Know Thyself: Ways We Evolve as We Age
Like millions of others stuck at home for much longer periods than we expected, we’ve had more time to reflect about the trajectory of our lives, how we want to spend time when we once again get to move about more freely and how we’ve evolved gradually to become the people we are today. This involves more than just bettering our Pilates skills by doing more Pilates on our own or via Zoom classes or ramping up our tennis game by taking more lessons or playing more hours. It’s really all about examining our internal selves, how we’ve changed for the better and what more we might do in our waning number of years to leave behind a better legacy.
The funeral of Congressman John Lewis brought this message home to us, as we listened to the eulogies by family, leaders of our country, his friends and staff. He had a strong set of core beliefs to do good and fight for equality, which only became more intense and louder through the years and reached a bigger audience.
There’s no rule that says that we must change and grow. We do so as part of our core belief that if we don’t, we will stagnate and not be the best people we can be.
Here are the ways we and others have evolved in the last decade or so.
More independent. I used to have a need to run many decisions by a wide circle of friends—that metaphorical village. Doing so probably stems from my time post-divorce when I was skittish about every single decision I made—where I should live if I sold my house (which I finally did), whom I should date (including whether to continue to go out with certain men despite some huge red flags), how I should spend my more limited funds and where I should cut back, and so on. And then as I gradually began to live on my own, I found I was making many pretty sound decisions alone without everyone’s input. I bought my first house on my own without asking anyone except the real estate practitioner I used. I said yes and no to certain guys about a second date or more without asking everyone’s opinion, though I still asked a few. I decided which workmen and women to hire and which never to use again. And I quit a book club when I didn’t like the choices and discussions, though I made some very good friends through our meetings. All the decisiveness proved empowering and liberating. That doesn’t mean I don’t run certain ideas by Margaret, my daughters and a few close friends these days. And a recent medical diagnosis led me to consult more than a few doctors and friends. But overall, I have much more confidence that I can make a smart choice on my own.
More solitary. Because I have been used to working on my own for the last 31 years or so, the work-from-home segue has been a snap during the pandemic for me. I still get to hear live voices when I conduct an interview and in a typical day Margaret and I are also on the phone discussing shared work. We always seem to work into our conversations our food prep, TV show watching, books and some gossip about celebs and others. Hey, we need some fun, too. But I can go about my day quite well alone I’ve found, which has been a delightful surprise to get through these difficult times. I enjoy having coffee outdoors on my back porch, sometimes reading the New York Times there, getting down to work, taking a walk around my hood as a break though I worry what I will do come winter, occasionally painting, starting—or struggling--over a jigsaw puzzle, reading, gardening, cooking and regularly Facetiming with my two grandsons and close friends. My bigger concern is whether I’ll be good at having conversations face to face when the pandemic ends. That now seems to be a strange concept and I do worry what it will be like to do more than wave hello from 6 feet and say “hi.”
More grateful. After going through a divorce after 31 years of marriage, I might have continued my pity party, oh, poor me when most of my friends and family were part of a happy couple, some even now celebrating 50th anniversaries. However, like a well-built house, with my good infrastructure as well as self-reliability, I believe I inherited from my childhood, I was determined to count my blessings rather than dwell on the negative that had happened. I reasoned I still had my health (or a decent prognosis for the future), two daughters and their families, including the two cute grandsons, one very old mother so possibly good genes for me, a sense of humor, a passion for my work and hobbies, and a wide circle of friends in multiple cities where I had grown up and lived. And I had been fortunate to continue to make new ones in my new village and in art and religious classes I took in my village and in New York City. I had years ahead to enjoy all, I hoped. Then into my life walked a wonderful guy who thought I was terrific and knew his way around a kitchen—extra bonus. Certainly, I have a lot to be very grateful for and tell myself daily, literally, to thank my lucky stars.
Better parent. Parenting doesn’t end when your kids are grown and flown the coop, I discovered, though I had thought it did. I don’t know where I got that idea from since my mother, even in her late 90s and now 100-plus has continued to parent me in both good and bad ways. I think through the years I’ve become better at listening to my daughters’ needs than when they were young, parenting each for their specific needs rather than using one generic approach for both since they are very different. I think I tended to use a one-size-fits all at times when they were young. Now that they’re adults and still different and wonderful. I have let go so they can make their own decisions rather than weigh in with my ideas. That doesn’t mean I don’t have views that differ from theirs—and I do at times. However, I try to keep them to myself unless asked for my take or if I think they’re making a huge mistake. And those times have been very rare.
