Twenty-five years ago, when I was in my late 30s, "The New York Times" wrote an article about the organization I founded. Superwomen's Anonymous was a club for baby boomer women who were tired of trying to have, do and be it all. Attracting tens of thousands of equally exhausted women, Superwomen's Anonymous was accurately hailed by the national media as "the harbinger of things to come" -- part of the pioneering work our generation contributed to the then-revolutionary notion of life -- balance, simplicity and the search for meaning.
The phone rang off the hook and I found myself with lucrative speaking engagements, media appearances and a book deal with a major publisher. In fact, it was just after meeting with my publisher for the first time that I recall standing on Fifth Avenue, deeply breathing in the heady sense that I had secured my destiny: that through this book, I had been tapped by the gods as immortal.
To make a long story short, just before my book came out, someone else -- somebody who I'm sure at the time thought that she was equally blessed -- hit the media circuit with a book on the same topic. The books cancelled each other out, and as any author will tell you, there's nothing more deflating to youthful illusions of immortality than walking into a bargain bookstore and seeing your life's work on the remainder table for 99 cents.
The attainment of immortality is but one of the many illusions that aging dispels. In fact, I am moved by Nobel Prize nominee Andre Malraux's assertion that: "The greatest mystery is not that we have been flung at random between the profusion of the earth and the galaxy of the stars, but that in this prison we can fashion images of ourselves sufficient powerful to deny our nothingness."
James Hollis, Ph.D., in his infinitely wise and mature "Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life: How to Finally, Really Grow Up" refers to Jung's concept of individuation from the tribe "and the deconstruction of 'the false self'" as one of the necessary, if confusing, frustrating and disorienting initiations into true adulthood we must endure if we hope to reap the rewards of the fully lived life. This initiation into psycho-spiritual maturity causes us to question and dismantle "many of the values and strategies we have derived from internalizing the dynamics and messages of our family and culture. Yet each person is invited to a new identify, new values, new attitudes toward the self and the world, which often stand in stark contrast to the life lived prior to this summons."
The illusion of immortality was but the first of many illusions dispelled by the transit into and ultimately through midlife. On this, the far side of midlife, the deconstruction of illusions has only accelerated as I am increasingly learning to trust that the letting go of the old, as frightening and disorienting as it may be, inevitably leads to something always profound, and occasionally stunning.
While the list that follows is not definitive, it is certainly indicative of the nature and depth of the illusions that aging has dispelled. Before I share it with you, lest I lead myself -- or anyone -- to believe that on the other side of illusion there is certainty and peace, allow me to close with a quote from Hollis: "Psychological or spiritual development always requires a greater capacity in us for the toleration of anxiety and ambiguity. The capacity to accept this troubled state, abide it, and commit to life, is the moral measure of our maturity."
23 Top Illusions Aging Has Dispelled
1. My most recent realization: That facing and deconstructing illusions leads to an ongoing, serene state of enlightenment.
2. My earliest illusion: That success guarantees immortality.
3. That sixty is really the new forty.
4. That these post-midlife years would represent the peak of demand and appreciation of what I'd always depended upon as my most marketable abilities.
5. That I parented my children better than my parents parented me (in fact, in addressing my grievances with the past, I performed over-corrections that have wreaked their own grievances).
6. That I would always know why somebody I care for would willingly disappear from my life.
7. That good people will always be ultimately rewarded and bad people will always be ultimately punished.
8. That commitment to exercise and healthy eating will keep you as strong and firm as you were when you were young.
9. That you're not (and are never going to be) one of those other people who gets old.
10. That getting a serious illness means you'll die soon.
11. Conversely, that you can beat anything.
12. That your mom or dad, clergy, teachers and mentors always knew what was best for you and/or always had your best interests at heart.
13. That the things about you that other people judged or criticized were wrong or bad.
14. That lives are long and the runway endless.
15. That you saved enough for retirement and/or your children will be able (or want to) take care of you.
16. That nobody would ever love you as much as your mother.
17. That you would never recover from the demise of your first love.
18. That you can attend a high school reunion and not revert back to adolescent feelings and behaviors.
19. That your grown-up car would be a Ferrari.
20. That you will someday be a) a star on Broadway, b) a super model, c) in the World Series, d) the recipient of a Pulitzer or Nobel Prize, e) elected president of the United States, f) lead singer in a band as big as the Beatles, g) the next Steve Jobs and/or h) the author of a bestseller.
