Getting Older: Valuing Our Deepening Character

The Journey through Middle Age 
Enjoying Retirement 

Taking Your Place as an Elder
The Last Chapter: Embracing Your

Valuable Old Lady or Old Man Self 

Our sessions are a sacred place for you to: 

     Tell your valuable story! 
     Savor your deepening character. 
     Learn to trust your karma—and your character! 
     Recognize how you are already bringing light to the world. 
     Discover ways to share your unique wisdom as a Mentor. 
     Value the arc of your life by claiming your age. 
     Bring your special medicine out! 
     Name and share your gifts that will live beyond you

"The Force of Character" 

Who would buy a book if the last half or third  were missing! If we like the story, we want to read "until the end.” You get to know a character early on, and then later they have a depth and layering which makes his or her decisions poignant to you. You can’t put the book down and so read late into the night in spite of next morning’s responsibilities. Characters who began as interesting to us become intriguing and we want to see “how it turns out for them.” The same is true for us—if we are lucky, we grow old, and get to live into “finding out how it turns out” in the story of our own lives.

In fact, as James Hillman proposes, 

  • The process of growing old, including the changes in our body and our perception, is exactly what our unique “character” needs to complete itself in this lifetime. 

Hillman uses the wonderful metaphor of a sock. You can darn the sock many times, until the material you end up with is completely different yarn (our bodies change cells many times throughout our lifetimes), and yet the form of the sock is the same. It is still a sock. We are who we are. This he calls character, and says that the process of aging is necessary to allow “the force of character” to complete itself. 

            “It seems, as one becomes older, 
            That the past has another pattern, 
            and ceases to be a mere sequence, 
            We had the experience but missed the meaning, 
            And approach to the meaning restores the experience 
            In a different form, beyond any meaning.” 
            —from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets 


The Difference Between "Old," "Aging"
and "Death" 

  • Old is a value that we bring, positive or negative, to things and people, separate from the aging process and separate from death, and is influenced by culture. 
  • Aging is the process of discovering who we have become in the later chapters of our life, influenced by bodily changes, important events, and the arc of our experience. It is a process unto itself. 
  • Death is an archetype of its own, always present whether or not we choose to be conscious of it. 

Old

Hillman speaks of the importance of separating Aging and Old and Death. He says, "When we muddle these three terms we miss the importance of each.  

"For old," he says, "is a category unto itself, not necessarily implying either the process of aging or the approach of death.” He goes on to point out how much we often like old!—“ Old masters’ paintings, old manuscripts, old gardens, old walls do not bring to mind dying but everlastingness. We visit Old Towns, preserve old sites, collect old silver, glass, cars, instruments, toys.” It is a compliment to say of someone, even a child, “she is an old soul.” Old with this meaning highlights value and has nothing to do with death. 

Aging

Modern medicine looks at aging as symptoms to be remedied, a body to be prolonged, rather than aging as a process, and being old as something of value. Yes, we want the wonders of modern medicine, but we are sorely lacking when we are held as just symptoms and body parts. 

You don’t want to find out whodunit in chapter four! The mystery is compelling! Our lives are a mystery which unfolds over time. It is important to look at aging as appropriate learning stages separate from death. The medical model robs the telling of our story with dignity and the vital need of our lives to steep in our character. 

Death

People say death is closer for the aging, but in fact in the measurement of days it may be farther away for your grandma than it is for someone who is about to die young. Our relationship to death is a vital area of recognition and exploration, but it is a different issue than who we are living into being, 

If we make death weigh down middle age and elderhood and old age, then we may be both denying death, and, not doing our important work around character and our lived life. We are missing being engrossed in the unfolding story of our soul. We must come to realize that death has pulled up a chair and has been sitting beside us our entire life—the gift in accepting this is to live the life we are given. 


Beyond Comparison

We live in a world of constant comparisons: young and old are used together, explicitly or implicitly, with young coming out on top (as a comparative model necessitates a pro-con measurement) and peddled in the market place for a nice profit. 

  • But did you know that for much of the history of humans, we did not live by comparing old and young. Old had a stand alone value for the individual and community. 

Youth

Youth is an early chapter. Youth “grows up.” The adventure for youth is, and appropriately, outward focused: I will take this course of study, I will travel to that destination (and get muddy, wet, sweaty, and love and be scorned while I am about it), I will pursue this or that career. Youth and youngness strives, does, looks outward, builds. 

Middle Age and Becoming Aged

As Hillman says:

  • The wizened soul, like seasoned wood, makes a flame that leaps up and gives light to others—Mentor, Elder. 
  • The old body reaches down into the ground as our souls ground, and helps make the world sacred. 

Having stayed up all hours through intense conversations, 3 am beach adventures, nights of sex, hoisting young children on a hip and working long hours, one moves into middle age and the knees and joints begin to complain. Then something shifts. As one becomes aware of the limit of one’s knee to hike with quite the abandon one was used to, the adventure begins to shift from the outward world (building, doing) to a new frontier, and one that, surprisingly, has no end of depth and is broader than the earthly mile-measured horizon. Where the job of youth is “to grow up,” the adventure of middle age becomes deepening into ourselves, and growing our souls down. 

“Where no one has gone before” shifts from climbing up a mountain to digging down and discovering the particular meaning it holds for us, which we attain through reflection. And we find ourselves becoming guides to others who are just beginning to find their compass. Mentor is an archetypal figure who must be old, experienced, seasoned. Mentors, guides, wise men and wise women draw upon a lifetime of experiences, and the steeping in them, which, like a pot of tea, renders something quite different. 

Finally becoming aged, we enter the very last chapter of our lives, become Repositories of Wisdom, Experience, Stories and Teachings that enable the next generation to prosper. Age (along with it’s sagging and slowing down) grows down—we deepen into our souls, our characters, the expression of our unique lives. Old age is no longer an active adventure (except perhaps up and down the stairs), but an appropriate reviewing of our experiences: lamenting the lost love, laughing at our high adventures, and throwing ourselves a victory parade.  

Suggested Reading: 
Once Upon a Midlife by Allan B. Chinen 
The Force of Character by James Hillman 
The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

My dear friend Edith, at age 100.

My dear friend Edith, at age 100.

Bev, 84, still having new adventures.

Bev, 84, still having new adventures.

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