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?

You Are More Powerful than You Think

Sometimes we perpetuate our own victimization. Cultures promulgate Big Lies. We tell each other a certain thing, repeat it endlessly and it becomes true. We don’t even hear our words anymore.

Let me provide an illustration. It’s extreme, but it makes the point about culture – in this case, thankfully, not ours.

The people who live in Afghanistan today believe that the current status quo represents reality, the natural way of things, but do they know any different? Some women are probably alive who remember the days when they could put on a skirt and heels and head out for university to continue studying to be a doctor. I fear that the majority believe the converse: that women are ignorant beasts suitable only for breeding and domestic labor.

Like I said, it’s an extreme example. Here in America, we have in the past chosen to put youth on a pedestal. We chose to imitate them, and we chose to say things like “senior moment,” “60 is the new 30,” and use the word “old ” as a description of something bad, negative, unworthy. We did this voluntarily. Nobody held a gun to our heads. We were so far into the Kool-Aid we were in danger of drowning.

But that’s changing. Judging from your comments, you’re as sick of it as I am, and you’re mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. You’re standing up for yourselves, refusing to spend the next thirty years of your life bowing, scraping, and apologizing for being old. You’re not as willing to emulate the young. You’re incensed by the ageism that’s so acceptable today, refusing to ignore the profound cruelty in what ignoramuses consider humor.

We have begun to celebrate the glory of the second half, and we’re excited about our potential. For an uplifting view of turning eighty, check out this essay by famed neurologist Oliver Sacks. And notice the title: “The Joy of Old Age (No Kidding)” – as if you have to be KIDDING to think there’s anything good about old age. Good article, stupid subtitle.

I beg you: don’t accept a low ceiling. With our numbers, we can make headway on this. I hope you will continue to spread the word about empowerment after age 50. We are free thinkers, we’re experienced, and we are deeper than we’ve ever been. We have to talk about it, with joy or anger. Too many of us are on the verge of myopic despair when we could be on the verge of enlightenment.

So keep talking. Keep asking why we use the word “old” as a pejorative. Because old is one of the most lovely things I’ve been.

Late add: It’s 7 a.m. and I’m happily reading your comments when this appears in my inbox from Huffington Post: 7 Easy Ways to Avoid Looking Old. *sigh*

A Bittersweet Ending and Blue Skies Ahead

Most of you know that Bill and I spent the last school year babysitting two of our grandchildren. Our “assignment” ended a week ago, and I’ve enjoyed time to reflect. This past year has been as fabulous as it has been draining, and now that it’s over, I feel a bit lost, as if the babies are leaving us behind.

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Each one of the benefits is worth the whole year to us:

  • We know the little ones almost as well as do their parents.
  • They act excited when they see us.
  • We were privileged to spend each morning with our son and DIL, getting the day off to a good start. I’ll never forget arriving before dawn, letting ourselves in, hearing the baby fussing as he awoke. Then a few minutes later, us four adults chattering in the kitchen as everybody rushed about. I’d get the toddler to the table for her breakfast while Bill gave the baby his bottle. Dan and Amy got organized, prepared lunches and did minor chores. We felt like the extended family of yore, when multiple generations worked together for a family’s success.
  • Dan and Amy appreciated our contribution to their family’s welfare.
  • We have a new understanding of and compassion for parents of small children.

Mothers Day 2013 009

The challenges have been significant:

  • The toll on our bodies, most of which is temporary. Not temporary are the surfer’s knots I acquired on my knees from crawling (happily in and out of large boxes turned into forts, for example. Or changing the baby on the floor, because he’s so wriggly and strong we don’t dare change him on an elevated surface.)
  • The time away from marketing Dakota Blues, and from the world of writing in general.
  • Finding time for doctor, dentist, and other appointments – just like working people!
  • Concern that, as parents, we shouldn’t be so intimately involved in the lives of our kids. Our son and DIL benefitted, for sure, but they gave up a ton of privacy for the duration.

Bill and Andrew June 2012 3

In spite of it all, the babies came through okay. They are now 14 months and two-and-a-half years, bright, happy and healthy. Dan and Amy completed another year as elementary school teachers. Bill and I are already feeling like our old selves again, although we feel guilty for being so free, and we wonder almost every minute how the little ones are doing. We miss them! But fulltime parenting is for younger bodies than ours.

Professionally, I’ve managed to keep up with our Friday visits here at Any Shiny Thing; sales of Dakota Blues have been fantastic, thanks largely to good reviews and an award for women’s fiction from Next Generation Indie Book Awards.  I also found time for five public speaking gigs and three book signings during that period. I’ve drafted some short stories and put together a compendium of my best blog posts for an ebook, Sometimes You Feel Like a Sandwich: Reflections on Caregiving, that I hope to release by Thanksgiving.

I wrote this post today to celebrate a milestone – that Bill and I are returning to our normal life after taking a one-year detour for the good of our family. We feel so blessed, but we’re also sobered by having lived the life of young adults trying to balance career and child-rearing. As a result, our lives are fuller and we have much more appreciation for the younger generations. We are back to being retired and the skies are a brilliant blue.

Midlife Crisis is Overblown, and Other Good News about Your Middle-Aged Brain

This is the second in a four-part series on your amazing, aging brain.

More good news: midlife crisis and the empty nest syndrome don’t exist. There is no scientific research to support them. [Read more…]