By the very dint of her fame, Barbara Walters' announcement that she is retiring after 37 years with ABC would always have made headline news. But the true importance of the story is hidden in this quote from the 83-year-old media queen on a May 14th ABC blog: "I want to find out if there's something I can do besides television."
A reporter as well as thought leader, Barbara may be perhaps too much a fish in water on this story to recognize that her comment reflects something on the scale between a sea change and revolution when it comes to how older women talk about aging. In point of fact, Barbara's retirement represents an entirely new life stage for women, brought to us courtesy of the longevity bonus many of us are enjoying over generations past. We are living longer, healthier and with more vitality than our mothers and grandmothers. We are not buying into the stereotypes of aging that would have us scurrying to the margins, rocking our way through old age. But, as Barbara's quote informs us, we are also no longer in the life stage in which our careers define our identities.
This new life stage does not have a name yet. As an expert in adult development who is transiting this unexplored terrain personally, I have taken to calling it "the wild space beyond midlife." At its best, as Barbara anticipates, this is a time of freedom from the status quo and discovery of previously under-developed aspects of ourselves.
Barbara is by choice entering a psychologically and spiritually mature life stage in which we are no longer in kneejerk reaction to what has defined us in the past. Our primary task on the wild side of midlife becomes one of relishing life beyond outgrown boundaries, witnessing deeper truths while growing one's ability to choose new engagements wisely. Sometimes as a result of our hard psycho-spiritual work over time, sometimes as an unexpected gift, we have the potential to find ourselves increasingly once again surprisingly swept up in fresh wonder of life.
Author Joan Chittister puts it so beautifully: "Now we are beyond the narcissism of youth, above the survival struggles of young adulthood, beyond the grind of middle-age, and prepared to look beyond ourselves into the very heartbeat of life. Now we can let our spirits fly. We can do what our souls demand that fully human beings do. This is the moment for which we were born."
This is the crux of the revolution that Barbara Walters, Joan Chittister and many others of my generation and older of aging women are coming to represent: Not only is old no longer synonymous with hopelessness, marginalization or abandonment. Neither, however, is it a denial of aging, as in those who would go to extremes in order to preserve the illusion of staying "forever young."
In fact, there is the new, growing belief that aging has inherent value and should be relished on its own terms -- not avoided. Despite the preponderance of anti-aging products, it is this pro-aging camp that is making the case most convincingly that embracing aging and mortality may very well prove to be the keys to the fulfillment of the human potential for which this generation of women has strived so long and hard to realize.
"The journey in between who you once were and who you are now becoming is where the dance of life really takes place," writes octogenarian, author and former weekend host of NPR's All Things Considered Connie Goldman. In her cornerstone book, Who Am I...Not That I'm Not Who I Was? Conversations with women in mid-life and the years beyond (Nodin, 2009 ) Connie teaches that aging is an opportunity to not only grow older, but to grow whole.
Clinical psychologist/author and interfaith minister John. C. Robinson refers to this new life passage not as the coming of age of adolescents, but of the "coming into age" of those willing to embrace the fading of old roles and identities that once seemed so important in exchange for something even more meaningful. In his powerful book The Three Secrets of Aging: A Radical Guide (O-Books, 2012) he writes: "The initiation of age, if handled consciously and wisely, creates a developmental transition that moves us from the materialistic concerns of middle age to the awakened consciousness of the Elder in winter...Aging is enlightenment in slow motion."
Those of us, like Barbara, Joan and John, who are waking up to the potential for aging as a time to release old identities and embark upon a new stage of personal growth are far from alone. The Conscious Aging Alliance, for example, includes thought leaders, spiritual leaders and mavericks from a wide range of disciplines, beliefs, traditions and perspectives. There's the Legacy of Wisdom initiative, advancing awareness of the work on spirituality and aging by Ram Dass, Roshi Joan Halifax and Mary Catherine Bateson, among others. There's Sage-ing International, inspired by the work of Zalman Schachter Shalomi, There's Ron Pevny's Center for Conscious Aging and many more, hailing from across the country and around the world.
Most of these conceptions of spiritual development equate spiritual progress with letting go of who we once thought ourselves to be. This advance does not come without a price, however. Awakening often comes bundled with the humbling realization that some and eventually all of our old tricks no longer work. Facing our own mortality, we come to realize how much of our sense of mastery over our fates had always been limited, at best. At last, as Barbara is doing out of choice, we loosen our grip on the tried and true wheel of our lives.
Viewed through the lens of conscious aging, this turns out to be a good thing. Virtually every spiritual and religious philosophy centers on the shattering of illusions -- be it the Hebrews tearing down of false idols or the Buddhists seeing through the Maya of surface manifestation. When we strip away the impositions, the fantasy of permanence and the denial of ultimate concerns, we begin to view aging as holding the potential for activation of new, unprecedented levels of self-affirmation, meaning and spiritual growth.
So thank you, Barbara, for all the many gifts you have given us throughout your long, inspiring career. And thank you, too, for sharing with us your first, promising glimpse of what it truly means to be not only old -- but free. As Sister Joan puts it: "This is the moment for which we were born."
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