The Surprising Gains of Aging: How a Shift in Mindset Can Reveal the Upside of Growing Older
James Taylor once sang, “The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.” That great song (and profound concept) occurred to us as we read an encouraging article about some of the happy surprises that can accompany aging.
We all know about the stereotypes and the jokes, but as 77-year-old author Elizabeth Roper Marcus reminds us in this recent article from NextAvenue, growing old doesn’t mean a sad and relentless loss of capacity and diminishing of joy. For Marcus the reality is turning out to be quite the opposite, in fact, which accounts for the fact that her article refers to the “surprising gains” that accompany the aging process. Let’s dive in and see how her “shift in mindset” works.
Every Stage of Life Brings Gains and Losses
“Old age (whenever you think it begins) is commonly seen as an inescapably depressing, downward slope toward death, accompanied by a continuous string of losses,” Marcus begins. “Who wouldn’t dread it?”
But at age 77, Marcus points out that she’s been surprised to find that the changes she’s noticing in her present life aren’t any greater than the ones she has experienced her whole life long. They’re not arriving thick and fast after all. “We tend to look back through rose colored glasses, glorifying what was, but it occurs to me now that every stage of life brings gains and losses,” she writes.
A Realistic Look at Our Early Years
Marcus looks back without romance at the different phases of her life. Childhood comes to an end with the rude awakening of young adulthood, “when we realize we have to buy our own groceries and make our own decisions — for the duration,” she writes. “The threshold of graduation looked to me like the edge of a precipice.”
In her 20s, Marcus was struck by the realization that everything, “marriage, career-building, staying slim”, was harder than she had expected. “I would never look like Gloria Steinem, let alone Twiggy. Between all the turmoil…I lost any complacency about where the world was going. I was mystified, frightened,” she explains.
She continues, “My 30s brought the thrill of children and career advances, but I lost all my free time. I was too busy to follow the news and missed both Reagan administrations. I lost the sense that I could be the mother or architect I’d imagined. I felt I wasn’t measuring up.”
Marcus also notes that the ending of marriages in her social circle during this time caused rifts in her friendships, some irreparable. It’s a reminder, as Yogi Berra famously said, that the past isn’t what it used to be.
Losing Confidence, Losing Loved Ones
Movingly, Marcus continues, “In my 40s, my children got up off my lap for the last time, a loss of physical intimacy so painful, I had to hide their baby pictures. I lost confidence in knowing how to help them. I lost myself in worry.”
In her 50s, Marcus had her first real brush with mortality with the loss of both of her parents and other important people in her life. “I lost any remaining positive take on politics and the belief that my generation would change the world for the better,” she adds.
She became more risk-averse in her 60s, avoiding hobbies like skiing or horseback-riding or learning new languages. “I lost the ability to do three things at once, and my memory got worse. A few friends died,” she writes.
In Her 70s, More Gains than Losses
Paradoxically, Marcus finds that she’s experiencing more gains than losses in this decade than in any of the ones that came before. True, her memory might not be what it once was, she worries about her aches and pains, and she mourns the loss of very dear friends.
“But,” she writes, “I published a book and gained a new sense of possibility and increased productivity. My marriage is sailing along more smoothly, as are my children’s lives. I’ve gained a grandchild. I am less anxious and more fit than I’d ever expected to be.”
“I’m Not the Only One”
Marcus is not alone in the feeling that her 70s have been the happiest decade, even more than she expected. “Personally, I’m astonished at what a good time I am having,” she writes. Between learning how to shop and cook in a healthy and delicious way, tricking herself into enjoying exercise for the first time in her life, and learning to say “no” to things (and people) she doesn’t like, her time is spent much more pleasantly than she ever hoped for.
“I know that I am extremely lucky to be in good health, financially secure and to have an optimistic frame of mind,” she writes. “But most of my friends, including some who are experiencing health ‘issues,’ are similarly enjoying their 70s and 80s. Some have lost a spouse, but others have found new partners, a few after years of post-divorce solitude. Few feel that they have come to the end of new pleasures and discoveries.”
The Power of a Changed Mindset
Marcus notes that focusing only on the physical states of our bodies as we age – “the wrinkles, the back aches, the boney knees” – keeps us in the dark about the benefits to our emotional and psychological landscapes as we get older. “If you are only aware of having lost your youthful vigor and lustrous hair, you will fail to notice your newfound freedom from preoccupation with the trivial, your sense of peace with who you are, your greater comfort with the ups and downs of life,” she explains.
And let’s be honest: at every stage of our lives, we’re never quite satisfied with ourselves if we only focus on the physical. “We age every day of our lives, and how we understand that process is a matter of mindset,” she writes.
Today is the Youngest You Will Ever Be
We love where Marcus lands with this philosophy: “Today,” she states, “is the youngest you will ever be.”
“Five or ten years from now you may find yourself looking back wistfully on your present tennis game or night vision or comfort in high heels, something you currently take for granted,” she writes. “If you are constantly looking in the rear-view mirror, you can never appreciate the skills and strengths you are enjoying at this moment.”
And what about death? Marcus says that, yes, death becomes more real as you age, but it also becomes less terrifying. “Knowing you will die helps you focus on the now,” she writes. “A friend who was recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer told me his diagnosis has enhanced his ability to live in the present and to appreciate more fully his wonderful life.”
To conclude, in Marcus’ own words: “When you finally come to believe in your own mortality, when you truly know that your time is limited, you don’t want to waste it. And as a result, you get better and better at doing just that.”
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(originally reported at www.nextavenue.org)