The best kept secret of old age: no, not how to avoid wrinkles, they come with the territory. But the fact that it can be an exciting, liberating place to be.
Not for everyone. Bad stuff happens and sometimes it overwhelms us. We need to hear the voices of those who suffer in old age and address their health and social needs.
But at the same time, we need to hear the voices which reflect the joy of later life. That it is possible to grow and thrive, and to enjoy being older.
“By almost every definition I am not healthy, but … I feel very alive and fortunate. I have had an amazing life”. (An elderly man quoted in James Woodward, Valuing Age)
We can all think of cheerful older people, but we tend to think they’re happy despite being old, rather than because the second half of life is exciting. As Betty Friedan puts it in The Fountain of Age:
“After a long time of being afraid, of not wanting to think about it, of pretending that everything’s the same, the delight, the sheer excitement of coming into a new place after sixty, after it’s all supposed to be over.”
This is an incredibly liberating thought in a culture where ageing is variously defied, denied and despised. Even more liberating to discover others share this experience. Like Richard Rohr, whose book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life* I’ve just finished reading.
Rohr talks about the “tasks” of life. In the first half of life, our task is to build a strong “container”, or secure identity. This helps us survive successfully, but has little room for doubt, imperfection and mystery.
So our second-half task is to find our true self, the contents that the container was meant to hold. Our world “should grow much larger in the second half of life”, says Rohr. He calls it becoming an elder – as opposed to simply becoming elderly.
But getting there involves a journey in which everything is shaken up. Losing means finding. Going up means first going down. Falling upwards.
“It is not that suffering or failure might happen, or that it will only happen to you if you are bad (which is what religious people often think), or that it will happen to the unfortunate … or that you can somehow by cleverness or righteousness avoid it. No, it will happen, and to you! Losing, failing, falling, sin, and the suffering that comes from those experiences – all of this is a necessary and even good part of the human journey.”
Some older people get stuck, still preoccupied with the tasks of the first half of life. But Rohr urges us to choose that unsettling journey into the second stage of life. He describes how those who get there:
- Are more accepting of themselves and of others. Having forgiven themselves for being imperfect and falling, they can forgive almost everybody else.
- They are less concerned with success, standing out, or being better than anyone else. “Life is more participatory than assertive”. They know they belong to “the great parade of humanity that has walked before us and will walk after us.”
- Feel more connected. Everything belongs and connects, even the sad, absurd and futile parts of life. Yes, there is darkness in the second half of life, but it’s possible to hold it creatively and with less anxiety.
Rohr writes about spirituality from the perspective of a Catholic priest, though with an inclusive approach. I like his point that the church is preoccupied with first half of life tasks like identity, boundaries and self-perpetuation. So it’s no wonder that people get impatient with it as they grow older and wiser:
“People facing the important transformative issues of social injustice, divorce, failure, gender identity, an inner life of prayer, or any radical reading of the Gospel are usually bored and limited by the typical Sunday church agenda. And these are good people!”
Some of us will, like Rohr, see this opening out as we age as a spiritual journey guided by God. Others will, like Friedan, speak of the human excitement of coming into a new place after sixty. Whichever it is, we need to share the secret that the second stage of life can be a great place to be.