Imagining the future: growing into old age

 

I hesitated and actually cringed before typing the words “old age.”

There is a big part of me that rebels against even thinking about “the dying of the light.” (This is from Dylan Thomas’s poem “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” see the bottom of this post.)

Yet recently I have been thinking about what my future will hold. Talking to a friend made me realize that one of my flaws is a tendency to be too passive about taking control of my life. Perhaps too often, at times when I should have made big changes in my life, I avoided making decisions and let fate or others’ actions determine what happened to me.

It is in looking back that we can recognize the overall patterns in our lives and see the stages—usually predictable—that emerge. We like to tell stories about our lives, to create a narrative that makes sense of everything.

My mid-life crisis

I see now that it was almost inevitable that my life would change dramatically when I was in my late forties. There were deep, long-standing flaws in my marriage. I had been burying my unhappiness (mostly), and concentrating on running, tutoring, and all the daily chores and routines that distract us from reflecting about the overall picture.

I knew I felt a choking sense of stagnation. Looking back, I can see that my unhappiness and my subconscious awareness of things being deeply wrong was manifested in my severe insomnia and occasional heavy use of sleeping pills. Now I understand that in times of resignation and stagnation, the pressure to change will build up, revealing itself in conscious and subconscious unhappiness and anxiety.

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Buntzen Lake 2009. A last happy excursion with Paul.

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The same day: at the top of Eagle Ridge.

I couldn’t have predicted some of the individual events that happened, like tearing my ACL, but it was inevitable that my life would undergo a major eruption, forcing change. My mid-life crisis happened when I was between 48 and 50, probably a typical age, though I don’t think many people experience as many changes as I did all at once. In a period of about eighteen months, this is what happened:

  • I realized that my marriage was over.
  • I experimented with online dating.
  • I discovered I could still feel intense attraction to men, and intense emotions; incredibly, I felt in some ways like my fifteen-year-old self.
  • I began a new serious relationship.
  • I stopped my part-time tutoring job and went to college for two years to get a diploma in professional writing.
  • I tore my ACL and had two knee surgeries in the following two years. This effectively ended a professional running career of almost thirty years. It caused turmoil and depression. A good part of my identity was bound up with running. Not being able to run affected me socially since so many of my friendships were based on running.
  • My son left home to go to university in Japan.

And, within the next two or three years after that, big changes continued to come:

  • I did a summer internship at The Vancouver Board of Trade, briefly trying an “adult job” for the first time in my life. I made some terrible interpersonal gaffes!
  • I started my freelance writing and editing business.
  • I started my blog about “Running, Reading, and Relationships.”
  • I moved out of my home of almost twenty-two years, and into an apartment with a scenic view of Burrard Inlet. For the first time in my life, I was living on my own.
  • I lost my greatest lifetime friend and coach, George Gluppe.

These years were a difficult and overwhelming time for me, especially having to witness George’s increasing disability and pain. I was George’s closest friend, and I struggled with guilt and heartbreak about not being able to help him more. I don’t know how I could have got through those years without Keith’s unwavering support.

Yet many exciting and positive experiences came out of these changes, too. Not being able to run was a huge loss for me, but it allowed me to focus on long-buried talents, like my writing ability. At Douglas College, I experienced a different kind of camaraderie outside of the running community, and I interacted with classmates of all ages between 18 and 60-something who shared my love of writing.

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Starting a new career: Portfolio Show at Douglas College, 2011

I learned that no part of life need be over when you are 49. No, it was not too late to feel intense emotions, start a new relationship, learn new technical and social skills, and take on new professional challenges.

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With Keith in 2015. I finally met a man who could cook–and he taught me how to appreciate wine!

The next stage: another crisis?

The concept of a mid-life crisis is well known. Now, as I’m getting closer to age sixty, and Keith has recently turned sixty-five, I’m suspecting that many people might experience another crisis as they contemplate moving into old age.

Why might we have to/want to change as we enter old age?

  • Chances increase that we will experience a health crisis or the health crisis of a loved one.
  • Other unpredictable events can occur: the end of a long-term relationship, losing one’s job, having to move, accidents.
  • If we continue to learn, start new hobbies, and meet new people, we can’t know where this will lead!
  • Many of us will choose to reflect about the sum of our lives up until now, realizing that remaining years are limited. We might ask ourselves: What is my life’s purpose? Have I achieved everything I want to? Have I made a good contribution to my family, my community, the world? Some people might evaluate a long-term relationship and ask, “Is there something I want to change about this relationship?” or “Should I leave this relationship?” Others might be questioning what they will do when they retire.
  • Some will feel a vague sense of stagnation, restlessness, or resignation, similar to the feelings that lead to a mid-life crisis. Now the choice is whether or not to make changes now—because there may be no “later.”

