"I hate it!" This is what Greg said when I asked him how he felt about growing old.
Greg was a corporate executive in his mid-fifties, and it was not the first time I had heard this response from an interviewee. One of the things I learned in the research for my new book on aging (Aging as a Spiritual Practice: A Contemplative Guide to Growing Older and Wiser ) is that, simply put, some people like growing old, and some definitely do not. Actually, when I probe further almost everyone has both feelings, but one or the other seems to predominate. In Greg's case, he had a number of reasons why aging was a problem for him. One was that he felt he had chosen the wrong career, and now it was too late to go back. When he was young, Greg had aspired to be a psychologist, but his gruff, results-oriented father had convinced him to go to business school instead. "Make some real money!" his father had said.
Greg had indeed made some real money in his corporate career, but now he was realizing that money was not what really mattered to him. He had wanted to study the human mind, to help people, to make a difference, and now that road not taken was haunting him. His father had recently died, too, and Greg had not been able to reconcile with his father before his death. That was another problem for Greg.
Regret is a universal quality of aging; each of us has a collection of regrets by the time we are in our forties or fifties. Younger people have regrets too, of course, but for the young there is always the sense that there is time to start over, to try again, to reverse ill fortune. The regrets of aging are marked by irreversibility, a sense that there is not time to start over or go back. Actually, as I have discovered in talking to many physicians and mental health professionals, that sense of lost opportunity is often exaggerated. Many people can and do go back, even in their fifties, sixties or beyond. And regardless of what is actually possible, one psychiatrist told me his most powerful advice to people like Greg is, "There is always something you can do." Sometimes this psychiatrist has to work hard to convince his patient that this is really true, but it is. There is always something you can do.
Greg tried many things. He went to a psychiatrist, he took anti-depressant drugs, he entered into a torrid affair which flamed out almost as quickly as it had flamed up. None of those things really helped Greg, and by the time I interviewed him he was growing bitter.
But in Greg's case, my psychiatrist's friend's advice proved true: there was something he could do. Greg reached out to the industrial psychologist whom he had used from time to time to help with workplace conflicts in his company, and after a few lunches and after-hours conversations, Greg and the psychologist decided to team up as a two-person consulting team, helping managers and executives like Greg deal with the inner stresses, conflicts, and disappointments afflicting them. At first they only had a couple of clients, but word quickly spread and their bookings increased. They were a good team. Greg found he had a natural aptitude for a counseling role, and together with his psychologist partner they were able to make a real difference for their clients.
No, it wasn't the same as being a psychologist himself, Greg admitted to me. And he was not turning the clock back to some earlier time in his life. But he had, as he put it, "moved the ball forward finally." He was coming out of his funk, applying his professional and life skills in the service of something that had real meaning to him. At the end of our second interview I asked him if he still hated growing old.
He laughed. "Well, I never really hated it. I just hated not knowing what to do about it. Now I'm beginning to figure that out."
As I say in my book, "76 million baby boomers can't be wrong" -- about growing older, that is. The real question is knowing what to do about it.
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