by Dr. Dale V. Atkins
Aging is part of life—so we are wise to embrace it. We are fortunate to be aging at a time when so much is known about what can help us age well. As you probably are well aware, there is strong scientific data that supports the value of:
All of these practices influence the ability of our bodies and brains to function well as we get older.
In addition to physical health, including brain health, it is also important to address emotional and spiritual health.
As we get older, we all go through many changes, including many forms of loss. Change often offers us opportunities that lead us to new people and experiences and separate us from previous ones.
When young people graduate from college and begin work, they gain opportunities to learn and develop their talents and a sense of their place in the world. At the same time, they likely lose some of the freedom and social engagement they enjoyed during their college years. Friends move away and sometimes lose touch leaving space for new people.
Throughout life we experience many changes. We move from one job to another, from one state to another, we may marry, have children, watch them mature and leave home to establish their own lives as adults. Hopefully we learn from all these experiences how to adapt to change and move healthfully through life’s transitions. Some of these transitions may be very difficult for us. What can be helpful is to reflect on the previous challenges we have moved through and what helped us to do so in the healthiest and most constructive ways.
As we age, changes and losses continue—for everyone. One reason support groups of various types are so valuable is they put us in touch with others who are also going through painful periods of life. We discover that we are not alone. Our own suffering can lead us to a greater connection with other people. No matter how great a person’s life may look from the outside, we know that every family, every individual goes through painful losses of one kind or another. As a psychologist who is privileged to walk with people through some of life’s greatest challenges, no matter how “strong” and “together” a person may look, we all experience pain, disappointment, and fears, whether we let others see it or not. At a deep human level, we are all the same. Hopefully this awareness can help us to grow in compassion toward ourselves and toward other people.
Throughout my life, I have known many people who have faced significant losses as they aged and have dealt with them courageously and wisely. They have faced painful reality and yet persevered in the face of loss—whether that loss involved loss of a loved one, loss of their professional work, financial reversal, or serious health challenges. Such strong, courageous, wise people live with what one writer (Richard Rohr) called a “bright sadness.” Yes, they are sad that they have lost a loved one, lost their health, or their financial security, yet they continue to be present in the world with a wisdom and brightness that is a great gift to all who encounter them.
In addition to looking after their physical health and dealing with change and loss in constructive ways, people who age well open themselves to discovering life’s deepest meaning and purpose. We will each do this in our own way, but I am convinced that reflecting on our life’s meaning and purpose can be a particularly powerful part of aging well.
The psychologist Carl Jung wrote persuasively that there are two halves of life. Each half is important. However, Jung claimed that the second half of life is significantly different from the first half in terms of its tasks. In fact, many of the things we learned to do well in the first half of life may actually impede us from engaging the second half of life in a wise and full-hearted way.
The author Richard Rohr introduces the metaphor of a container and its contents to help us differentiate between first half and second half of life tasks.
Rohr asks us to imagine that during the first half of our life we create a container. We might think of the container as a metaphor for our identity, our sense of who we are, what makes us each significant. We create this container, our sense of self, through years of education, finding work to do, identifying the people we will live our lives with.
Rohr suggests the life task of the first half of life involves answering four key questions:
The life task of the first half of life is essential. Through the process of living within a family, getting an education, finding work, creating our own family as an adult, developing friendships, pursuing interests and hobbies, we engage the tasks required to develop a strong, healthy ego. We focus on establishing our place within the social strata and advancing our financial security.
The first half of life requires energy and focus. For some people, life never moves beyond these concerns. They have no idea that a second journey awaits them. We learn about the second journey from those who have been there, perhaps a wise elder in our own family or community—or writers from ages past who have matured into a deep understanding of life.
These elders teach us that aging well involves uncovering the True Self within ourselves and expressing our deepest life purpose as best we can each day. I think there is much we can learn from these elders that will help us age well—with grace and wisdom.
