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Susan Smalley, Ph.D. Headshot

Why Change Is Just A Breath Away

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I just returned from a holiday in Europe where I spent my time relaxing in the sun in Italy and France. This trip was a bit different from most because for the first time in over 22 years, our children are no longer 'at home' needing us - the last has just turned 18 and they are all now in the midst of their 'young adult' years of life. While they call when in need (for money or a touch of parent love), life for my husband and I will change. We can go as we please, do as we wish - just like our children in their newfound freedoms. But there is a twinge of 'loss' of the immediacy of family one experiences when children are young, there is an increasing awareness of the final stage of life, and its ultimate end.

Elderly people become more interesting targets of attention. It's like when you buy a car and it's the only car you notice for a while. The increasing awareness of aging, brought on by the departure of children to adulthood, heightens our sensitivity to the later stages of life. I particularly pay attention to those in their 70s and 80s who are active, energetic and full of exuberance among the numerous elders not so lucky - marked by dementia, physical frailty or a host of illnesses brought to the fore in the constant bombardment of commercial ads for age-related illnesses.

I ponder the quest for youth so many attempt to achieve through facelifts, botox, and cosmetic restructuring on the one end of the spectrum to those that accept their frailty as a given and no longer attempt to workout, watch their diet, or take part in the game of life.

We each approach aging differently and like all other human diversities, we settle in to a relationship with the process. Perhaps the most interesting aspect to it all is to experiment with this relationship and to increase your own understanding of how you relate to life and death through that experimentation.

I read somewhere that you might examine how you relate to death by noticing death around you - death of an insect, a leaf, a tree, a plant, animal, or person (stranger or friend). I know as people age, obituary sections of the paper often become a 'must read' section and in a way, this allows you a moment to connect with that process.

The death of a famous person - such as Tim Russert recently - gives each of us post-50 pause (do we need a medical exam? etc) but it also reminds us of the inevitable, it reminds us to live each day as if it may be our last, and to live each day attending to our most meaningful activities.

I took an inventory recently of what I found meaningful and pleasurable at this stage of life. It includes a lot of activities that are contemplative (meditation, yoga, gardening, painting, writing poetry) or social (being with friends, being with family) and little that is goal-directed (writing grants, conducting research, 'building programs'). As I gradually shift my own emphasis from the 'doing' to the 'being' phase of life, it likely makes the transition to another state - that of death - even easier.

I often think life is merely a series of births and deaths. Every moment in fact is like a mini 'death' and 'birth'. Sometimes these moments are grouped together and the shift seems greater than others (i.e. a 'stage' of age), but in every moment of life, there is an arising of a one experience and a disappearance of another.

Death is merely another step in such moments, albeit one we spend exorbitant amounts of time speculating as to what follows. Yet, in life we have no greater knowledge of prediction per se, from one moment's death to the birth of the next. We create a sense that we do - by assuming the next will fall into a category previously experienced. But, notice how different some moments are from those that arose before in your own life.

Perhaps death can be seen as another 'sort' of experience. Religions provide a shared belief that can help each of us find a comfort zone for this inevitable experience, yet for many the experience itself (its naturalness in every moment of life arising and falling throughout all of existence) can be enough.

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