Better friend. I’ve always viewed my friends as an important asset and why I’ve kept in touch with so many from my childhood neighborhood to summer camps, college, jobs and other parts of my life. One friend even says I’m the glue in our childhood circle of friends, which I take as a huge compliment. If I look at my friend-gene realistically, I think I became a better friend to those I care about as I came to depend on many to get me through the rough patches of divorce, illness, a parent’s death, my mom’s current old-age status and the loss of a number of very close pals. I like to think I listen better to those I care about most—whether it’s on the phone or through emails and even brief texts. I try to make myself more available to those when I sense there’s something off, which during the pandemic meant calling one who was alone and seemed lonely and sending her a meal via a local caterer, sending others a jigsaw puzzle or book to pass so much time at home, and checking in after several had important doctor appointments to see if all was okay. I learned a lot of this from my mom who was incredibly generous with her time and ear but also from being honest with friends and them with me about what we each of needed to do to be better buds. As my beau says, “Nobody’s a mind reader. You must share if something’s off.” I have also learned to end a few friendships when we didn’t evolve along the same lines. Over time—and sometimes by spending more time together in person—we found we had little in common, including a lack of shared values. There were also a few FB friends I deleted, often political as the nation became more polarized. And I knew in all cases I was a better friend by not being a friend any longer. Let each of us go happily on our separate ways. But try to close the door gently, so there’s always the possibility of opening it another time.
Slowing down. We all have to-do lists and deadlines. Oftentimes these have made me feel like I have no time to stop and think about where I am and where I am going. This nagging helped me get things done on the spot, the manic last-minute scrambling, running to meet someone, driving fast in the car to get to an appointment or racing to catch the bus or train, all add unnecessary stress. It’s unhealthy. I tried meditating and yoga, neither of which resonated. I joked that the yoga was painfully slow. I am fast--a fast walker, talker, eater and worker. As I’ve aged and my circumstances have changed, I have more time now to reflect before I react. Less rushing around. I can sit on a bench in the park and do nothing but observe what’s going on around me without thinking of all the things I should be doing. I can read a book during the day or do a crossword puzzle without guilt that I’m a slug. Instead of forging ahead the instant I wake up in the morning, I have a routine to calm myself. I spend about 30 minutes before getting out of bed listening to classical music or opera. That’s when I think about where I’m going that day, when and why. I’ve also slowed down when doing my work which means less last-minute scrambling and fewer mistakes. The same with my cooking. I haven’t messed up as many recipes or burned meals. I still walk fast, which is healthy, and I do talk fast which if reminded, I can slow down and enunciate. Also, I take my time when I eat which has resulted in less indigestion and the ability to relish more what I put in my mouth.
Letting go of expectations. With age comes wisdom. I’ve learned that doling out advice to those who don’t ask can be one of the biggest causes of imbalance in a relationship. It can set me up for disappointment and set up the people I care about for failures they never agreed to in the first place. If I give a gift, I do so because I want to not because I expect one in return. Wouldn’t it be better to channel those expectations inward over things I can control: my own actions, behaviors and growth? In that way, I am taking responsibility for what I want by making it happen instead of expecting it to come from others. By doing so, I can appreciate what others do for me unconditionally. And I have found too that friends and family are more likely to feel comfortable around someone who has this mindset rather than someone filled with impossible expectations. I’ve shared this with others, and Barbara has told me how it has helped her let go, too.
Less shrieking. I am the kind of person who used to go from zero to 100 when upset, shriek and quickly calm down. When something broke or didn’t work the way it was supposed to, I would scream. My histrionics were unwelcome, but my kids and late husband knew it was harmless. They would simply leave the room knowing that I would blow off steam and be fine within minutes. With age, I’ve learned to calm down when I’m upset. Seriously, what was I accomplishing by shouting? Perhaps this change is the result of living alone. I have no one to shriek at except the four walls. Fortunately, they don’t talk back or even care what I say. Without an audience, what’s the point of shouting. Now, before I react, I attempt an inner dialogue: This isn’t that important so cool it, Meg. Caveat: When I accidentally stub my toe or technology gives me a challenge, I might utter a few expletives. But hey, who’s listening?
Need to fix things/offer advice. I have learned to tame this inner demon. Many of us love to offer advice. I suppose it makes us feel needed and valuable, even powerful. This urge probably stems from the fact that as the eldest of four kids, I was the responsible one in my family, the one who told the others what to do and much too often how to do it. I guess that could be construed as bossy. I have learned that there are situations with my kids, with friends and with family that I cannot fix, where my advice is not asked for or is even necessary. The individual with a problem needs to figure out how to deal with it on their own terms. Fortunately, I’ve learned rather than telling people what to do or what I would do, I instead ask leading questions, use I messages and try to direct the conversation to offer thoughts that might help them address their own challenges. It’s this approach that endures, transforms and, ultimately, inspires. It also brings more strength and closeness in my relationships.