Following Richard Rohr’s metaphor, the first half of life involves creating a container. It takes a long time to create our container. Just as an artist begins to shape a beautiful vase and corrects and adjusts it as the creative process continues, it takes us a long time to clarify our sense of who we are, what makes us significant. It takes time and effort to build the relationships we surround ourselves with in our daily lives and to figure out what our place is within the social strata.
Rohr has found in working with people over the years that most people never move beyond the concerns of creating, strengthening, and beautifying the container until they experience a significant loss that leaves them thinking, “surely this is not all there is.” It is usually loss of some kind that catapults us into the second journey and leads us to ask, “what are the contents that I should put in the container I’ve spent my life creating?” What is the deep purpose of my life?
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor had a successful, dynamic career as a neuroanatomist at Harvard. At 37 years old she was at the top of her game, learning about the intricacies of the brain’s neurocircuitry at one of the best research labs in the world.
On the morning of December 10, 1996, she suffered a massive stroke. As a brain scientist, she began to realize in detail what was happening to her. Within four hours she lost her ability to read, write, walk, talk, or recall any aspect of her life.
In her book My Stroke of Insight, Dr. Taylor shares the remarkable details of what she experienced during the four hours her brain deteriorated and the inspiring story of how she fully recovered over the course of the next eight years.
Dr. Taylor’s life story is powerful. It demonstrates how even a young person of 37 may be thrust from a first half of life task into a second half of life task as the result of severe loss.
Ultimately, Dr. Taylor did recover all of her abilities. Because of her standing as a brain scientist, her recovery has allowed her to challenge much of what we thought we knew about how the brain can recover and what brain rehabilitation requires. She is making significant contributions to science.
Her shocking loss of self due to the stroke and the eight years of recovery that ensued led her to begin to ask some very different questions about her own life—questions that help define the contents of her container—to use Rohr’s metaphor.
She felt she had gained a great awareness of the interconnectedness of life and the value of all people. Prior to her stroke, she says she lived her life with anger and a competitive intensity that she did not want to carry into her daily life post-stroke.
Following the stroke, which affected primarily the left hemisphere of the brain—the analytical, linear, linguistic centers of the brain, she learned the power of the right hemisphere of the brain to guide her to a deep sense of inner peace and connectedness. She wanted to continue to nurture those aspects of her experience so that she could live her life more intentionally, reflecting the deepest values she believed in.
The changes she wanted to sustain as she re-engaged life post-stroke were no longer focused on the outer container. They were no longer first half of life issues. What she wanted to focus on now were the issues of what should be the contents of her container: the contents of her life. What was her deepest purpose?
Dr. Taylor’s movement into the second half of life journey came early. As a result she serves as a young “elder” whose writing can help the rest of us learn from her experience.
To discover what our life purpose is right now, we need to reflect on how we use our time, energy, and resources. Regardless of what we may choose to say to ourselves or others, our values are reflected in what is important to us: where we put our time and energy.
As we age, our life experience allows us to reflect more deeply on what is really most important in life. This may lead us to change how we use our time, energy, and resources. We can put aside concerns for our container and begin to focus on the contents.
Discerning our deep purpose is a process that usually takes time. Other people can talk with us, encourage and support us, but ultimately it is a task we must do for ourselves. You are the only person who has been with you every second of your life. We each have deep thoughts and feelings we never speak of to anyone. If we are honest, we know our weaknesses and aspects of ourselves that we may not be so proud of. Being both honest and compassionate with ourselves about our strengths, as well as our weaknesses, helps us age well. If we recognize there are aspects of our life we want to change, this is an important step.
Gaining self-awareness is an important part of moving into the journey of life’s second half in a serious way. Self-awareness requires us to spend some quiet time alone, silencing the distractions that can keep us from ever engaging life’s big questions.
Each of us can discover more about our life’s deep purpose.
What are the qualities you would most like to embody in your life?
What would you like people to say about you when you’re gone? (ex: My father embodied integrity. His word was truly his bond. I never knew him to lie.)
Write down two or three words that identify what is most important to you to express as a human being.
