Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Don't Do Something. Just Sit There.

Here I go again. Still trying to resolve the 'doing/being' issue. "What have you stopped doing in your old age?" was the question Ronni Bennett asked readers earlier this month on her popular blog 'Time Goes By: what it's really like to get old'. And that's what started me off again on this train of thought. What have I stopped doing? And what can't I stop doing?

"What have you stopped doing?" was a popular question. Men wrote in to say that they had given up shaving and wearing ties. Women exulted over the freedom they had discovered in ceasing to torture their bodies with pantyhose and high heels. They no longer bothered with make-up or with shaving their legs and they now felt delightfully able to abandon a book they didn't like instead of reading doggedly to the end. Many reported an increased casualness about housework.

I didn't wait for 'old age' to give up most of those things. I haven't worn high heels, pantyhose – or a bra – in thirty years or more and it is at least twenty years since I gave up make-up, leg-shaving and book-finishing. We haven't had a television since 1985 and giving up that colossal time-waster was no problem at all. There's no way I'd ever have another. I long since relinquished my driver's licence, not because I'm old but because I hate driving (and we don't have a car now anyway). Housework has never been something I indulged in much, beyond the basics of hygiene.

So what, I asked myself, have I given up in my old age? And what remains a challenge? As if I didn't know! Achieving, of course.

In old age, all types of conformism seem easier to give up. But the deeper you go, the harder the layers are to peel off. Things that were programmed into us at a very early age can be difficult to shift. So whilst the things we took on in early adulthood, like shaving our body hair and wearing high heels, can be shed easily and with relief, the older programming needs more effort to release.

At 71, what I am challenged to give up now is my need to accomplish things. I've been going on about this a lot lately, I know. But it keeps coming up. It's such a tough one for the ego. "What have you achieved today? This week? This year?" I ask myself. When the answer comes back "Nothing much," I feel guilty. As though I am taking up space in an (unsustainably overcrowded) world and not doing anything to justify it.

When I was young, the goals and achievements used to be personal ones – a university degree, a better job, more money, a husband, a family, a house, another university degree, a book published – but in later years, the emphasis shifted. Now it's "What have you done today to help reduce global warming/cut carbon/lower your ecological footprint… etc?" But the pattern remains the same.

So that's the big challenge. I keep reminding myself – and others keep reminding me – that even if, at the end of the day or the week or the year my ego has nothing to carve notches about, it is still OK to be here. But how do I settle into that feeling? How do I sit quietly in that chair, not do anything to help the planet yet still feel good about my day? Any helpful hints would be warmly welcomed.


Pat Snyder said...

Oh, my. What a tough question. I too am an antsy doer, who struggles with just being. I can only offer this. Perhaps the trick is to experience the joy that the universe will feel when you have slipped, even briefly, into the experience of becoming part of it, simply and with no agenda. "Finally," I imagine it will say. "I thought you'd never sit still long enough to keep me company."

John A said...

In a previous post you mentioned a 91 year old relative who still “frequently chides herself for being ‘lazy’ and ‘not doing anything.’” So, it is clear that this recorded message is not going to stop “coming up” any time soon. That is unless you do more of what you’ve already started—questioning it.

You are sitting, peacefully, when you get the thought, “You aren’t doing enough these days.” Who asked that? Who heard it? On what basis is my current life unacceptable? To whom? Do I really believe that humans don’t deserve to live if they are not “pulling their weight”? If not, why am I treating this thought as if it is based on truth?

The unexamined thought gets stronger with each time it is treated as if it is true. By contrast, the mere act of questioning that thought moves it from our “absolutely” storage area to our “under consideration” pile. Eventually, you may even find that its opposite is eligible for “absolutely” status—in this instance, that you were born to exist exactly as you are in each and every moment without judgment by anyone, including you.

You cannot possibly know what impact your living is having on others. For example, after reading your post, my wife and I had a long discussion of the beautiful simplicity of the whole span of her mother’s 95 year life. This discussion was a blessing that was made possible by two individuals that had no way of knowing the impact they were having—one of them is long departed and the other was you—by just doing the next perfect thing.

Thank you.

Ronni Bennett said...

I think it is part of the coercion of a youth-centric culture to insist that elders continue to behave like mid-life adults unto death. "Go, go, go." "Do, do, do." And if you don't, you're worthless, a drag on the economy. (It seems always to be about money.)

The highest praise from media (which is what substitutes for culture these days) is for 92-year-olds who run a marathon; for 75-year-olds who become entrepreneurs.

Where then is the time for elders to discover their wisdom, make sense of their lives, to pass on their stories, to become advisors to the young?

As Dr. Thomas said in his interview at my place yesterday, that even at "only" age 48: "I also find that I want more time to think and find less pleasure in chaotic situations with lots of noise and uncertainty."