21. That you have to act, do, be, endure whatever or perform in any particular way to be acceptable to others.
22. That feeling guilty always means you've done something wrong and feeling inadequate means you haven't already done enough
23. And last -- the mother of all illusions: that we can have control and mastery over all aspects of our lives, and that if only we are good enough, try hard enough, are smart enough and eat enough tofu, we'll get everything we want to turn out for us just the way we want.
Your turn: what illusions are you leaving behind on the wild side of midlife?
Happiness is not the domain of the young. In fact, quite the contrary. According to research on age and happiness, older people tend to be happier than young people. Writes Carstensen: "With the exception of dementia-related diseases, which by definition have organic roots, mental health generally improves with age." Older people generally focus on the essential, don't sweat the small stuff, and enjoy their freedoms when their children leave the nest. (According to Carstensen, the empty nest syndrome is atypical. "Children make parents very happy... when they're living somewhere else," she writes.) This "paradox of aging" has to do with a shift our perspectives as our sense of temporal reality changes. Simply put, the less time we have, the more we cherish it and the more expansive simple pleasures become. What age group is the most unhappy, stressed, and prone to depression? The 20-something demographic.
According to Carstensen, "one of the paradoxes of American longevity ... is that medical science has become powerful enough to rescue people from the brink of death but remains largely impotent when it comes to erasing the effects of the lifetime of bad habits that brought them there." In other words, having a healthy lifestyle is as important as having good genes when it comes to age and wellness. Common sense prevails here. If you smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for decades, you'll pay later. Ditto for obesity, drug or alcohol addiction and lack of exercise. According to a Harvard University study that's been tracking longevity since the 1930's, there are seven lifestyle choices that don't necessarily trump genetics, but that certainly give us an edge: Don't smoke. Drink in moderation only. Exercise regularly. Keep your weight down. Cultivate stable emotional relationships. Get an education. Develop good coping skills for handling life's fast balls.
We work long and hard. Our mid-lives are often filled with the stress of parenting, trying to save for retirement, and juggling multiple jobs. Then we're supposed to retire and do nothing for the next 30 years. "There is something wrong with this picture," writes Carstensen. Carstensen calls for creating a new model where "work is less demanding and more satisfying throughout life." The operative word here is "throughout." Putting off pleasure and fulfillment until our much later years is not only folly; it's unhealthy. Writes Carstensen: "Time after retirement is the only stage in life that has been elongated. The problem isn't you, it's the model, which was built for short lives, not long ones. It makes no sense to cram all of the work into the beginning, and all of the relaxation into the end." Adds Carstensen: "The beauty of a longer but more moderately paced career cycle would be that we could have more leisure throughout life, more time with our children while they are young, and remain engaged in our communities as we age, giving back some of the expertise we've accumulated throughout our time in the work force." A new "menu of options" would include part-time work, volunteer work or taking on an entirely new career.
The Scarcity Myth is precisely that: a myth. Longevity isn't feeding population growth. Booming youth populations in third world countries and other complex demographic shifts are the real problem. Writes Carstensen: "Bottom line: Population growth is an issue, but Grandpa living longer is not the problem. The true issue is that the gift of increased longevity is unevenly distributed around the globe. In some parts of the world where the youth population is booming, those children may never have the chance to grow old." Meanwhile, the aging workforce is a truly massive force to contend with.
According to Carstensen: "Aging is inevitable. How you age is not. You will very likely spend about three decades of your life as an old person. Deal with it. Death is the only alternative. If you can put behind you the fantasy of eternal youth, you can begin to plan seriously for what comes next. You can begin to think hard about the type of old person you want to be..." Carstesen cites the burgeoning greying demographic as proof that that we will all, invariably, face old age together -- both in our local communities and as a global community.
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