You Still Get to Choose

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Yes, this post is all a little dark, but there’s a silver lining at the end, so stay with me.

All through life, regardless of age, you wonder how to live your life. Should you be more understanding, patient, and loving, or less? What is your duty to others, as opposed to yourself? Should you take that job overseas and break your mother’s heart, or stay in your hometown close to the relatives? [Read more…]

The Puzzle of Purpose

question marksI was talking with my friend Martin Rice, formerly of the Fifty2Ninety blog, about having a sense of purpose in the last third of our lives. He had been wondering what older people do if/when they lose that sense, and considered starting up a new blog dedicated to this issue. As we talked, it occurred to me that older peeps are more wedded to purpose than necessary. Maybe we’re addicted to the idea of productivity, unable to unhitch from the parental and career wagons we’ve pulled all these years.

If so, the alternative could be hedonistic and decadent! Just for fun, let’s consider.

When you’re a kid, your purpose is to grow up and become skillfully independent. Then, as a young adult, it’s to create a sustainable life for yourself and your dependents, supporting your part of the world (family, community, workplace, state and nation). Finally, as an older adult, your purpose is – what? If normal cycles play out, people aren’t depending on you as much anymore, and you have the luxury of free time and choice. So now, what is your purpose?

Must you have one?

Yes, because purpose is critical to quality and length of life, according to this article by Paula Span. But the research came from interviews with old people, who were raised in a time when we believed one must be of service to others. That Puritan work ethic still influences us, for good and bad. We feel more worthwhile, confident, and secure when we can say we’re struggling with some kind of load.

Not to go all Byron Katie on you, but is it true, or is it training?

When my father died, Mom felt she no longer had a purpose. She had spent her adult life serving others, first raising us kids, and then looking out for Dad more and more as he declined. After many years, his death freed her, but freedom didn’t look that great. Losing her sense of purpose added to her grief. As she and I discussed this, I asked if she might find purpose in showing us four kids, then in our fifties, how to age well. She shrugged, and I felt embarrassed at sounding self-centered.

Fast forward six years. Mom, now 89, lives a few blocks from me, in our 55+ community. She has friends, drives herself around town, exercises, and has hobbies and interests. She no longer serves the needs of others, unless you count the normal generosities inherent in living an ethical life. In fact, it seems she spends her time staying healthy and enjoying herself. I recently asked how she feels about the question of purpose.

“I wonder why I’m still alive, but God must have his reasons,” she said. “Maybe He figures I’ve earned a vacation.”

What does a person have to do to earn that vacation? I worked hard from a young age, volunteered a lot, and supported everybody and his brother (and his kids). Sometimes I fantasize about cutting loose from everything and just savoring my existence. When I said this to Martin, he replied, “Maybe that is your purpose.”

God, wouldn’t that be a relief?

I think older people might stay busy out of a sense of guilt, because they have all this freedom while their kids are struggling under the pressures of child-rearing and careers. But might we try to feel justified doing nothing beyond that which is required to preserve and savor our existence? Assuming the normal generosities, of course. Like stepping up to the plate when your community needs you, and not just being a selfish you-know-what.

What do you think?

Robin Williams and Getting Old

Robin WilliamsSo sad to think of this poor man suffering with the almost-insurmountable problems of addiction and depression (LATE ADD: and possibly also Parkinsons’.) He also had medical problems (and we’ve seen that heart surgery can bring on depression). On top of that, he had money problems, and Robin Williams wasn’t in his peak earning years anymore.

His death has prompted important conversations. According to this story in the Washington Post, white males die by suicide more than any other group by gender or racial demographic. The number is four times as high as for the next highest group, and it dwarfs every other demographic on the chart. 

…Aging may take a larger toll on the male psyche. Older men who value their self-reliance may find themselves less able to cope as they age, when they are no longer in their prime physically, sexually and at work.

“I often refer to them as being developmentally unsuccessful, because they’re not equipped to handle the challenges of getting older if they are so tied into their masculinity . . . and making a lot of money,” said Christopher Kilmartin, a psychology professor at the University of Mary Washington.

“Things aren’t the way they used to be,” said Dost Ongur, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. . “The power you knew, the control you knew, aren’t the same.”

I want to tread carefully here; what I say next is not meant to minimize Robin’s physiological and psychological burdens. I’m not qualified to offer an opinion, but want to use the statistics as a starting point for discussion. 

Many of us, particularly men, are unable to accept have a hard time accepting the aging process and our own mortality. We’re swamped in a noxious wave of cultural messages that, at a certain age, we’re worthless, stupid, pointless…and we buy it. We look in the mirror and see the work of time, and it’s not flattering. We retire or get forced out of jobs. We wonder what the point is. What good are we?

