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Defining Life Realistically As We Age

Duke Gardens

Sarah P. Duke Gardens
Duke University
Durham, NC

“Defining Life Realistically” is Carl Jung’s third task of his Seven Tasks of Aging. Speaking of a reality check, I can’t imagine being brought more back to earth than I have been over the last decade. Yikes! I think I’m still trying to find my balance.

When we “cling to illusions that are contrary to reality, then problems will surely arise”, according to Jung. We come into the aging process attached to so many illusions. Most of us are in no way prepared for the first intrusion of reality, whether it be the sudden death of a loved one, a broken marriage, children run amok, a health crisis, a lost job or any number of other life challenges. 

These may very well strike long before midlife, but when they occur in our youth we still believe to some extent that our life will go on forever. At midlife we very much begin to see the end and a sense of urgency descends. I was 19 when my father very suddenly and unexpectedly lost his job. He was sixty. Too young for retirement, too old to be hired by someone else in his field. He sent out over 200 resumes and received nothing. (Fortunately this is less true now.) I watched him crumble, his lifelong pursuit of a good, secure and stable life fall by the wayside. My belief in corporate America was shattered. I was able never able to recover my confidence in it and have been self-employed ever since. 

I carried forth with the illusion for the next twenty something years that I could create my own independent, successful lifestyle. I did not have to be controlled and dependent upon something or someone outside of my control. My midlife awakening was that I was wrong about that as well. I had faced endless obstacles trying to create an independent, successful lifestyle. I had encountered circumstances and events beyond my control. I had not been able to accomplish what I set out and worked so hard to accomplish, and I was running out of time and energy to keep trying.

I had been living in a dream world. I had not faced reality, and because of that I was simultaneously driven and living in a self-destructive state of mind. I had to let it go. I had to let the illusion go. I had to face reality. 

There are so many things that wake us up as we age. Our bodies are another never ending source of reality checks. Weight loss becomes harder. Building strength and endurance becomes a slower process. The damage we’ve done through fad diets, too much stress, indifference to our needs is harder to repair. We are no longer on the same track of trying to look a certain way. The illusion that we will one day, if we work hard enough, become a perfect size 6, or 8, or 10, or 12, slips through our fingers as middle age sagging and bulging and softening begins. 

This is all as it should be. A problem arises only when we cling to our illusions, cling to the idea that we can at sixty obtain the body of a thirty year old woman, that we can or should achieve complete control over our careers, that we are, in fact, not subject to the laws of the universe. Beliefs such as “I deserve, or am owed a happy marriage”, or “I have to have youthful skin at sixty” leads us to resentment, despair, anger and frustration. 

Coming to terms with what is, in a culture that wants us to believe we can have and do whatever we desire, is a challenge. It is, however, our challenge to embrace as we age. It is our task to take on and, it is in our best interest to do so. When we ignore this task and cling to our illusions we remain stuck and unable to step into the awakening of our inner life. 

What have been your wake up calls as you age? How have you navigated them? Are you aware of other illusions still needing attention?

Task 1 Facing the Reality of Aging and Dying

Task 2 A Life Review

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9 Responses to Defining Life Realistically As We Age

  1. Linda Yeager on May 16, 2015 at 12:37 pm

    This is a really important piece of writing that you’ve done! Could you please just ride around on my shoulder and whisper in my ear so I can do better…..be better?

    • Dorothy Sander on May 16, 2015 at 1:41 pm

      Trust me, it’s a process! A little bit at a time. Be patient with yourself.

  2. Joan Z. Rough on May 16, 2015 at 12:40 pm

    We’re in constant change. The reality of aging suddenly arrives and we begin discovering new limitations as to what we’re able to do. We must let go of many things we used to do, but because we can’t do as much as we used to, it doesn’t mean we should just sit down and let the rest of the world go by. Staying as active as possible is the secret to aging well. It doesn’t mean we run the marathon we used to participate in, but we find something that our bodies and minds are comfortable doing, like yoga, or walking everyday.

    I’m mostly enjoying the aging process. I find much freedom in not having to rush around like a chicken with my head cut off, and being able to observe the changes in the world from a distance. I’m much more relaxed than I used to be and take things in stride more easily.

    • Dorothy Sander on May 16, 2015 at 1:43 pm

      Yes, indeed, Joan. You sum it up beautifully! Less pressure, more freedom and taking things in stride are some of the perks of giving up our illusions.

  3. Marian Beaman on May 16, 2015 at 5:38 pm

    I keyed in on this line especially: Our bodies are another never ending source of reality checks.

    Just this morning I took a one-mile bike ride, just a mile on level ground until I got to the hill approaching our house. Maybe it was also the heat this Saturday morning, but I was completely bushed after the 40-minute ride, so I had to rest.

    Not long ago I could go twice as far in half the time. I must accept this fact and not complain, even inwardly. Yes, I have limitations, but I am still ambulatory and able to count my blessings. Thanks for the reminder, Dorothy, for me a definite reality check.

    • Dorothy Sander on May 16, 2015 at 6:18 pm

      The thing I’ve found hardest to adjust to physically is the loss of physical strength. It makes gardening a whole different game. Lifting huge pots and bags of mulch and dirt are a thing of the past. I keep wondering if I concentrated on strengthening my arms if it would make a difference, but I don’t do it. What I’ve done instead is changed my style and level of gardening. I’m slowly bringing it all to our deck in reasonably sized pots and its actually created a wonderful place for us to sit in the evenings and early mornings before the sun gets too hot. Adaptability is the name of the game! And, I’m impressed that you rode your bike for a mile! That’s a good bit of exercise!

      • Linda Yeager on May 18, 2015 at 10:47 pm

        About this loss of strength….I recognize this is inevitable but, sometimes I wonder am I talking myself into some things too soon? Like lifting a bag of mulch. I find that now when I buy something like this at the gardening center I ask for someone to load it into my truck. Is it really not possible or do I just not wish to do it any longer? Like….do I ask too little of myself? Or do I project being old before I’m really ready to project that? It goes without saying that recovering from injuries is certainly more complicated as one ages so maybe it’s my body being smarter than I am. I live on a small organic farm and there is always much labor to be done however, I find I do less and less of it. An occasional helper who is a bit older than me, I’m 68, told me that his back doctor told him that anyone over 70 shouldn’t be lifting anything heavier than a pack of cards. It’s kind of like am I no longer relevant? When I’ve asked much older senior women about being relevant one very successful published author asked me “why do you need to be relevant?” It really took me up short. Well…I don’t know why.

        • Dorothy Sander on May 19, 2015 at 5:21 pm

          I have the same instinct to “not try” to lift heavy objects. Maybe it is just that, an instinct, similar to that of a child who will not walk on a broken leg. Maybe it’s just built into us at a certain point because our body knows it’s not good for us. If we keep moving and doing things we enjoy, we will keep our bodies healthy, mobile and flexible while not causing injury. As for being relevant, I believe the only person we need to be relevant to is ourselves, our beliefs and our values. If we are living each day, using our gifts and abilities in a positive manner, we’re relevant. What anyone else thinks really doesn’t matter. It never did. We just didn’t know it! Thank you for sharing your insights and thoughts, Linda. Gave me more to think about! 🙂

  4. D.G. Kaye on May 18, 2015 at 8:54 pm

    Wow Dorothy, you pretty much covered it here. Everything you wrote about certainly has had to have been some parts at least, that every woman has or will have to struggle with. We have to find the comfort and peace within ourself to be grateful for all that we do have. And sometimes that task is something that many don’t overcome and let hinder a lot of joy for the duration of their lives.

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