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 the first of a two-part series.
Old age is for joy. This has been, for me, a momentous discovery: a silent joy, set free of circumstances and expressing itself through the authentic self, with an inner smile that transcends any passing surface turbulence of life’s ups and downs. I do not mean elation—the rambunctious exuberance of youth—but something quieter and much deeper. For me, it is a time to live from our true being, without the constraints of former social roles and obligations. It is a time for harvesting the learnings of a lifetime into a cornucopia of wisdom to share with those who are interested, to use as a lens through which to witness the happenings of our time, and to sustain us as we move toward our ultimate transition into the Mystery beyond death.
This joy is grounded in full acceptance and delight in our unique being rather than only our doing, while fully accepting the physical limitations imposed by bodies that seem to call for relief from too much outer-directed activity. In watching my body’s ups and downs in energy level, immune response, and overall functioning, I have come to see that it has a mind of its own which serves as a barometer of when I am in alignment with myself and when I am about to act on old habits or “shoulds”.
Autumn joy is grounded in a willingness to detach from our culture’s image-driven mandate to stay “young” as long as possible and continue to be “productive” by standards of “success” that we may have outgrown. By such standards, doing “nothing” is a waste of time. I want to challenge this social straightjacket. We need to stand up for our right to be, here and now, as we are. There is nothing sacred about our culture’s obsession with outer achievement and worship of a youthful image. In fact, all of the spiritual wisdom traditions encourage the relinquishing of such driven-ness in favor of silence and contemplation in some form. Especially in the second half of life.
Above all, autumn joy depends on knowing who we are deep down. If an outer-directed life has left us not quite knowing who that is, it is time to find out. Self-acceptance is essential to happiness, and in-depth self-knowledge is a solid foundation for true self-acceptance. This means inclusion of warts and all, not just who we have tried to be, or who we wish we were. Or the image the world has of us, however “successful” or not.
We may be held back by fear that we may not like our real self if we explore it too deeply. It is hard on the ego to face its shadow complement. There are dark corners of our psyche that we would prefer not to look at. To some extent we are all “afraid of our shadow”. Yet it is only by shining light into those corners that we can fully accept ourselves—our whole selves—rather than just the parts our ego prefers. Any self-acceptance based on denial of those things that go bump in the night of our ignorance is a sham, and at some level we know it. Not only is the gold of autumn joy and wise elderhood then out of reach, but we also miss sources of creativity that may be buried in those hidden places.
Our shadow spaces hold a lot of unlived potential, which can be transformed into creative new ways to use parts of us that have been denied or which, for valid reasons, did not fit into our earlier life circumstances. Some of us have to grow into our ability to embrace these parts. And some of us have to simply screw up our courage and dare to be our whole selves. What scared us in our youth may now bring new vitality to our wisdom years.
Even the truly nasty things we least want to remember may, when put into a broader context, have lost their bite or look different when seen anew through a broader lens. Where we have remorse, we may want to make amends if possible. Where we have regrets, we may still be able to do in some form what was left undone. Where we have grief, we may need to consciously mourn. Where we harbor resentment, we may have to find a way to let it go. Where we feel nothing can be done externally, we can inwardly give whatever we’re still attached to a decent “burial” and consign it to the compost heap of a dead past.
End of Part I. Please return to centerforagingandvalues.org/blogs for Part II next Sunday.