I am delighted to share the wisdom and insights about aging from my dear friend and mentor, Hillevi Ruumet. I have known Hillevi for almost 30 years. She is a gifted writer, has led a remarkable life and continues to explore purpose and meaning as she ages. Her memoir, Under Fate’s Wing, tells the story of a six-year-old girl who is abruptly ejected from her idyllic life in Estonia into the chaos of Hitler’s collapsing Germany, where her heroic mother braves impossible odds to assure their survival. From these beginnings to her work as a pioneer in the wellness movement, Hillevi has touched many lives with her kindness, teachings, guidance, and wit. This is Part II of Hillevi Ruumet’s guest blog.
Autumn joy has no time or space for bemoaning the past. Now is now, and it is all we have. Old age has to make it count, since it doesn’t know how many more “now’s” it has. The past exists only in memory, and according to current research, selective memory at that. The future has no substance except in our imagination. Only now is real. Now is alive with possibility. Now is the gateway to joy.
So let’s stop “if only-ing” and “should-ing” and wishing and pushing against the tides of time. Let’s embrace the full and authentic scope of our unique humanness, and then grow the courage to live it. Granted, there are obstacles, but we also have a choice: either complain about them, or turn them into vehicles for growth. Most fundamentally, with bodies less forgiving than before, life’s mandate to ration our energy with more care forces new priorities. We are invited to a more intimate relationship with our physicality.
More than that, the need for greater discernment in the choices we make invites deeper self-reflection across the total scope of our lives, inner and outer. Keeping up with the newest discoveries about nutrition, exercise, stress management, emotional health, and so on, becomes a prudent way to honor the life we are given and what sustains it. For many of us, the constraints of a limited income bring the challenge of learning to live simply and become more creative in the use of our resources. Illness and declining health may force us to face our mortality and spur an exploration of that in us that transcends the physical. This is a prime time for spiritual growth. If not now, when?
I do not mean to minimize the challenges such changes pose. They are very real. Yet, what are the options? We can look at the empty half of the glass and feel sorry for ourselves. We can try to deny what is happening, thereby validating the social stereotype of old age as a downhill slide into decrepitude and insignificance. This image is not shared by all world cultures, many of which venerate the wisdom of their Elders. We can opt to learn from them and change our dysfunctional stereotypes. Many of us have bought into this bleak scenario, and so we risk becoming the dismal image held up to us. Let us stop.
Increasingly, some of us are focusing on the possibilities that still remain in the draining hourglass of time and seeing the freedom to be that this season of life offers, realizing that happiness does not depend so much on our outer circumstances as on the riches of our inner world. This is a soul choice, and it is in old age that we have the potential wisdom to become most soul-full. For that, inner freedom is a core ingredient.
The biggest obstacles to inner freedom, perhaps the only ones, are fear and clinging to the past. How would “they” react? You know who “they” are in your life. Would “they” approve? Maybe not? They may in fact disdain our new interests and aspirations with indifference, considering it a temporary diversion that will pass when we “come to our senses”. Or they may imply, or actually say, that we are crazy, childish, and perhaps on the road to senility. We may feel deflated by this, especially if good relations with the people we value in our life or depend upon are important to us.
Yet old age invites us to play with conscious childlike delight, and it is hard for harried, overextended mid-lifers who may well be our own children to wholeheartedly support this, especially if it means our stepping out of the image and/or role in their lives that they are used to. It is easier to support decrepitude that maintains the familiar than adjust to our claim to newfound freedom that requires a revision of long embedded relationship patterns. Where clear expectations by the younger of the old have been central to an unspoken relationship “contract”, an applicable word we are likely to wrestle with is “selfish”. It may be applied by others to our new choices, or we may fear negative consequences and lay it on ourselves.
Freedom of being does often, if not always, carry a price. Fear does not want to pay that price, because the outcome is unknown. How can we know it will be worth it? How do we know we won’t end up abandoned and alone, as many do anyhow? Well, we don’t know. It takes courage, and a leap of faith, to live authentically whatever our age and let the chips fall where they may. From my observation through many years as a therapist and teacher, the results are often surprising and bring both “good news” and “bad news”, but rarely any retrospective regrets.
Yes, we may lose some friends, probably ones from whom we have grown apart anyway. We may become a misfit in our social circle, or have the weight of family judgment and disapproval come down on us in some form. Yet if we hold our course with integrity and equanimity, we will find new friends if we need to, new groups in which we feel more at home, and at least some of our family may admire us as role models for being real—if only our grandchildren or young friends who have a lesser investment in our being the familiar old us. Perhaps you yourself have had a “cool” or “quirky” grandparent you loved? If so, weren’t you lucky? If not, don’t you wish you had?
Whatever the outcome, by reaching for the riskier joys of new growth, inner and outer, we will have lived more in alignment with our authentic selves, and end up with fewer regrets. As for me, I want to sage as I age. I want to become ripe and wise, and thoroughly myself. I want to follow my heart’s deepest longings and not worry about what “they” think. I want to experience and own all my feelings, and encourage others to own theirs. I want to see deeply and be seen just as deeply. I want to be open and transparent, yet honor the sanctity of my personal space while honoring that of others’. I want to learn, question, and wonder until I lie down on my deathbed for this life’s final hours.
And I want to drop this body fondly, as a well-used but no longer needed vehicle that carried me through this wonderfully multifaceted lifetime’s journey but is now ready to be recycled. I want to walk soul naked through that gate to meet the Great Mystery we all come from and ultimately return to. I want no regrets about failing to have lived my own life as it was given to me—for if I have not, what have I lived? And as long as Life still lives through me, it is never too late to mine for autumn gold and savor its tranquil glow. Will you join me?