Aging is an activity you do, not something that happens to you. ~Thomas Moore

The wisdom that comes with our later years does not just show up. It was forged, if we paid attention to our experiences, in our contact with life, especially when we had staying power as things were going wrong, against our wills and goals, in the messes of our lives. We learned to survive the hard times. We reflected on the lessons and arrived on some principles and conclusions.

These tough times are “the crucible moments” in our lives, when things were falling apart, or about to. When we looked back on those events, knowing we would never have chosen them, they made us both stronger and more of who we are.

One theory about why the later decades are the wisdom decades comes from Harvard Medical School in the person of Dr. Joseph Cambray, former president of the International Association for Analytical Psychology (IAAP). He thinks that as we get older, our brains get more complex, with more neural pathways, and so our wisdom “emerges” into new levels of thinking. And our brains would not get so complex without the accumulation of lessons learned, spiked by those crucible moments.

(One of the deep sadness factors about Alzheimer’s is that the wisdom of some elders is largely lost—how tragic this can be, that some retain our older brains and others have lessening access to its full functioning.)

Here is the formal way Cambray puts it as he looks at the field of complexity theory.

Systems with multiple components capable of interacting with one another while open to the environment have been shown to produce behaviors or properties in aggregate that are of a higher order than the components themselves. The high-order phenomena associated with these self-organizing features are what has been identified here as emergent – something more than the sum of the parts – and these phenomena tend to appear at the edge of order and chaos.

~Jung and Aging; possibilities and potentials for the second half of life  p 49-50

In a less scientific mode, Emerson said it this way.

The soul’s advances are not made by gradation, such as can be represented by motion in a straight line, but rather by ascension of state, such as can be represented by metamorphosis—from the egg to the worm, from the worm to the fly.

Ascension of state. What a phrase!! We are stair steps, uneven ones at that.

So we must askhow is the wisdom factor emerging in our aging brain and life? Can we feel it and use it? Can we help it emerge, cooperate with it by having some regular dwell and quiet time, good reading, selective video input (Seinfeld reruns may be as helpful as TED, but not likely).

Let’s end with more from Cambray, on why the aging brain is a special tool.

Lifelong development of the psyche occurring in an interactive sociocultural matrix, being capable of producing levels of emergence beyond those obtainable in early adulthood, that is, at the pinnacle of physical development.  The argument is that there are new, high-order phenomena that can only manifest with longevity.


Image above, “Complexity” by Mark Skipper Licensed under CC-BY 2.0
Original source via Flickr


The setting: I am in the Manhattan office of a colleague I much admire for his leadership and stellar career, and we are having a rich conversation on aging, aging men in particular. He tells me a story of his friend who lost his wife of many years, and then suffered deeply and for an extended time the loss of his life partner. In a candid moment with my colleague this widower in pain gives his friend his best advice on aging. He says it in two words: “Go first!”

As I heard this I took the words at two levels. The first was—good advice, who wants to go through the pain of that loss? I thought…

In about 10 seconds, I hear a second voice in my head, one I did not voice to my colleague. “And who do we think we are that we have a right to inflict the loss and grief process on our spouse/partner.”

I could not get this conversation out of my head for several days, coming back to it with strong reaction.

The more I thought about it, the more it felt to me that an act of love for your life partner would be to let them go first. Gladly we have little if any control over these things, although there are advocates for assisted suicide and I have had thoughts at times that for the suffering this may indeed be an option we should offer. But that feels different than what we are talking about.

The advice from this man still in grief was to go first, as if your partner should be the one to bear that burden.

My truth is, in this, my 70th year, that if it happens that my wife Patricia is the first to go to the other side, then I best be ready for that. And if I could have my preferences, and if it would spare her a lot of pain, I will take the bullet and do the suffering as it comes my way in the letting go of her.

And I may be making brave talk here. This is how it seems to me now—ask me, if it happens, how it went when it is over; or ask me in ten years if we are both still around, how I am feeling about my bold assertions. I may change my mind over time—talk can be cheap when compared to the experience.

Still, as it is now, I figured I ought to tell Patricia what I had been thinking. On one of our regular night time walks under the stars, after some weeks of hesitating and waiting to see if I meant it, I found a good enough time to bring up this heavy topic. Tears welled up in my eyes as I shared my thinking and I thought of losing her. Patricia got what I was saying and took it to heart. She takes all things to heart. She knew this was the “death do us part” section of our vows re-affirmed in the reality of being 70, versus 32 years ago in the imagining space when we were in early mid-life and the words came easily.

So what is your take on this advice and where do you stand do you think? Or would you rather not think about it because it is out of your hands? That may be the wiser way to go for all I know.

My 77-year-old friend Fred Andrle created a haunting haiku on this. The former NPR radio personality at WOSU, Columbus Ohio, now retired and a haiku composer, put it this way, so beautifully.

I will bury you, sweetheart,
or you will bury me
autumn turns winter

Ah-h; so few images, so poignant. One of the two goes first. And then the winter comes.



Image above “2008_12_15” by Taz Licensed under CC-BY 2.0  Original source via Flickr


Stay Happy, Stay Restless

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The Graceful Final Good-bye: actuarial realities

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But at my back, I always hear Time’s winged chariot hurrying near   Andrew Marvell My colleague and master coach and teacher Doug Silsbee is dying. He has a blog on these last months of life that he is creating with wife Walker. Doug had many many like me, proud to call him colleague, teacher, friend. […]

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