Throughout adulthood, I have been under the impression that the first seven years of our lives are the most important for our development and that, by the time we hit our 20s, we are practically fully developed human beings. I had the picture in my head that it was an exception for someone to study later in life, that the time to go to University was after school (perhaps after a gap year), and that if you didn’t do it then, you had pretty much missed the boat. My belief was that the pressure to acquire knowledge is in the first quarter of our life, thereafter we must go out to work and put what we have learnt to good use. I believed that we are in the prime of our productive lives for the following quarter, at the end of which, we have a mid life crisis, wonder what it is all about, try and hold onto our youth or get depressed about the best years of our lives being behind us.
I imagine this perspective of human development being like a tree growing up towards the sun until halfway through its life, at which point it stops growing or slowly subsides, until it is parallel to the ground before it dies. Nature doesn’t work like that. A tree may reach its full height early on in its life but it never stops growing, it never stops changing shape, or sprouting new leaves, right up until it breathes its last.
This year, I am very privileged to be a student at the Centre for Coaching of the UCT Graduate School of Business. The course itself requires deep self-reflection and through it, I have specifically been encouraged to face my own process of maturing; either that or ‘getting old’. After the initial indignation of anyone suggesting that I may be ‘at that stage’, I allowed the idea to sink in. I read all the material that was recommended and awakened to the gift that I have been given: the gift of approaching growing older with openness and curiosity and, as I bought into the concept, a growing excitement.
It is only in recent years (relative to the broader scheme of our evolution) that we have celebrated youth and productivity at the expense of wisdom and maturity. It also appears to be more pronounced in the Western cultures than those of the East. We want our leaders to be younger so that they are still ‘with it’ and ‘in touch’ with the technological (amongst other) advances of our era. They are able to keep up with the pace of change. However, good leadership is less about youth and so much more about insight, presence and an ability to see the bigger picture, all the time. I would even go so far as to suggest that any leader we admire and look up to, seeks out the wisdom of those who have gone before them and remained open and conscious to what is going on in and around themselves.
I am truly privileged to have constant ageing role models around me: my parents, their friends (who are also my friends), ex colleagues and mentors. There are books written by and about Sages and Leaders who understand that success in life has a lot to do with our ability to live in connection with ourselves, other people and the world around us. I love to hear the stories that they tell, not to show off their wisdom but to show understanding, connection and the pain and joy of being alive. In contrast to the natural slowing down of their physical being, their insight, inner strength and ‘knowing’ and their capacity to find joy and laugh, is wonderful to be in the presence of. They laugh at themselves more and find joy in more places than I have thought to look. They see beyond what I know and see but are happy to share what they have learnt from their lives, what to hold onto and what to let go of.
They make me feel like they can only see the good in me, without needing to search for the bad, I am not competition. There is no way I can be, without having the experience of life and ageing that they have. They are happy to light the way and point out the pitfalls. They have experienced pain, loss, joy, success and failure, and are willing to help me navigate my own. It recently occurred to me that so many of the people I look up to and aspire to be like are older than me -some are even dead - but their wisdom and presence in my life lives on.
I find that joy comes to me more easily the older I get, particularly when I am not searching for it, but I can see it in all forms of life and living around me. I understand the role I have played by not being conscious of my decisions and actions and I am learning to make better choices in caring for our home planet. I know I need much less than I thought I did - of everything - yet I have more to give than I did throughout my ‘productive years’.
There are things I now know about myself and the world that I would love to have known 10 or 20 years ago. I have learnt and grown more in the past 5 years than in any preceding 5 year periods. I have seen that the events I thought I would not recover from, I did. The things I have done, to do with which I have carried deep shame, I can hold with more compassion without needing to make excuses or find someone else to blame. I have learnt to witness my ego and re-own my shadow and more importantly, I am beginning to see the light that is within me. I like and forgive myself and others more often and more easily. I still cycle through the more difficult emotions that come with anxiety and depression but I have learnt to sit more comfortably in the discomfort that they bring, knowing that “this too will pass”. Just as the world has seasons, so do I.
Most of all, I am looking forward to growing into who I am yet to become. I fully intend to live into the process of ageing, or preferably, becoming an Elder by growing from the inside. My wish is to have less and less attachment to my professional or social identity and a greater spiritual connection to myself and the world. I no longer need to judge the choices others make, about how they bring up their children or live their own lives. How can I? I have not walked in their shoes, but I would like to listen and understand, share in their happiness and sorrow and walk alongside them for a while if I am invited to do so.
And if the universe allows me to experience old age, I will balance out the decline of my body by continuing to grow through meditation and yoga, conversation and laughter with (mostly) healthy food, a little bit of pot and red wine, with whoever wants to join me.
There is a lot of material on the subject but these are my favorite two - so far:
From Age-ing to Sage-ing by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Ronald S. Miller
Through the Dark Wood by James Hollis
The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Bishop Desmond Tutu https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/29496453-the-book-of-joy