After a lifetime of being brainwashed to believe bad stuff about old people, there’s new research that says people who believe negative things about the aging process die, on average, 7.5 years sooner. What a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Yes, physically, we’re on the losing end, but mentally and emotionally there is much to be grateful for. Here are a few tidbits worth celebrating:

  • Myelination doesn’t peak until your sixties. Myelin is a substance that coats the brain circuits and improves neurotransmission. I wrote about that here.
  • Positivity increases later in life, and you have greater control over your emotions – even though older people feel them more strongly. Something about changes to the amygdala. That’s in the same blog post, linked above.
  • Bilateralization occurs later in life. It means you use both halves of your brain all the time, instead of just the right brain for art/left brain for analysis. This adds up to deeper, more creative, more out-of-the-box thinking.  Have you ever heard this before? More here.

So we’re on the short end of the mortality stick, but from what I hear, the older you get, the more at ease you are with the prospect of death.

Robin Williams was a generous benefactor to many causes, and even now, he’s helping humanity by raising difficult subjects. I ask that you consider the positive aspects of aging, and talk about them. Give your kids, and the rest of society, a reason to feel good about the last third of life, because there is good. Why not celebrate it?

Rest in peace, Robin.

A Boomer’s Painful Retrospective

Kathleen Pooler, Author

Kathleen Pooler, Author

At this age, many of us are evaluating our lives, wondering why we made so many bad choices.

In her brand-new memoir, my friend Kathy Pooler, nurse, cancer survivor, and all-around-good girl, comes to understand why she married two abusive and borderline-dangerous men. It’s a great narrative which reads like a novel. As I read, I felt like screaming “NO!” Of course, it’s easy to say that now, having earned better judgment after living through my own bad decisions.

In the following interview, edited for brevity, Kathy refers to “magical thinking,” a phrase popularized by the great Joan Didion. In general, this is when you cling to the hope that something will happen to magically change your spouse from, say, a philanderer to faithful, or an addict to drug-or-alcohol-free, if only we love them enough. If only we put up with enough. If only…

Why did you write Ever Faithful to His Lead: My Journey Away From Emotional Abuse?

I started out writing a different story about a cancer diagnosis and watching a beloved son spiral downward into substance abuse but realized I could not write about that until I wrote about getting into and out of two abusive marriages…It is possible to climb out of the abyss of poor decisions and go on to live life on your own terms.

KP Pooler memoirWas there any one person who was your inspiration for your main character?

Me. I was driven by the question: “How does a young woman from a loving Catholic family make so many wise choices about career, yet so many poor choices about love, that she and her two children end up escaping from her second husband for fear of physical abuse?” It was time to answer the question that had been asked of me my entire life by those who loved me.

In the book, you say “a loving family, a solid career and a strong faith cannot rescue her until she decides to rescue herself.” Why do you feel that way?

One of the lessons I learned when I wrote this book is that…I only needed to claim and honor my own inner strength. I was the only one who could do it for myself. It sounds so simple, but it took me years to realize this.

What’s the most important thing readers will learn from Ever Faithful to His Lead?

Three things come to mind:

  • One does not have to sustain broken bones or bruises to  be abused. Emotional abuse is harmful and the impact on the children of mothers who are in abusive relationships is far-reaching and damaging.
  • Abuse impacts all socioeconomic groups. I was a masters-prepared nurse from a loving family and yet I got into two emotionally abusive marriages.
  • Denial and magical thinking can keep one from recognizing abusive behavior and taking action.

Lynne here. Whew. I’m no stranger to domestic abuse – grew up with it and married into it, twice (but I must clarify that, as with Kathy, we are now in loving, gratifying marriages). But this memoir took me back. On a lighter note, I enjoyed the references to Growing Up Boomer, since Kathy and I are the same age. Ever Faithful is an enlightening book, one that younger women would benefit from reading – before they choose life partners.

Let’s switch gears and talk about the writing life. I asked Kathy:

When do you write? Is it easier to write in the morning or at night?  

I don’t have a specific routine. The muse can strike early in the morning, in the afternoon or late at night. I’ve had times when I’ve awakened up in the middle of the night to write because the thoughts swirling in my head would not let me rest until they found a place on the page. I do know that if I do not get my quota of writing done during the day, I often end up staying up late.

Who’s your favorite author?

That’s a tough question because I read a variety of authors. But two of my favorites are James Michener for the rich detail of his historical novels and Ernest Hemingway for his sparse prose that says so much. And of course, Lynne Spreen! I mean, if Jim and Ernie were alive today, they’d want to know her secret for slapping a novel together.

Okay, I wrote that. – LMS

Where can we buy the book?  Amazon, Kobo, Barnes and Noble, my website, Pen & Publish Press.

10% of the proceeds of the sale of Ever Faithful to His Lead will go toward the National Coalition for the Awareness of Domestic Violence.