“Life has a way of stripping away the nonessentials one year at a time, until we’re left with our real selves, unashamed before the world, refined by experience, shaped by the things we’ve learned and the passions we’ve pursued…”

–--Author Unknown

The Gifts of Age: Part 1

I asked Dan Oestreich and Deb Call to join with me (I’m Dick Richards) in creating a post about “the gifts of age” because it seemed that we were each plowing that field in our individual blogs. So this is a collaborative effort and it has been my privilege to put our thoughts together and to act as narrator for this two-part adventure. These two posts are being published simultaneously at our blogs.

In response to my invitation, Deb wrote of a lessening of judgmental attitudes as one gift of age. “Smack in middle-age,” she wrote, “I find that life has softened my edges. With perspective I rely less on black and white thinking. Being judgmental feels less satisfying. I haven’t extinguished these traits, as my husband will attest, but engage in them less frequently.”

She also recognizes another gift of age, which she calls inner confidence. “I distinguish this inner confidence as a willingness to be my “real self,” she wrote. “It differs from the external, ego driven confidence I developed from accomplishments as a way to prove something to others. Inner confidence means I no longer have to look a decade younger if I don’t want to. Inner confidence means I can celebrate middle age my way, even if my friends and husband don’t get it yet. It’s about my recognizing whose story I’m listening to about how to do ‘middle age’.”

As an example about listening to her own story rather than someone else’s, Deb wrote, “The other day I stopped into my eye doctor’s office to pick up an order of contact lenses. I happened to glance down and see a woman’s magazine. Sally Field sat on the cover. The headline read ‘How to Look Seven Years Younger.’ I had my Eureka moment: this is an old story foisted upon American women about how to age. Who cares? Obviously I don’t anymore. The real gift of age is the one I give myself, the inner confidence that says I don’t need anyone’s permission anymore to be the natural me!”

Dan told a story which led him to yet another gift of age. He wrote, “Fifteen years ago I embarked on a major mid-life learning and change process. I thought at the beginning I was refining the work I did for pay. It did that in a major way, and it overturned everything in my personal life as well. Figuratively, I went down into the pit, the well of grief, I believe the poet David Whyte calls it, to find the golden coins. It was a very tough period emotionally, enormous highs and lows. I lost many relationships. I was often–usually–at war with myself over something. The one coin I seemed to have brought back I would call acceptance.”

Dan’s story reminded me of a friend in his late eighties who told me that he was having trouble remembering names. I asked him how he felt about that, expecting to hear a tale of frustration and loss. He replied, “Oh, I’ve accepted it. Right now I have one problem; I can’t remember names. If I don’t accept it then I’ll have two problems.”

Non-judgmentalism, inner confidence, acceptance. And I will add one more gift of age, fruition.

Fruition means, the condition of bearing fruit. Seeds planted in my mind have sometimes taken years to bear anything but anemic fruit. For example, sixteen years ago I had a sudden flash of insight: “I don’t have to prove anything to anybody.” But an insight is not a change, and for many years thereafter I continued on the path of proving various things about myself to various people. Today, while I still work at extinguishing the urge-to-prove, I finally feel confident that I no longer desire to prove anything even when old impulses to do so arise. This fruit is now robust, but it has taken sixteen years to fully understand, integrate, and practice not-proving. Those years came only by aging.

The kind of fruit we get depends, of course, on the seeds we choose to nourish. I like the following story to illustrate the point. Two elderly Jewish men, who had met in and survived a Nazi concentration camp, came together again many years later. The first man asked the second how life had been since their liberation from the camp. The second man told of a life of contentment and accomplishment, said, “I’ve forgiven them for what they did,” and then asked the first man about his life. The first man told of a life of resentment and woe and said, “I’ll never forgive those bastards.” The second man shook his head sadly, “That is all too bad,” he said, “It seems they still have you in their prison.”

The seeds we choose to nourish, and their effect on the gifts of age, will be the subject of Part 2 in this series.

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