More compassionate. Before my husband died, I did all the right things society expects when someone was ill, had an accident, surgery or a death in the family. I would send flowers or bring comfort foods such as chicken soup, make a donation and write lovely notes. These things I could do from a distance. Up close, I was afraid I wouldn’t know how to act or have the right things to say to someone’s face, so I often backed away. I didn’t want to be a pest or too nosey. What a mistake! Now, I can say truly, I’ve done a 180-degree turnaround in terms of empathy and sympathy. I feel so deeply what others feel when in distress or going through trauma. I’ve been there. I have learned the depths of sadness when someone loses a loved one because I have, too. I have learned the fear, anguish and stress of taking care of a sick spouse or aging parent. I now know what to do to be a good friend or family member in those situations. I have learned also what it’s like to be left alone and have people who I expected to be by my side through thick and thin disappear. I have forgiven them. They might have been in the same place I was in at one time. I know how important it is to be there for the people I care about. It matters. Death, divorce, illness and trauma are not contagious. Love and compassion are and that’s what I strive for more of as I age.
Here are ways in which a few others have evolved as they’ve aged and what they had to say.
Jennifer, 57, who lives in Chicago, has found that separation and divorce after a long-term marriage has pushed her to a place she long avoided. “It’s brought me to more ME time, things really for ME and putting myself first,” she says, adding, “I just never did this in my life. I went from taking care of my family, then to my husband and my kids. Now I am enjoying the time to stop, breathe and answer questions like ‘what do I want?’ I need to honestly allow myself to finally think about myself. Nobody around ever pressured me not to put myself first. But I just never felt comfortable doing so. Now there is no excuse not to (with the divorce and kids grown). I believe my friendship with my former husband, and the strength of our family even in its new structure is a result of a more defined, confident me. Everyone benefits from self-love and self-care.”
Andi, 68, St. Louis, says her life changed drastically after a divorce 10 years ago. It was a loss that was huge in so many ways. One of the most painful losses was the fact that the people she had been surrounded by for 31 years were no longer in her life. “I would say that for a few years after the divorce, I was focused on finding a new relationship with a man and that I felt like that was important to me. However, as I evolved, I realized that my women friends became like family to me and much more important to me, both as a support system and for fun,” she says. “I'm still open to a relationship if the right man showed up in my life, but if not, I'm happy anyway. And I'm not invested in trying to meet anyone. I learned that it’s not important or necessary any longer to be friends with everybody; the good ones, like cream, rise to the top.”
Sally, 70, St. Louis, attributes her age and status as a widow to the fact that she’s more patient than ever. “I don’t sweat the little things any more like getting upset if something doesn’t arrive on time. I know it’s just not a big deal,” she says. “Little things like that enforce my patience!” She adds that she’s always been a fairly patient person, but after her husband died, she was impatient to start anew. She was 65 years old and her life as she knew it changed in an instant. She said she had to be patient with herself and allow the time and space to grieve and be sad. She wanted to be okay and to restart her new life quickly. That wasn’t possible, she reasoned. More recently, the pandemic has reinforced her patience. “Life is what it is right now. I don’t have to be busy constantly. It’s been a boon on some level.” And she says it feels good.
Susie, 68, St. Louis, lost her husband two years ago and that has changed her perspective about what’s important. It’s also a product of aging. When she was younger, everything “pissed her off,” she says. Now, if something goes awry, she sits back and reasons, so be it. “I feel if everyone has their health and is not told to ‘draw up their papers for their last wishes’ things will get done in time. Nothing is a such a big deal anymore especially after you’ve dealt with the death of a spouse. Problems don’t mean the same. I figure it will all work out and get done. And inevitably it does,” she says.
Shoshanna, 71, New York. “When I was younger, I looked at my life through the lens of scarcity and constant comparison. I was actively aware of what others had that I didn't. So, while I never wanted anyone else's husband, I wasn't always too keen on mine. While I had several close friendships, I was not part of a tight social group. I felt I must be missing out. Others had bigger, better homes; others seemed to have achieved more. Then, when I turned 50, I decided I wanted out: of my house, my community, my job, my acquaintances. I kept my true friends, and, fortunately, my husband was ready for a similar divestiture. Together, we moved to a community several hours away where we knew no one. However, I was no longer looking for signs that I had ‘arrived.’ There, I was able to feel that I was ‘enough’ and to be satisfied with what I have. P.S. I am glad I kept my husband whose strengths were hiding in plain sight."
How have you evolved in both good and bad ways? We’ve love to hear from you.