Photo from Unsplash
By Theresa Reid
A few months ago, we moved my husband’s 91-year-old Aunt Evelyn into a beautiful new elder living facility — a light-filled, upscale, roomy place with loads of common areas for conversation, lectures, art-making, movie-viewing, and eating. On my first visit to her there, I asked her how she liked it. She leaned in, placed her hand on my arm, and said, sotto voce, “Well, dear,” shaking her head slightly, “a lot of these people are too old.”
I smiled (it’s impossible not to smile around Evelyn), and asked for more detail. “Well, you see dear, many of them never want to do anything.” The place offers all kinds of excursions — they take residents by private bus to plays, festivals, movies, art exhibits, and so on — in addition to its own robust programming. But, Evelyn tells me, lots of people prefer not to stir from their places. “It’s not that they can’t go,” she says. Indeed, if anyone has an excuse to stay in, Evelyn does. She’s had harrowing physical problems that have left her near the brink of death more than once. She has pain, chronic pain, sometimes severe. She’s not exactly zipping around on roller skates. No — it’s not that other residents can’t get out, she explains: “They just don’t want to.” This irks her.
Her comment took me back to an impression I’d had in the main dining hall, where we’d enjoyed lunch earlier in our visit. I’d walked in beside Evelyn, surveying the room with eager eyes — hoping, I suppose, to find future friends for my aunt, just as I’d scanned kindergarten classrooms years before, hoping to spot my daughters’ future besties. I’d been deeply struck by some of the faces in the room. One in particular stands out: that of an erect, well-dressed woman whose expression spoke of a lifetime of aggrievement. Strong lines had settled her face into haughty displeasure, and she looked around with narrowed eyes that seemed to expect disappointment everywhere they landed. Scanning the busy room, as any alert mother might, I hastily sorted the assembled diners into three groups that had nothing to do with their highly variable physical condition: those like this woman who exuded displeasure; those who seemed indifferent to life as it swam by; and those like Aunt Evelyn, whose eyes were alight with interest and expectation. I wanted us to sit next to those people.
I think it was Coco Chanel who said, in effect, that at 20 you have the face the gods gave you, for good or ill, but at 50 you have the face you’ve earned. Some accumulation of day-to-day, even moment-to-moment choices had distinctively etched these people’s faces. I want, like everyone else on the planet, an inviting face like Evelyn’s. How do I get that?
As I age, I am increasingly sensitive to three truths: that it’s easier to be rich than to be poor; that in Western countries it’s far easier to be “white” than any other color; and that nobody can steal your ultimate freedom of choice. It was definitely Victor Frankl, survivor of Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps, who said: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Our moment-to-moment choices might be severely constrained by genetics and circumstance. But to suggest that people born or thrust into punishing circumstances have no choice but misery is to deny them their very humanity. Hard as it might be for us to seize our freedom, our human dignity lies in the choices we make.
Those faces around the dining room in Aunt Evelyn’s retirement facility, and the ingrained attitudes they seemed to convey, revealed a truth we often overlook: that our moment-to-moment choices don’t just express our worldview, they create our worldview, and indelibly shape our lives. A psychological term for a mindset is “confirmation bias.” Operating with confirmation bias, when we look out at the astoundingly manifold world, we only see evidence of what we are already set to believe. We think, “All Xs are like Y,” and we literally never see Xs who are like Q, or D, or L. We think, “The world will disappoint me,” and it does. We think, “Life is full of miracles,” and it is. The people who approach the world expecting to be disappointed, looking for the chance to judge, shrivel. Those who survey the world expecting the next happy surprise flourish.
Like life, the effects of these momentary choices — choices we often deny even making — can take us by surprise, as if they arose out of nowhere. People are always talking about how so-and-so is suddenly “aging,” meaning, typically, “looking haggard.” Sometimes aging does happen suddenly — through a stroke or some other extreme personal hardship. But more often, aging sneaks up on us little by little, like the effects of our attitude and decisions. Every day we live and breathe, the inevitable, microscopic costs of cell division (including deposits of toxic chemicals and nicks in critical structures) take their toll. When these tiny costs of living start to become noticeable to the naked eye — in our mid-thirties, say — we start to fret about “aging.” But we’ve been aging all along. It’s the nature of life. In just the same way as the effects of our metabolic processes mount, the effects of our choices etch our faces and souls. We have a chance of living far more fruitfully if we get used to this reality.
Every moment of our lives is, as Thoreau wrote, “startlingly moral.” I love that phrase, “startlingly moral.” Every one of our decisions matters, morally, whether we take ownership of it or not. And each one matters spiritually as well. And they accrue. They shape our contributions to the world, and the set of our face and soul.
Can you change your outlook, your disposition towards life? I hope so. One of the most inspiring resources I know for thinking about it is the memoir of Stanford professor Dr. James Doty, Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart. Doty grew up poor and neglected in a dusty western town in the 1950s. Doty and his two siblings largely raised themselves, with no expectations for college or career, regularly witnessing emotional violence. Then one hot summer day in his eleventh year, Jim wandered into an odd little magic shop in town and found a particular kind of fairy godmother: the mother of the shop owner, who promised Jim that, if he visited her every day for the six weeks she’d be minding the store, she’d teach him a set of magic tricks that could rock his world. Jim paid her daily visits, and Ruth delivered, teaching him skills of mindfulness that would utterly transform his life. With Ruth’s help, Doty learned to make the daily life choices that turned the dross of his upbringing into gold. He writes, “When our brain changes, we change. But an even greater truth is that when our heart changes, everything changes.” That might sound too pat coming from someone whose life had been easy; from Doty, it’s believable inspiration.
Doty’s transformation required diligent, daily work. We all, always, have that power, hard or easy as it might be to exercise. We can make life-affirming choices at any given moment, and through that act of will, claim responsibility for the set of our face and soul as we grow.
As a simple first step, remember the life lesson of precious Aunt Evelyn: never be too old to get on the bus for some fun.
Theresa Reid, PhD, is Executive Producer and Host of Aging for Life, an emerging interview show about many aspects of aging, not including how to avoid it. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org