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Aging from Within

As I surf the web on aging, I am amazed by the imbalance between inner- and outer-focused websites. Inner-focused sites address the feelings, meaning and personal struggles of aging. Outer sites address practical issues like financial planning, the diseases of aging, physical and cognitive changes, mental health problems, retirement destinations, nursing homes, anti-aging strategies, beauty treatments, and tales of remarkable accomplishments in the face of great odds.

Outer sites are surely valuable - we need to deal with many physical and practical challenges of aging, but why are we so reluctant to delve into the inner dimensions of aging: fear, hope, sadness, loss, change, spirituality, and our personal confrontation with physical decline and death?

Here's what I think. Externalizing the experience of aging makes it appear solid and outside ourselves, turning it into a set of tangible problems we try to can overcome, postpone, maybe even defeat. We could even have a "war on aging" (America's favorite metaphor for change), creating the impression that we can stay in control and conquer the enemy out there. But you don't defeat aging, it defeats you, and maybe that's the problem. We prefer the illusion of invincibility to the reality of defeat.

What I know as a psychologist, however, is that sharing from the inside with others makes us stronger. Stoic, alone and heroic, we eventually crumble in depression. In the arms of loving friends and family, we can bear almost anything. More than that, we can survive, thrive and find new ways to be in the world and accept it the way it is. What I know as an interfaith minister is that something else is happening as we age - a transformation of identity, perception and life itself revealing a world altogether different than we have known before. Aging is only defeat if we define it that way.

The irony here is that most of our outer problems can't really be fixed, but the inner journey of sharing our struggles can heal almost anything, and herein lies the critical distinction: Many problems associated with aging cannot be cured, but they can be healed, meaning that our wounds can mend even when the problems remain. Moreover, those challenges that cannot be fixed are often transformative. My mother's dementia was incurable, but my struggle to make her feel safe and loved changed our relationship in ways that would never have occurred otherwise. And to spend out time fighting a war on aging misses the profound spiritual possibilities of this time - the chance to dissolve separation into communion, individuality into unity, and sorrow into joy.

What if we took the inner journey? What if we let aging be aging and grew our inner self instead, learning to love and serve rather than conquer or lose. This approach does not mean ignoring our outer problems - we do the best we can with them all the while traveling the inner path of healing and transformation. We take advantage of the remarkable advances in medicine, co-housing and retirement planning to improve our outer aging experience, but in the context of meaning, friendship, spirituality and love - power of inner experience.

I don't want to do aging alone and I don’t want to take on endless medical procedures in a heroic attempt to defeat an enemy who may eventually be my friend. I want to be with family and friends as we journey together down this sometimes hard, sometimes painful, ultimately transformative, and heart-breakingly beautiful journey of life.
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