Did you ever hear of the Dr. Moreof theory of aging? “Whatever you are when you are young, you’ll be more of when you are old.”
Of course Dr. Moreof is bogus. But when some stereotype of a crabby old guy or grumpy grandma shows up on an awful sitcom, it’s no wonder we elders are thought of as cucumbers turned sour after too long in the brine; cantankerous, smelling slightly rancid and what’s more, bad drivers with small dogs.
I prefer the theory of Dr. Canbealtered: “Whatever you are when you are young, can be altered when you are old.”
As all of us were, I grew into adulthood ordained by genetics and shaped by environment. The result was ill-defined and flawed, biased by childhood conditioning that created fixed ways of responding to triggers that typically were more dubious than factual.
Then I rounded the corner of fifty. The age is important to note as it presaged a perspective about life that was vastly different. I was able to look at the past from a farther distance, a wider view that included the historical causes of my behavior, a “teaching story” as the American Indians might describe it.
In order to learn a new way, I had to see the old; learn where I came from so I could make sound decisions as to where I wanted to go.
This is what I learned.
Life is lived in the moment, not in the past; not in the future. By accepting the inevitability of death I magnified the joy of being alive. Each demise of a family member, colleague or friend has reminded me tomorrow is not guaranteed.
Celebrating life in the here and now also has led to some seriously deep contemplation about life in the hereafter. Does it exist? Every once in a while when I sink into a particularly deep meditation, a sense of being adrift in emptiness sweeps over me, as if I was actually in the emptiness, part of the emptiness, being the emptiness. Returning to wakefulness, I relate the feeling to Arlene, my yogi wife, of “being adrift and then returning to the real world.” She replies with a smile, Are you sure which is which?
We are judged by our integrity. I saw how over the years I had ignored my moral compass, chipping away at my integrity until the basic foundation of who I was had become dangerously damaged. My first step toward changing how I conducted my life was a commitment to keeping my word. I realized that integrity is the only thing I own that nobody can take away and I built upon that insight inch by inch.
Failure has been another excellent teacher. I kick myself for wasting years of time and the majority of my retirement nest egg on grandiose entrepreneurial endeavors that fizzled faster than the Alka Seltzer I guzzled each time I met with my accountant. When I focused on the creative aspects of the venture, I was absorbed, involved and fulfilled. But when I became overly concerned with position, power, and profits, there was no gratification.
I’ve learned I can’t be responsible for someone else’s life; people will live their lives as they choose to, not as you want them to. It’s natural to feel empathy for someone, but it is folly to think I can ‘fix’ a person’s problem. How others behave is not a reflection on me; I no longer have to rely on others to provide my sense of self-worth.
The lessons I learned came from being aware of the options; exercising choice rather than merely reacting. I know the cautions attached to my old style modus operandi and I’ve learned to reprogram the default behaviors put in place during my childhood. I still have the impulses, but I recognize them and douse the fuse before the flame reaches the bomb.
I’ve changed my job title as well: house husband. I cook, do the household chores and rub Arlene’s feet while we watch the evening news. It’s a good job. As Helen Keller wrote: “I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish humble tasks as though they were great and noble.”