My friend Steve encouraged me to make a plan about what I want my future to look like—in, say, five or ten years. I found this very difficult to do! Then I remembered that I had recently listened to a TED talk by Dan Gilbert called “The Psychology of Our Future Selves.” The gist of this talk is that we always underestimate how much we will change in the future. I figured that listening to this talk might inspire me to take my future more seriously. You can listen to the talk here and I have summarized some of Gilbert’s main points below.

Dan Gilbert’s TED talk: “The Psychology of Our Future Selves”

We all know that change occurs faster when we are young, and slows down as we age, but what Gilbert’s team found is that we underestimate how much we will continue to change, even in our older years. We have a misconception that the age we are now—whatever age that is—is the age when change goes from a gallop to a crawl, because now is the time we have become our final self, the essentially unchanging person. This is called the “end-of-history illusion.”

Here is an example of the kind of experiment Gilbert’s group did: They asked one group of subjects to estimate how their values would change in the next ten years. They also asked another group of subjects (who were ten years older than the first group) to report how much their values had changed over the past ten years. What they consistently found was that the actual amount of change reported (by the group looking back) was much greater than the amount of change predicted by the group looking forward. This misconception about the amount of change to come in the future applied not only to values but to personality changes and preferences about music, hobbies, and friends.

How does Gilbert explain this discrepancy between how much we change at all stages of our lives, and how much we expect to change?

It’s because of the ease of remembering vs. the difficulty of imagining.

I found this conclusion reassuring. It means it’s normal for me to find it hard to imagine what my life will be like in five or ten years.

I also think it’s natural for people in their fifties, sixties, and beyond to feel reluctant about imagining the future. Physically, we know we are facing a downhill slope, a relentless decline in our physical powers. Mirrors are not our friends. Can we look forward to the future in spite of these limitations? Yes!

Putting a positive spin on getting older

When I think about the challenges I faced during my intense mid-life years, I realize how much I gained and how much I grew. This can happen to anyone who grapples with big changes during mid-life and old age.

Many of us become less afraid to be honest. We don’t hide being unconventional or expressing unconventional opinions. We have more self-confidence. For me, a key benefit of my writing program and some work situations afterwards was that I became more empathetic, more interested in others, and more socially at ease. Although I’ve always considered myself an introvert, I discovered that I liked people and could find common ground with almost anyone.

My recipe for aging gracefully

Here are some of the “action ingredients” that work for me:

  • Continue learning
  • Embrace technology, but for specific purposes. What technology do I need to use for profit, for efficiency, to connect with people I care about, for fun, to be creative?
  • Understand myself. What are my needs? What makes me happy? When am I productive and mentally alert? How do I balance my need for solitude with my needs for intimacy and sociability?
  • Be grateful: for health, for close relationships, for all the little things that make me happy.
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2017, with Phoenix teammates. Running still makes me happy, despite my surgeon’s warning in 2011 that I was finished.

The hardest ingredient: making decisions

My life has rolled on quite smoothly for the past six years or so, since I moved into my apartment. But once again, I have a sense of stagnating more than is good for me. I suspect that another wave of change is coming. In fact, in the past six months I’ve made some small but significant decisions. Greater change may still be yet to come.

I need to become a more active decision-maker, rather than leaving things to chance or waiting until life “forces” decisions upon me. This statement is somewhat at odds with one of my fundamental beliefs about the role that chance events play in our lives. Despite the most careful planning in the world, life will shoot unexpected arrows at us from all directions and we can only try to make the best of every situation. I acknowledge life’s chaos, and I embrace it. Somehow, there has to be a balance between taking initiative, “seizing the moment,” and being flexible about things we can’t predict or control.

Some people have very few choices. With greater freedom comes greater responsibility for one’s choices.

All I know is that I want to be learning, growing, and moving until the day I die.

***

This poem by Dylan Thomas has long been one of my favourites because it expresses an intense love for life and rebellion against death, that existential reality that we all must face.

Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night (1952)

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way.
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

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About nancytinarirunswrites

I used to be known as a competitive runner, but now I have a new life as a professional writer and editor. I'm even more obsessive about reading, writing, and editing than I was about running. Running has had a huge influence on my life, though, and runner's high does fuel creativity. Maybe that's why this blog evolved into being 95% about running, but through blogging I'm also learning about writing and online communication. I'm fascinated by how the Internet has changed work, learning, and relationships. I love to connect in new and random ways!
This entry was posted in Injuries and Getting Older, Personal stories, Psychology and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Imagining the future: growing into old age

  1. writingsfromthecouch says:

    As someone who ran for over thirty years and is 51, I relate very much to what you’ve written. I’ve experienced two or three midlife crises so far. Who knows if the current one will be the last.

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