. Additionally, there are experts who can help create this opportunity including Guided Autobiography (http://www.guidedautobiography.com ), also known as GAB. GAB is designed as a group process providing very specific questions that create a path to a positive integration of self. The process can be modified to support one-on-one interaction rather than through group participation. There are also GAB programs specific to religious or spiritual settings encouraging multigenerational interaction. For more info GAB, you can contact me via em: susanm@firesidecmg.com.

Whether writing or telling one’s life story, the end result is often the acknowledgement of wisdom that comes from an accepted, honored, and integrated life. Recognizing one’s wisdom is not only a healing process leading to renewed purpose, but sharing that wisdom creates good will and connects generations that are often separated.

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