L has been angry for weeks about this, telling herself she needs to let go of it, but feeling unable to. Another participant in the conversation (call her M) said, “When I get angry over something I can’t do anything about, I just let myself BE angry for 24 hours. Then I let it go.” L replied that she wasn’t sure she could do that.
In the silence that followed I knew what to say, but hesitated, not wanting to appear like a mother or counselor to these young women. Yet my knowing wanted to be offered, so I told her, “The trick, or the key, if you want, is to truly feel your anger, to live with it, and allow yourself to release it – punch pillows or holler or cry – talk about it. Let yourself know just how mad you are during those 24 hours. You’ll be able to let it go if you do that.”
In sharing this story I’m not bragging about my helpfulness. Rather this story needs to be shared because I need to remind myself that I do possess knowledge and wisdom that can make a difference – but only if I share it. The gift of age, I am coming to understand, is a body of knowledge – if we have sought it out over time – and a plethora of experience – ditto – that makes us wise.
To become an elder is to have understanding – a combination of knowledge and experience gained over time. We must have lived through and with our experiences and learned from them – even, especially, the difficult ones. AND we must do something with it all – speak, or act, or in some way share what we have learned.
It’s this last part that transforms us into an elder. Hanging around on the planet for six, or more, decades simply makes us old. Owning our experience, our learning from it and learning generally, intentionally spending time and energy weaving knowledge and experience together, and offering the resulting wisdom to others – in whatever ways we can – we become an elder.
I’m at the beginning of learning this – of learning that my upcoming sixtieth birthday doesn’t just, or even necessarily, symbolize becoming old. Since I began facing my belief that 60=old I’ve received numerous opportunities to learn that this stage of life holds gifts – if I dare risk opening them. Sharing what I know to be true – as I did with L (who appeared, at first, surprised, but then interested in the idea) – as I do when I sign up to tell my story at The Moth Story Slam – as I do, more and more often, even in random encounters with others – sharing both validates my experience and encourages others to do the same.
It feels scary to me – opening up and risking like this. Yet I see only two options available to me as I approach 60: to disappear into the accepted cultural view of a dried-up and pitiful old woman, or, to embrace the vibrant, juicy, experienced, and perhaps wise woman who lives inside. The first feels like only existence, while the second feels of life.
I’m reminded – quite often recently – that, when I experienced heart attack almost four years ago, in the moment that dying felt so seductive – the moment of understanding that dying meant not having to try any more – there came a clear voice that said, “You’re not done yet.” And that voice – though I didn’t want to hear it or accept its message – made my body fight to live.
Now, as then, the acceptance of life includes acceptance of responsibility. It means I must fight past the fear of opening up and offering who I am, who I am becoming. Yes, even at this stage life seems to be about becoming. I choose to become an elder rather than an old lady. No, I’m not done yet.