It hit me like a ton of bricks. “I’m old!”
I was making a presentation to the last of my sizeable clients, wondering with increasing dismay why my pitch was going over like a Louie C.K. rant to a Southern Baptist Convention. Then it dawned on me: I was a desiccated prune talking to a half dozen women all younger than my daughter, looking at me as if I was a wizened specimen of a Neanderthal man who had actually survived the Y2K computer bug.
On the plane back to Chicago, realizing I was a character from the silent movie era in an age of streaming video, I knew if my life was to have meaning going forward I had better figure out why I was here taking up space on the Boeing 767 and in the larger sense of the question, still here on planet earth.
That was the first step, asking myself, if I’m viewed as irrelevant in our youth-oriented society, what purpose do I serve? How do I want to spend the remaining years of my life?
I had the beginning of an answer in that I was fortunate enough to be in good health and had a support system buttressed by a loving wife. But it was clear the life I was leading was out of sync with the man I had become; and even more important, the man I wanted to be.
I wondered, what were the events of the past that shaped me; why was there so much consternation with the past and disquiet about the future?
The personal inquiry led me to step two and a period of introspection. I had spent years on the therapist’s couch to identify the childhood influences that shaped my adult life but this was a more detached search, less concern about origin and more light on outcome: what gave me pleasure and pain, what bolstered my self esteem and what pummeled it?
In the quietude of my inner wisdom I discerned what was really important and what was an extension of my ego; in this sacred chamber I saw the difference between inner happiness (heart centered) and societal definitions of “success” (ego centered).
Enlightened by this new clarity, I took step three, finally accepting the past “as is,” leaving behind what weighed me down and taking what buoyed me going forward. This process was more that simply denying or erasing events, it focused on the feelings of shame and regret that accompanied the mistakes of the past, and stubbornly lingered on.
It took a fierce battle with recrimination and six thousand years of ethnic guilt to see the errors of the past as “hard lessons” that taught me to be the person I am today. And it took the courage and the compassion to forgive myself. I realized I could never get rid of my pain without this personal kindness. Yogi Bhajan, the sage who brought Kundalini Yoga to the west, gave me his wisdom: If you cannot forgive yourself, you cannot forgive anybody. And then the inner anger will destroy all that you have built.
Step four was to use what I had learned to redefine how I looked at life. It’s not quite as simplistic as making lemonade out of lemons but acceptance of the past and moving away from dwelling on the man you once were to taking pleasure in being the authentic man you’ve become, creates a vast, new space for creating meaning to life and enjoying it to the max.
The yin and yang symbol is a wonderful teaching tool for those of us wrestling with the woes and worries that accompany aging. It tells us that for each loss there is a gain; an opportunity to re-frame shortfall into windfall. For example, can you see how the painful loss of a loved one can lead, over time, to a reawakened appreciation of the importance of living every day to its fullest? Or how a loss of physical energy can lead to a gain in spiritual vitality; a loss of sexual vigor to a gain in intimacy?
Now I was ready to complete step one, not only having an answer to “how do I want to live the rest of my life,” but taking step five, committing to making the answer real with an outline of resolute, specific goals. Here are mine, written in the present tense to make them actual occurrences, not hypothetical projections.
I am no longer co-dependent, deriving my sense of self-worth from the behavior of others;
When making decisions I come down on the side of love rather than looking to a quid pro quo;
I am a volunteer with organizations helping older men find relevance and purpose.
I accept death’s inevitability and shift focus to living to the fullest every day I have left.
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