We are miserable not-doers in this increasingly fast- paced world. No wonder old age terrifies us! We can’t imagine “not doing”, so programmed to do, do, do. Most of our lives have been spent focused on activities of one sort or another. Even with our offspring, most parents of our generation and our parent’s generation were bound and determined to make them exceptionally good “doers”. Indeed, doers were honored with degrees, monetary wealth, and a resume the length of your arm. We’re still doing it. How many over-fiftiers are desperately searching for something meaningful “to do”?
How does one get comfortable with not-doing? Do we even really see any value in it? In my last post I talked about the in-between times and not-doing is exactly what’s required of us during those important times when we just don’t know who we are or what direction to head. Our inclination to do leads to filling up our time and space with random activities and endless mental gymnastics, most of which, if you’re like me, amount to beating ourselves up for not doing.
It’s a conundrum. It is inevitable, if we choose to be realistic, that the older we get, the less up and at ’em doing we’ll be doing. There are those who are revered by the media and those of us who read and spread the news, like the seventy seven year old Ernestine Shepherd who lifts weights like a thirty year old man, or Diana Nyad who swam from Cuba to Florida at sixty four. Most of us will never measure up to these women with our physical prowess, but the underlying message is prevalent among aging women in America and beyond that if we are not “doing” we are not of value.
If we are not doing in some form or another, how do we value our existence? What if we sit in a chair and stare out of the window for an hour, or a day, does that not have value? What if we never bake another cake for a charity event, or gather food for the homeless, is it possible for us to still have value? I bore witness to the last half of my mother’s life and she was relentless in compiling and executing to-do lists. She didn’t feel right in her skin unless she had a project under way. My father the same way. Both died feeling in many ways unfulfilled and not good enough.
I run into women every day, online and off, who are unhappy, dissatisfied, restless, uninspired, anxious, despairing and totally convinced they have no value. They deride themselves because they don’t have a degree, or an important job, or their art hanging in a gallery, or a published book, or three grandchildren, or enough money in the bank. How many of us live every day dissatisfied with who we are and what we have?
We get a little smarter as we get older. We care a little less about the kudos and accolades that we sought after in our youth, but I’m pretty sure most of us feel, at least from time to time, like we’re not “measuring up” in the way we are handling the aging process. How should we be measuring ourselves?
At the first of the year I posted my Windows to Wisdom. I’ve been writing and re-writing this little piece for a couple of years. I don’t know that I’m settled exactly on what I have down now, but it’s a summary of the things I’ve come to value as I age, and yet each and every one of them is a kind of “doing” thing, but the kind of doing whose results can’t really be measured by anyone but ourselves. They are non-doing doing things that require no particular physical skill or worldly outcome. They are non-doing challenges that help us improve the quality of our lives on the inside.
If we have to do, if we just can’t stop doing, and I’m not altogether sure that we can or should, let’s measure ourselves not by externals, but by what we are doing on the inside. Furthermore, let’s measure our success by how regularly we focus our attention on developing our wisdom, not on outcomes. Wisdom, like love, spills over. It just can’t help it.