Leaning In—To Old Age


MCG & KTZ in DingbocheFor several years after my husband and I abandoned our Wall Street careers to sail around the world, I accomplished nothing of economic or social value to anyone.

We rose at daylight, went to bed when it got dark, and aimed our sailboat in whatever direction the wind, weather, and currents allowed us to go. Because there was nothing I had to do and no place I had to be—indeed, most days my biggest decision was what to fix for dinner—I discovered what it meant to simply “be.”

Those years of being rather than doing were the happiest—in the sense of pure contentment—of my life. But my inability to hang on to that sense of contentment in the years since the sailing voyage ended has been a constant source of disappointment.

I rationalized its absence while I was back in the competitive world of high finance, assuming it would re-emerge when I retired. To my dismay, it did not. Even in retirement, I seemed to still be defined by what I accomplished. Co-teaching a comparative religion class at a local university. Chairing the board of a mental health agency. Planning a trip to Rome for Kent’s 75th birthday. Editing a friend’s memoir.

But no matter how much I accomplish, the shadow of old age looms on the horizon. With each passing day, I have a few more wrinkles, a bit less energy, and an ever-increasing list of words that are no longer at the tip of my tongue.

Why am I so determined to pretend I am still in the prime of life?

That is the question at the heart of Daniel Klein’s delightful Travels with Epicurus. In this lovely little tome, Klein revisits the Greek communities he knew as a young man, as well as the philosophers—among them Epicurus—who inspired him to live life well and to the fullest.

Now, in his 70’s, he muses on how the meaning of living life well has changed over 50 years. Throughout this geographic and literary travelogue, Klein asks whether trying to “extend the prime of life into old age” causes us to miss out on what is most valuable about growing old—and being old.

Drawing on the wisdom of his philosopher friends, Klein observes that in old age, you have the freedom to savor every moment for itself rather than what it represents … your friends are companions rather than connections … the person with whom you dine is more important than what you eat.

But, he notes again and again, the ability to savor those moments and those friends depends on your ability to step away from the often self-imposed notion that your worth is based on what you do rather than who you are.

Reading his book was a bit of an epiphany. Over the years, it seems I have put “finding contentment” on the list of all those things I ought to do. Reading Klein, it struck me that if I simply allow myself to grow old—instead of trying to stay forever young—contentment might actually find me.

Are you willing to step out of the stream and lean into old age?

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  1. Thank you for broaching this timely subject last evening after dinner where my friends have become companions rather than connections.

    Your approach is so much more appealing to me than Dylan Thomas’ call to rage against the dying of the light. Appealing because it is gentle, to me a pleasurable form of being. Here’s to “leaning,” a new way of thinking about this phase of my life.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Marian … I have always been moved by Dylan Thomas … but he is for a time when you can still benefit from “raging against dying of the light” … when you are still influential enough for your raging to make a difference. To me, the question is how do you learn to love the time when you are mostly receiving from others.

  2. I always look forward to your posts, even when my dear friend’s photo isn’t included.
    The theme of letting go prompted a memory. While working as Dir. Of Strategic Management at a hospital in New Orleans only a few months after Katrina, I was tasked with guiding the implementation of a robust patient, staff, and physician surveying system l9nked to the hospital’s new strategic plan. I had to work with over 50 departments to help make the system work and to craft appropriate and meaningful survey questions. One department was the Chaplaincy. The full time chaplain had concerns about the utility of surveying her patients’ satisfaction, rightfully so. My background as a former religious professional, a sometimes believer, anthropologist, and evaluator helped me to be of assistance in this unique case. The survey questions that we jointly customized revolved around the theme of “letting go” and how chaplains, if any provided services that were tagged for and included in the routine, follow up survey, may have been instrumental in escorting patients, family, and friends (and staff too, by the way) away from their own expectations and towards an acceptance of the actual reality of the situation that was unfolding before everyone’s eyes during that particular stay in the hospital. Thanks for the stimulating post. Miss you guys.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Paul … what a lovely, thoughtful response. So much of my time these days relates to the world in which so many elderly and sick people are “persuaded” to undertake treatment protocols that will not change the outcome, but make their final days miserable … instead of an opportunity to enjoy and perhaps bid farewell to those who have had the most meaning in our lives.

