Don't Just Grow Old -- Grow Whole

Young Woman Relaxing On A Park Bench On A Clear Summers Day
Young Woman Relaxing On A Park Bench On A Clear Summers Day

The park bench looked inviting so after six decades running around non-stop, I sat down. I'd hoped to be invisible, left alone to enjoy the crisp fall day. I wasn't. First, there was the stream of joggers rushing by, averting their eyes as if the sheer fact of my oldness was something to be avoided at all costs. Then a middle-aged couple strode briskly by. I'm sure they meant well, but I could see it in their eyes. A pity I wasn't doing more to help myself, something productive like an exercise class or makeover. I quickly got up and threw my half-drunk latte away lest someone throw a quarter in it.

In a youth-centric society that privileges the young and reviles aging, the men and women of the boomer generation have been understandably challenged by the notion of growing old. Until recently, the antidote to dread has been peppy variations of "reinvention." Don't like the idea of aging? Just don't do it. Call upon bravado and denial to simply transform growing older into an extension of midlife.

But with the recent passing of generational elder icons Wayne Dyer and Oliver Sacks, it is inevitable that a number of us would have finally figured out that we're not going to live forever. While most boomers remain in denial, there's a new movement afoot, grouping loosely together under the umbrella "conscious aging." This growing alternative is shaking up the old paradigms for both the aging members of our generation as well as the gerontology field.

The old paradigms are ripe for a makeover of their own. First there is the lingering and persistent notion of aging as decline -- a wasteland of a life stage better left to transpire out of sight and mind. In an inevitable counter-move, in the 1970s, the "successful aging" folks brought a decidedly more upbeat take on growing older to gerontology. As Harvard psychologist and former Jesuit Robert L. Weber, Ph.D., puts it in The Spirituality of Age: A Seeker's Guide to Growing Older, boomers are now having to grow old in a culture that wants us to keep on the move, busy, engaged and productive, as long as possible

The problem with what gerontologists refer to as "activity theory" are manifold. For one, after decades of driven productivity, an increasing number of aging boomers are finding ourselves exhausted by the notion of living up to others' expectations of what it means to be a contributing member of society. We long not so much for the old-fashioned notion of retirement, but we do thirst for the freedom to pick and choose how we spend our time, including chilling out with a good book or sitting on the bank of a river enjoying the breeze without feeling guilty.

The bigger problem, according to the growing chorus of voices in the conscious aging movement, is that by refusing to confront and embrace the shadow side of growing older, an entire generation is in danger of missing out on the opportunity to experience aging as a dynamic life stage offering a new-found psychological and spiritual freedom all of its own.

Consider the novel possibility that after a lifetime of "seeking", many of us are, at last, actually finding what we've been searching for -- hidden in plain sight in the unlikeliest of places: our own old age. Over the years, many in our generation have invested a lot of time and a great deal of money learning how to let go of our egos, transcend materialism, appreciate the present moment.

In fact, virtually every spiritual and religious philosophy centers on the shattering of illusions--be it the Hebrews tearing down of false idols or the Buddhists seeing through the Maya of surface manifestation. Isn't it ironic -- and somehow deeply meaningful -- that those losses aging inevitably brings our way including the passing of those dear to us and the erosion of self-worth associated with the diminishment of our societal roles turn out to be the ultimate destroyer of illusion? We are simultaneously waking up to the realization that our full spiritual and therefore our human potential is coming about, not in spite of the challenges aging brings, but because of them.

While conscious aging is deeply personal, it bears implications for society at large. According to Harry R. Moody, PhD., conscious aging has emerged as a new cultural ideal at a specific moment in history representing "a genuinely new stage and level of psychological functioning."

The next time you see an old person on a park bench, consider the possibility that you are witnessing an organic grassroots revolution in gerontological theory. And if that old woman is me, please put your quarter away and leave me alone. I think I'm on the verge of a transcendent experience.