Let’s say my life purpose as I understand it today is to express __________________ (compassion) in my daily life.
Embodying our deepest purpose requires quiet, honest reflection on how we live each day.
If we seek to live each day expressing our deepest purpose as best we can, what difference does it make?
Physicists tell us that all of life is deeply interconnected. We know, for example, that there is no such thing as a solid object. The chairs you are sitting on are really made of millions of molecules in movement. If we had the right kind of scientific equipment we could see that.
The same is true of everything in nature. Photographs of leaves show the energy field. In science labs at UCLA, they have been photographing the energy fields around human beings for many decades. We are now understanding through science what is incorporated in acupuncture. We are able to see the energy fields that the needles stimulate.
The energy that our bodies emits influences those around us. We can learn to send peaceful, loving energy into the world. Perhaps you have had the experience of walking into a yoga class and experiencing a deep, calm energy. It makes it much easier for you to roll out your mat and join the others in a relaxing hour of stretching and meditation. If you walk into a high energy Zumba class where people are enjoying vibrant music, notice the change in how your own energy feels. We are influenced by the energy of others. And we influence them.
How we choose to live our day will not only affect our own health and well-being, but it will also affect all those whom we encounter.
Our emotions, which express energy, are contagious.
The more we pay attention to the energy of our own body, the more aware we become of how our emotions affect us. Anger raises our blood pressure, tightens muscles in our face and neck, and stimulates the production of stress hormones. If we harbor anger and dwell on it frequently, we risk harming ourselves as well as affecting people around us.
We may have very legitimate reasons for being angry. However, people who age well often tell us that it is wise to quit repeating stories about how upset we are at some person or situation. We may have to deal with a toxic relationship or unjust situation. However, we can choose whether or not we internalize anger and feed it.
One of the great insights Dr. Taylor made as a result of her stroke was that a strong emotion courses through the brain in about 90 seconds. After that it remains only if we fuel it with attention and repetition. We may have a flash of righteous anger. However, we can note it. Acknowledge that a person has just made us very angry. And then decide to focus on the power of our strong, centered inner core. Breathe deeply, breathe lots of space into the emotion and dissipate the anger.
We can make the commitment to calm our minds and bodies through engaging practices like yoga and meditation on a regular basis. With frequent practice, it becomes easier and easier to return to that calm place when something upsets us. Aging well involves learning to live from our deep inner core so that we don’t spend so much time getting sucked into negative, destructive emotional binges.
Good mental and physical health is increased when we engage in positive emotions. Laughter is a great example. You may know there are groups that get together to laugh. When we pretend to laugh with others, whether we feel happy or not, our bodies begin to respond as if we really were laughing. Over a few minutes, the silliness of everyone laughing becomes funny, and it is easy to keep laughing.
What happens to our bodies? We take in more oxygen. It makes us more alert. A few minutes of hearty laughter releases endorphins in our brain, which are natural pain killers. When we stop laughing we feel lighter, happier, and more able to engage the world.
Other things that replenish our positive energy are loving friends, pets, time in nature, music, movement, prayer, meditation, dance, hobbies, etc.
When we replenish our positive energy and intentionally express it in our daily life, we are able to more fully embody our deepest life purpose.
The people I know who have aged well live life intentionally. They are intentional about what they eat, their exercise, nurturing positive relationships, and taking advantage of opportunities to learn and stimulate their minds.
They also have a deep sense of what is most important in life. Through their words and actions they contribute to those around them in positive ways. They have a purpose they hold onto in both easy and hard times. We can learn from such people and live our own lives more fully.
In closing, I suggest you take out a piece of paper, a pen, and an envelope. I invite you to write yourself a personal letter about aging well. You can include ideas that you want to incorporate into your own life. You can ask: What do you want to learn more about? Try to encourage yourself and focus on what you are doing well, not only on what you would like to do differently or better as you age.
When you are finished, address the envelope and seal your letter inside. Put it somewhere where you can find it in one month when you will open it and read it.