Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Unexpected Pleasures: The Surprising Perspective of Wendy Lustbader

Wendy Lustbader
Wendy Lustbader delights in upending stereotypes, especially when it comes to aging. She does so in a big way in her book,
Life Gets Better: The Unexpected Pleasures of Growing Older.
“What could those pleasures possibly be?” I asked Wendy, a professor of social work at the University of Washington and Huffington Post contributor who has devoted her career to understanding and explaining the inner feelings of older adults.
“I tackled the book because it seems like the opposite message is in our media, in all our conversations,” Wendy said, as we chatted on the porch of her island home near Seattle. “People are always apologizing for getting older and making fun of it.”
Instead, she said, “I challenged myself to write a book where I explored the ways, literally, that life got better. I spoke to so many people who said they’d never want to be in  their 20s again. As one woman said, ‘I’d take the body but I wouldn’t want the life.’”
Wendy determined to tackle the topic head on. “I didn’t do the bubble-gummy stuff. There’s a chapter on loss because there are so many losses you deal with as you get older. Friends die, which is really difficult. But loss itself awakens us to the preciousness of time. Many people have told me that they’ve become more alive… taking time that they wouldn’t have before…and wasting less time.”
Relationships -- whether among siblings or old friends or between couples -- often get better; quarrels are shorter and fewer. “The common thread is that as time passes, you gain a history together, and gaining a history together is such a precious possession.” 
Aging also means that “our self-knowledge grows … and if you’re self aware, you’re a better partner, you’re a better sibling, you’re a better friend. Because you know your own foibles and hopefully can stop a fight or a conflict and take responsibility and say, ‘Well, I actually did that thing again that you find so hurtful and I’m sorry.’ Oops. What happened to the fight? It’s gone. That’s a very serious way that life gets better and you’re very lucky if you’re in a longstanding relationship. If you have a partner who’s truly a life partner because that gets sweeter and sweeter as you sort of burn off the superfluous with each other. That’s a huge privilege.”
Another positive: Many “elders” (as she calls them) don’t care about doing what’s expected or “normal” anymore. “They just care about what’s meaningful to themselves and to the people in their communities. I think that’s really interesting… that privately people say their lives are better but publicly we have very little serious discourse on the internal ways that life gets better. So I’m trying to start that discourse.”
Her focus is internal growth – “sage-ing,” (a term she attributes to  Rabbi Zalman Schachter)  -- rather than   “positive aging,” a term she dislikes.  “Almost all the books are about people who ski in their 90s and do huge bike rides when they’re 75. It’s too much emphasis on the physical. “I’m thinking about internals when I say life gets better as you get older, and the positive aging movement isn’t focusing internally.”
Sage-ing  refers to “people who know how to live and the people whom younger people should turn to for guidance, and yes, wisdom. It’s the idea that we become more and more substantial as we get older on a spiritual level, broadly defined, and that we ought to be able to use what we know about life on behalf of others.”
“Unretiring,” is a concept Wendy also likes -- “the movement where people are sort of reinventing themselves.”
So how do you move from a life of busy career to a life of meaning? I asked her. How does that happen? Is there a refocus? Is there a stepping back? What have you watched as people try to do this?
“It’s a good question,” Wendy said, “because it’s not without struggle and sometimes some suffering because our former identity could have propped us up for a long time.” That identity was rooted in the nonstop working, the accolades we may have gotten and the status received “based on how much you earn.”
Leaving a career, she said, “could be seen as a plummeting.” If you’re not in a society where becoming an elder is venerated, even celebrated, what a plummet to find yourself a so-called nobody in the eyes of your very own society and even your community. So there can be suffering.”
She told me one of her favorite stories, about a man who left a top government job and was “feeling so much like a nobody that he became powerfully depressed.”
Then a friend suggested that he volunteer as a crossing guard at a nearby school. “ ‘Since you’re not doing anything, it will get you out of bed,’ the friend said. And the man made himself do it, even though in his former life he used to actually drive by there and kind of laugh derisively at the ‘old guy’ crossing the street with the little kids and their orange vests. But there was a little kid who was scorned by the other kids, overweight and lonely looking. He made that kid his deputy crossing guard and he couldn’t wait after awhile to get there every morning in order to make this kid smile and make this kid feel like somebody. Eventually he fell more in love with that work and the children and helping them cross the street than anything he had ever done. He had never influenced anyone’s life…
“I’ve met many elders who after a period of emptiness, sadness kind of reach down into themselves and try something else that they’ve never done before. So I think that’s the way life gets better, to try to live a dream that you have, try something you’ve never done. Just that search for meaning itself is a beautiful thing, though it could be hard.”

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thelittleoldladystaysput (ordoesn't) said...

A lovely post. I am going through that transition and
experience freefall every day as I redefine my life. Time does become more precious as it becomes more defined and finite. So do relationships. Everything that once seemed solid, shifts.

Wendy Lee Forman said...

This is one of my favorite posts in Unretiring. And it's NOT because my name is also Wendy....
I agree wholeheartedly with the points made here, although I haven't replaced my aging with saging quite yet-- working towards that, though.
If you de-emphasize the physical aspects (that's a big "IF" for many people,I know) then there is so much that is better about growing old. Since I was never athletic and I've had a chronic illness for many years, these aspects of aging are less of a shock to me than to my peers. Anyway, yhanks for this.