      Kent says hello to you both …. we miss you too.

  3. I truly enjoyed hearing you read this lovely essay (because that’s what it is) last night. Leaning into old age is a perfect, well, ideal, I suppose. Indeed, perhaps one should try to lean into any age.
    As Marian says, it is a gentler call than Thomas’s rage–although perhaps there are times when one must feel the rage and react instead.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Merrill … thanks for your thoughts … it was so lovely to meet you … so different from my mental image of you, but such an insight into how your mind works. We must keep in touch …

  4. Diane Glass` says

    I love this, Mary. It resonates so well for me now, post book publication, as I aim for being relevant and useful. Your message reminds me that resting in the now, whatever that may mean, is the grace of aging. Love the photo too. Thank you.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Diane … I so appreciate your kind words … as you are my role model for how to make the transition between doing and being. I hope that your “after-book” experience offers a balance between making the most of the wonderful story you have made available to the world … and just savoring the fact that you could open up a door for so many people.

  5. While I am in my early 70s, I am focusing on my role as a teacher and role model to my kids and grandkids by focusing on what I can do now to ease their burden when I leave. An experience of recovering from shoulder surgery gave me an inkling of what I would feel if I were no longer able to drive, prepare meals, or take care of personal hygiene. And I didn’t like it.
    Living in the moment seems to be the best medicine. Yet making plans for the future continues to help me look toward it.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Naomi … welcome to my blog and thanks for make a comment.

      I have been a great fan of living in the moment, ever since I went sailing in the 1980s. But as Klein found, being in the moment means something quite different in your 70’s than in your 20’s. Sometimes it’s nothing more than enjoying your grandchildren or enjoying a really good movie or enjoying the sunset.

      But … as you note … some of us are destined to reach for new experiences. Finding balance is the key!

  6. Your post, as always, is thought provoking and I could feel it’s message as I gazed on your photo. In the past year I’ve felt a change within, a need to slow down, ignore my goals, and just drift through the day. I’ve never allowed myself this freedom and it feels really good. Maybe that’s what you experienced while sailing around the world? However the spirit moves me, that’s what I’ve been doing most of the time, with the exception of some scheduled events. I wonder when I will become occupied with accomplishing my goals again. I’ll let you know. Thanks for affirming this new phase of my life, at least for now. It made me breathe a sigh of relief and happiness too.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      How lovely to hear from you … it has been a while, in part because I am so seldom on FB and miss much of what my writing friends are doing.
      It sounds like you are struggling with the same issue as I am … things I truly love doing … but that keep me from settling in to this stage of life … from just living in the moment of aging.

  7. What a lovely reminder, Mary, about the gift of perspective on aging. You are taking the lessons of your sailing journey into this phase of your life, and in doing so, inspiring others to focus on its beauty…”our worth is based on who we are not what we do. ” Amen! Love the photo, too . It captures leaning into this next phase perfectly. So sorry to have missed you at Chincoteague but I have enjoyed it vicariously. Onward!

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Kathleen … I missed you at Chincoteague, especially since you made it there on Skype the day before I arrived.
      I am thinking of you so often, with your new health challenge. The idea of just letting go and experiencing the moment must be uppermost in your mind.

  8. After I read this lovely post, I took several deep breaths and whispered, Thank you, to you. I’m taking one day at time, one hour at a time, one minute at time and loving just being.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Joan … I think stopping to breathe deep is a key lesson … Kent is forever reminding me to do it. It’s always hard — and even harder when there are so many things — like you art — that you really want to do!

  9. Mary, this post speaks volumes to me right now. Turning 70 in February and not long after I fell on a stairway, I’ve been “laid up” now for several weeks. In the fog of painkillers, not much writing gets done nor do I make any business decisions. I just read, check emails and Facebook, and I suppose you’d say I’m just being. I have no other way to describe my days. My house is a disaster, cooking meals is accomplished with a cane in one hand and with my husband’s help, and running errands is so tiring and frustrating. For all these reasons, I cherish your words “our worth is based on who we are not what we do.” Who I am and my worth haven’t changed. Just part of my body no longer is functioning as it should and doesn’t allow me to do what I once could.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Sherrey … I’m so sorry about your fall … it is a real shock to realize how we dependent we can be if our body is working properly … and then to get that message at an age when a “properly working” body just doesn’t work the way used to, anyway.

