Eat Twinkies, But Only With Friends

by John Schuster on August 28, 2018

in Uncategorized

Making space for the Good People

Think of a person you know who “never got over” a bad event. Conversely think of those who somehow powered or muddled through big difficulties and declare they are the better for it. Why do bad things dent or even crush some and not others? This is the complex question that drives the large body of research on resilience we can now tap.

George Vaillant, MD, has something to say on this question, especially for the second-half-of-life crowd. As a keeper of one of the largest data bases of peoples’ lives over many decades, he posits a major idea: it is less the bad things that happen to you that determines your life, it is more the good people that happen to you. https://www.amazon.com/Aging-Well-Surprising-Guideposts-Development/dp/0316090077

Think of your own life here. Who are the good people who “happened” to you and what corner did they help you turn? There may well be many.

Happier Aging by welcoming others in.

This hopeful idea came to Vaillant after studying many a maturing person’s life and assessing the later life decades, as opposed to the mid-life ones. Those “vigorously adapted to aging” are the happy souls who were harvesting the loves and lessons from the good people who came into their lives.

His argument is convincing that happier maturing years are ahead for anyone who savors and dwells on the good relationships from family members to friends to old teachers to bosses, even—you name it. All of these connections, if long enough and positive enough, can help us dig out of the holes of the “bad things” and either neutralize them or turn them into net positives. We may be able to do this all by ourselves, but it is much more likely to happen if we have a caring other who is around at the right times to lend us a hand, listen, model, support or inspire us to move ahead.

My wife Patricia is the major good person happening to me in my life. She showed up in my 30’s and has kept showing up to help me get through my “dangers, toils and snares,“ to borrow from Amazing Grace, again and again.

More recently, in my late 60’s, I’ve befriended gerontologist Tom Cole in Houston. He came into my life with the gifts of life-long learning and conversation and to help me learn about aging in ways I did not know.

One teaching from Tom is that the aging population in the U.S. lost its respected place in the life cycle when the industrial/Victorian age took off. Its over-emphasis on the ideals of human productivity made mid-life values of success and effectiveness (emphasized over relationships) the measure for all of our years, youth and old codgers included. In the 170 years since, latter-life adults have still yet to recover from this loss of place and respect.

Isolation is one of the major bad things that can happen at any stage of life, but especially in the slower years of later lifers. But here is the antidote from Vaillant, and what we need to remember—“it is better for our health to eat Twinkies with our friends than broccoli by ourselves.“ Our relationships can literally save us and keep us healthy—that is what Vaillant is after.

I turn 70 in about two months. My 70th year blog project nears its final phase. I’ve got people to meet and friends and co-workers to cherish. And it’s time to take a walk with Patricia.

Make plenty of space for those good people.

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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

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