I am here to declare the death of serene old age. My proof: Grammys 2012. From McCartney to Raitt, from the Beach Boys to Springsteen. And if that's not enough, we've got Madonna at the Super Bowl and Billy Crystal at the Oscars. And don't forget Joan Rivers, at the top of her game, fashion-policing the whole darn revolution.
The men and women of my generation redefined midlife. Now a vanguard of life-stage revolutionaries have broken through the stereotypes of aging to discover that growing old can also mean growing fierce. Through a potent mix of improved wellness and medical intervention, personal empowerment, spiritual growth and true grit, we are becoming increasingly unwilling to define success by society's youth-oriented standards. In a nutshell, older people are learning how to trade anger, fear and shame for freedom and self-affirmation.
Neither reviling nor romanticizing the realities of growing older, our entertainment icons are part of a growing movement that embraces the wild space beyond midlife as much more than merely accepting aging. Having broken denial, we are getting our first, promising glimpse of what it truly means to be fully alive, rocking and rolling with all gears as engaged as possible through midlife and beyond.
This is not to say that we don't value serenity. Alongside most of us who are 50 plus, I aspire to experience serenity as part of the fuller expression of my true human potential. I do value serenity. But it's not the whole picture. In fact, I have a legitimate concern that society uses "serenity" as a kind of booby prize for older people, pacifying and marginalizing us. Peaceful old people don't make trouble, after all. Rather, it is thought to be our duty to slip graciously away from the mainstream and into the dark night.
Like the Grammys and Grandpas rocking the flat-screen TV, I have no intention of living up to anybody else's expectations for me, nor their definitions/stereotypes of aging. I may be quiet and peaceful sometimes. I certainly hope so. But I may be rabble-rousing and making trouble, other times. As long as I keep growing, there will be anxious moments, regrets and self-doubt. But there will be transiting, transforming and overcoming, too.
I believe we can be fully human at every life stage, and that means we can be feisty old men and women, on stage and off. We can be less complacent about injustices, more willing to speak our hearts and minds. This is a version of aging that becomes more empowering rather than less. Not the wise but quiet old neighbor rocking on the front porch. This is, rather, the prophetic model, just as willing to wrestle with God as take premature wing with the angels.
I admit that alongside most of my generation, when I received an invitation to join AARP, I viewed aging as a bad thing. I was enmeshed in the stereotypes of aging that contemporary Western society holds and felt embarrassed and ashamed that I was feeling "old." After all, while I admire the vitality of my rock and rolling peers, I was quite content to watch the awards from my favorite after-hours control post: the sofa in the living room. I don't aspire to climb the Himalayas or run the Iron Man Marathon, either, even if I could. And moreover, as Glen Campbell's alzheimer's so poignantly reminds us, the truth is that we don't have any conscious control over the circumstances -- inner and external -- that push us over the edge into the wild space beyond midlife.
For me, breaking denial that I was getting old came about as I approached my 60th birthday. I have since read that gerontologists have three stages of being old, and that I was situated developmentally and chronologically in the stage they refer to as "young old." The middle stage of old is referred to as "old old" (ages 70-79) and the third stage is "oldest-old" (eighty plus). But feeling old is not necessarily related to any particular age.
More to the point, over time, most if not all the negative connotations of being old have dropped away for me. I stopped seeing age only as illness and imposition, and began seeing it as increased freedom and activation of new, unprecedented levels of self-affirmation and spiritual growth. I no longer view being old as an ending to my involvement in life in a vital and powerful way. Rather, I see it as the initiation of a new life stage during which I am freer than ever to achieve my true human potential. So now, when I say "I'm old," this represents the overthrowing of the stereotypes and the reclamation of the integrity of the fullness of life I now see as my God-given right.
Personally, I have put being at peace farther down on the list of aspirations as I age. At the top is to be fully alive, no matter the consequences. A close second, which has now replaced peace as my ultimate spiritual aspiration, is remembering that there is always something for which one can hope.
Thank you, Grammys and Grandpas, for using the world stage to demonstrate that old is not synonymous with hopelessness, marginalization or abandonment. There is nothing inherent in becoming old -- including illness and loss -- that calls for the solicitation of shame or embarrassment. In fact, if one feels old and brings any of the above negative emotions to the experience, it is -- in truth -- a call to action.
Through a combination of psycho-spiritual work, spontaneous growth and grace, you can come to experience a level of freedom that can't be shaken because it is not dependent on the affirmation of others. Benefiting from a lifetime of trial and error, you will be better equipped than during any stage previously in your life to handle whatever comes your way.
But if you are only looking for peace and comfort, you will be missing your opportunity. This is the time in your life to embrace the greater span of the human potential and to reach the height of personal and spiritual experience; as author Connie Goldman puts it "to not just grow old, but to become whole."
Plummet into aging, stare mortality in the eye, surrender everything and what else is there left to fear? The way is perilous, danger on all sides. But we are no longer a generation afraid of age. We are becoming, instead, a generation fierce with age.
And so it is that I invite you to join us in celebrating a new life stage, one that is proving to be as exciting, challenging and potentially rewarding an experience as every other life stage our generation has transited over the decades of our lives. I do not know for sure where we're headed. But I trust that we all have the potential to be fundamentally changed for the good. I hope you join me in saying we would not have it any other way.
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