      So, I hope you are using the time to read good books and watch good movies!

  10. sandi parshall says

    Interesting thoughts. With Dale’s recent passing, I am drawn back to wonderful memories of our sailing times. Life moves on so quickly. Fond memories of our past and thoughts of the present and future filled with peace and harmony. As we age, there is a contentment of our past accomplishments, while we say ” been there, done that”…moving on to enjoy each day! Blessings to all.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Sandi … I too have spent much time thinking—and talking— about the sailing journey. I feel so lucky to have had that experience, and to have shared it with you. Even so, I have trouble resting on my laurels … I think part of the ability to be content on the boat was that no one around me had expectations … now everyone does, and I have trouble resisting it.

  11. I love this post, Mary. You and I are walking a similar journey of thinking and feeling about aging. I’ve ordered the book you are recommending. Thank you.

    Like you, I contrasted two views of aging on my blog today. Tennyson’s “Ulysses” is all about the old wanderer continuing to “strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” Helen Luke explains the prophetic instruction of Teirisias in The Odyssey that Ulysses should plant an oar where no one has heard of the sea. In other words, he should lean in to age. What a great phrase, Mary. We need to keep talking!

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Shirley … a similar journey indeed. As I noted on our blog, our breakfast conversation was a major stimulus to this blog … and I loved your exploration of David Broder’s stages of life. Jubilacion is a new concept for me, but the Odyssey stage seems very familiar. I’ve been wandering for most of my life … just never called it that.

  12. Good morning, Mary. This “human being” rather than “human doing” has been a theme of mine since my 50s or so and a gift everywhere except perhaps while in the dentist’s chair. To be satisfied with the “now” — I liken it to enjoying the NOW of a morning shower, rather than using the time to plan my day — is something I cherish. And it’s not easy.
    I’ve downloaded Travels with Epicurus and look forward to getting into it. One I meant to recommend the other night is Atul Gawandi’s Being Mortal. He “rages” (if you will) against the “medicalization of old age.” It was a beautiful book; the first half a bit of a summary of what we already know, but the last half juxtaposed against the slow deterioration of his own father. Just stunning. (I walked into my husband’s office sobbing, “this is the best book I’ve ever read.” But it’s not sad!) I bought a copy and gave it to my older son with the admonition he was to pass it along to his younger brother. We need all be on the same page.

    As I think back to our 9 mile bike ride on Monday, I’m reminded that we might begin to look at age as yet another social construct. After all, it’s first just a number.

    Lovely post. Good way to start my day.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Janet … so many thoughts to reply to … hope you enjoy Epicurus … yes, Gawande’s book is amazing (I read it and did a blog on it when it first came out) … and YES, I like the idea of age as a social construct … “old” is in the eye of the beholder as much or more than it is a chronological datum. But if it carries with it the hope of gaining a modicum of wisdom with the passage of time, maybe it’s not so bad! (if of course, you can actually gain that wisdom)

  13. Thanks for the reminder that “enough is enough.”

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Sharon … today, I am re-reading my own blog to remind myself that I don’t have to do everything that people would like me to do.

      I’m sorry we missed you in Chincoteague … lovely to connect names to faces and personalities. I already have a strong sense of you (although we have let communication lag), but it still would have been nice to meet!

  14. Patsy Shors says

    I think you must have been writing this with me in mind. This is exactly what I struggle with but now, it seems, I have another like minded struggling soul. I shall read Travels With Epicurus and I am thankful and grateful for your honest assessment of this stage of our lives and how we can find avenues that bring us contentment!

  15. Laura Sands says

    Mary, What a wonderful post. Thank you so much for sending it to me. You put it so well. “Being” should be easy but it’s not. It’s difficult to leave a lifetime of thinking patterns behind and get new tricks — I guess as you age you better be able to learn new tricks, or at least new ways of thinking and being.