The major challenge of getting old is dealing with the emotionally charged changes that come over us – the loss of our physical strength, our slowed reaction time to ideas, our resistance to change, our loss of identity as we get lumped into the “old” category, our increased hypochondria, our loneliness as friends move or die, our loss of connection with what is hip and happening, the way younger people look at and relate to us, our loss of eyesight and hearing, our constipation and incontinence, our bruising and scaring, our slow movement, our aches and pains, our need to use a walking stick, Zimmer-frame or wheel-chair, our trembling hands and weakened grasp.
At 40 or 50, we may say that none of this is going to happen to us and we’ll attempt to avoid the inevitable. But inevitable it is if we are going to live into our 80s and 90s.
However, our 40s and 50s have their own challenges – the loss of a job, a disabled child, the death of our parents, a bad fall, a long illness, the breakdown of our marriage, a missed promotion. And even more challenging are the stories we tell ourself – that we are not good enough, that we are a failure, that we are still faking it. The regrets, the shame, the blame, the guilt – about – who knows what. But they all come to haunt us at 3:00 in the morning.
Our response is often to get busy – we dive into an exercise programme, a changed diet, a new learning programme, a new partner, we pop another pill – anything to avoid the painful images, the haunting memories, the condemning voices.
But they can also make us strong if we allow ourself to see, feel and hear them. They teach us how to deal with adversity and how to get on with our life despite them; they may take us down into the depths of despair but in so doing, we learn how to claw our way back out.
We have been sold a myth called “I just want to be happy” – as if there is a place where everything will always be peaches and roses. Certainly, we all need times when life is easy and the sun is shining, time to recharge our batteries; but our greatest learning and growth comes from our failures, our disappointments, our losses.
And it is in those times that we develop our emotional resilience.
There is a grain of hope in every moment of despair, we just need to learn how to find it. Then we can bring our attention to that grain and help it to grow – “What have I learned, who was there for me? I survived and I can survive again.” And that grain becomes the foundation of our resilience. Every time we survive a let-down, a loss, a dark night, we gain a little strength for the next time.
Imagine for a moment a situation that is causing you pain. Look at it and feel how it affects you. You might experience a twist in your stomach, a tightening of your neck muscles, a shaking of your hands. But look at it. What is it really? Often it’s just a story you tell yourself and we use that story to beat ourself up. Now find that grain of hope. Focus on it and let it grow in your mind. This is not to disregard the pain, it’s still there, and you still have to live with it, but what else can you find?
It might be the trust that others have in you, or the loving support of your partner, or your ability to withstand the pain for yet another day. This is not to advocate some sort of Pollyanna approach to life, but all too often we are encouraged to focus on the negatives, on our weaknesses. Seldom are we encouraged to develop our strengths, to celebrate the good in ourself. And it is there that we find our hope, our joy and we develop our emotional resilience.
If in our 40s and 50s we can develop the habit of joy, then in our 80s and 90s we can face our frailty and continue to en-joy our life.