How can we men negotiate our elder years with honor and dignity? How can we continue to stand tall in spirit and remain strong in sensibility when the accumulating losses of aging keep taking their toll?
For the last several years I have been thinking, studying, and writing about this topic in articles, videos, and books. I have come to believe that aging is not all a downhill slope. Yes, there is loss and decline as we age, but there are gifts too, and rewards. There is a path for us men to take our places of honor within ourselves and the wider community, as leaders and elders—indeed to age with honor and dignity. As I say in my latest book, Every Breath, New Chances:
Aging is a two-faced coin. On one side is loss—loss of virility, strength, health, power and possibility. On the other side is transformation and growth. This transformation is not something that can be grasped intellectually. The aging journey is emotional; it happens in the realm of feeling.
In doing research for this book, I have talked to many men about their aging, both individually and in groups. It’s clear that men–of my generation particularly–face unique challenges around growing older. We were raised in the crucible of traditional masculinity. We were encouraged to be strong. We were told when tears came that “boys don’t cry.” We were taught to mask and hide our emotions, particularly feelings of vulnerability, uncertainty, and fear. We were urged to compete, to work hard, push through adversity and avoid showing weakness, so that we could stand tall as men worthy of respect.
Men vary in how much they absorb and internalize this traditional male view, but we have all been exposed to it and influenced by it to some degree.
We can debate how well these values prepared us to be men of goodness and integrity during our earlier adulthood, but whatever their worth, these principles are less valuable in the last phase of life—when men experience decline and loss of physical, sexual and mental capacity. In the face of these new challenges, the old masculine values don’t hold up so well. You can’t fight aging by powering through, or by putting your dukes up and trying to be a tough guy. Aging just laughs at you when you try to do that. If you frame the battle that way, aging always wins.
In order to prevail and prosper as we age, we need to come up with a different strategy, one that invokes the very aspects of ourselves that we set aside early on in our effort to be strong men. We need to go back and refamiliarize ourselves with vulnerability, emotionality, fear, and—most of all—intuition. Acknowledging these aspects of ourselves, finding ways to honor them and learn from them, is the path to transforming aging from a framework of loss and weakness to a newfound nexus of elderhood and inner strength. Aging is not just another of life’s battles to be fought and won, it is an inner flame that needs to be ignited from within, cultivated and grown until it is a heartwarming fire.
In this effort, I teach that intuition is key. At first, hearing that may seem like an odd notion. How can intuition help? What is intuition, anyway?
The phrase “women’s intuition” comes to mind, and most men want nothing to do with that. The good news is that this old hackneyed expression is flat wrong; there is no male or female in intuition. The latest research confirms it; men and women are equally intuitive, although men may not always recognize intuition when they are using it, even though we use it all the time. Any time you “size someone up” — whether a colleague at work, a contractor to hire, or a person you’re talking to at a party–you are using intuition. In business we refer to a “gut player,” someone who plays his hunches.
Sports is another realm where intuition rules—think of a running back weaving downfield or a point guard driving to the basket. These players aren’t thinking about what they are doing, they are just doing it faster than they can think. When reporters ask them later how they made the touchdown or the basket, often they can’t say. That’s because intuition is not a verbal thing. It happens too fast. The research confirms this; intuition is three times quicker than thinking, and is mostly unconscious.
Aging is another realm where intuition can guide you where thinking cannot go. You use intuition to size other people up; when it comes to aging, you can use intuition to, in a sense, size yourself up. This is different than thinking about aging, though that’s something you probably do a lot. You may worry about your health, your finances, your sexual prowess, your painful joints, your weight, your weakening eyesight—the list goes on. These thoughts spin inside the privacy of your mind like a clothes dryer that won’t turn off. This spinning, however, is not really sizing yourself up in an intuitive sense. Thoughts about aging are like cotton candy—satisfying for a while, but not deeply nourishing in the long run. Besides, much of this thinking is speculation; it may or may not be true. If you want to know the deep truth about yourself, you need intuition. Intuition is subtle, yet powerful. Unlike thinking, it knows the truth of things; it sees where the real opportunities are, as well as the hazards.
So how do you access this inner sizing up? It would be nice if you could just talk to intuition like a buddy, and say, “Hey, tell me what you know. How am I doing?”
Intuition doesn’t work that way, though. Instead, it is an ancient faculty, far older than thinking, and it communicates not through words, but pictures and images. Thinking is about knowledge—facts and figures, whether true or false–but intuition is wise, and that difference is telling. Intuition remembers everything you did, and it is clear-eyed and courageous in knowing that one day you may become seriously ill and, eventually, you will die. Intuition knows not just about your aging; since aging is universal it knows about everyone’s aging.
Intuition is like a kindly old grandfather to whom you can go—as perhaps you once did as a boy—for solace and advice. In fact, in every traditional community, there were grandfathers and uncles who could offer models and guidance to men as they aged. In the modern world, we have few such models, which is one reason it is so hard to be a good man and to grow old as one.
To help you connect with this “inner grandfather” I have developed simple exercises I call “deep mind reflections.” These exercises use key words and images in a free-associative manner to connect with your intuition, your “inner grandfather”–to ask him questions, to solicit his advice, and to let him tell you which way to go. Deep mind reflections can be used to inquire into many topics of keen interest to aging men–such as virility, power, retirement, loneliness, health, illness, and death. In future articles I will go into more depth about these methods, but here is a simple example to get you started:
Bring up the word “aging” in your mind. Repeat it silently to yourself a few times. Now look into your mind’s eye and notice the first image or picture that comes to mind. It could be anything—your greying hair, your bad knee, the recent death of a friend. The main thing is not to censor or select. Notice the very first image that comes. When you have it in mind, keep watching it and see what happens. That is one form of deep mind reflection.
There are many deep mind reflections, but the deepest one asks yourself, “Who am I really?” Are you really your body, your thoughts, your sexuality, your attractiveness, your net worth, your status and reputation, or any number of myriad ways you define who you are? Or are you something separate from all that, something deeper and more fundamental? Your intuition knows the answer to that question, and that answer has timeless value in upholding the honor and dignity of elder men of every generation.
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