He also said this: "Let go of youth. It is but a flower. To know old age is to dive deeply into the very roots of life. This is what is real, what is hidden from the young, what enriches and sustains us. Old age is not something that happens to us, it is who we are, embrace it - and be made whole."

We can't do that if we are behaving like 45-year-olds whose job it is still to be doing. Our job, I think, is being - and to do that we must resist the cultural imperative to continue to accomplish on their terms.

There are some days when getting out of bed is all the accomplishing I want to do that day - and it is enough.

Elderwoman said...

Wow - what wise and beautiful comments I am getting on this post! Thank you.
John you are so right, of course, about the inner work that is needed. It's a bit like weeding the garden, don't you think? The nettles and creeping buttercups keep coming up and we have to pull them out and compost them. Over and over. Each time we do that, their root systems are weakened just a little bit more. And yes, as Pat says, in those moments when we do remember simply to 'be', there is pure joy.
I agree with Ronni that the urge to keep 'doing' is constantly reinforced by this youth-centric culture. Can't help smiling, though, at her comment about getting out of bed being the only thing she needs to accomplish in a day. If that's the case, Ronni, how come you manage 365 blog posts a year, huh? Seriously though, that quote from WT is brilliant. When I read it on your blog I immediately made it into a sig file.
Many blessings - Marian

Anonymous said...

"I didn't wait for 'old age' to give up most of those things..." It is so refreshing to read such independence and irrevence for cultural expectations on women. Gee, I loved reading that comment you made and I just smiled...I'm 40 and reflect how I got away with NEVER wearing high-heels. I could never understand why I had to wear shoes that were bad for my back and legs and extremely uncomfortable! LOL its the gradual small ripples of change between generations. I am also embracing every grey hair that appears and refuse to hide them with chemicals. Thanks for you postings and for your elderwoman homepage - I know you state it is for elderwoman but I just love it. I suppose it is filling a gap since my mum passed away.

Changes in the Wind said...

Hi, I am new to your blog but am so impressed with this first one:) It isn't because you asked for help, its because you dared to bring up the question. Most of us don't really broach the subject and just try to go with the flow. I hate that feeling of not having any worth and then of course the question...what makes you have worth? Like most problems, we try to solve it with one size fits all and that doesn't work so we are back to square one. Like Ronni said in her comment, the only media attention toward elders is those who are doing unbelievable things that I can't help but wonder why they would want to so no help there. I hope you will pursue this more on your site..it clearly has a place of interest.

Kate said...

Here, Here! Your post, the comments - all make sense to me.
All of this is what our older years are all about: the modeling we can do for those coming up behind us. How else will they learn that there is more to living than doing.
And as for achievement, the work you do on your writings - both on & off the web - are of immense value to me. Seems like quite an achievement!

Bella said...

Addit: Your musings on being and not doing are very reminiscent of Thoreau's writings in Walden Pond. I think it is along the lines of "do not ask a man what he does, ask a man who he is and his dreams..that is when you will really know him". I think it would be healthy if we all re-focus on being rather doing, not just elders. I think the obsession of youth regarding achievements and job prestige is unhealthy and not conducive to compassion...so lets hear it for all of us to just be!!:)

Beverly said...

I don't have any new ideas, but, they are mine. If we do not sit and rest, pause and meditate, we are going to "use" ourselves up. Like some plants that are beautiful when they bloom, unless you snip that flower and allow the plants roots to get stronger, the plants will eventually die.

You need to do that for yourself. Then tomorrow you can be productive.

Terri said...

I'm also new to your blog, via Ronni's place.
Very interesting entry and great comments.
I've come to the conclusion I'm just one of those people that on most days, I love being "involved" in something. Be it the arts, nature, etc. But what I love about this age (turned 60 in March) is the fact that I no longer have one ounce of guilt if I choose to accomplish nothing more than Ronni said...getting out of bed that day. At this stage of the game, I love the easiness of it.
Really enjoy your writings and your thoughts.

Rain said...

I thought about this question when Ronni Bennett posed it in her blog but didn't come up with anything then and can't now. Like you, there are things that I have changed, given up or rearranged throughout my life, but something that relates just to being the age that I am. There wasn't anything. Sometimes I still wear high heels. When I have to, I still wear panty hose. I live a country life; so most of my life is in tennis shoes and boots with jeans and a top dependent on the weather. That hasn't changed due to age. It's my lifestyle. Maybe I am not yet to an age to change something because of my age or perhaps i have done it all along and never noticed it. I did decide at 60 that I had done everything I 'had' to accomplish and whatever I did after that was for me or because I genuinely wanted to do. A lifetime has been led by 60 (in some past eras, two lifetimes) with career goals usually accomplished, if they are going to be, children raised, and basically a person could do nothing which some do for the rest of their lives. There seems to be more freedom in some ways with age-- although I can't deny more limitations of body.