“Recent and not so recent surveys confirm that a majority of us people over seventy-five keep surprising ourselves with happiness,” writes Roger Angell in his essay in the February 17, 2014 edition of The New Yorker, This Old Man: Life in the Nineties. “Put me on that list. Our children are adults now and mostly gone off, and let’s hope full of their own lives. We’ve outgrown our ambitions.”
We’ve outgrown our ambitions. Angell’s article is a beautiful piece, full of mellifluous prose and images, about how our culture makes elders invisible, shunning the reality of aging, and, God forbid, death. And I am thinking about my own ambitions now. Maybe I had already outgrown mine by my mid-fifties, when, after 25 years with multiple sclerosis, my mind and body were slowing. I’d published a book about my life and my work with chronic illness. I still saw a few clients and ran the local clinic’s psychotherapy group for people with illness and disability. Letting go was hard to do.
I learned from neurologists that everything happens earlier and sharper for those with MS — including the memory loss and cognitive confusion (decline in executive functioning, they call it). I sought for a time to combat the slowing from the decades with MS, and wondered if it was just a natural part of who I was. But I knew it was more than that. I felt that my head would explode with over-stimulation from email — this may not be limited to those with neurological disorders — or from too many people around me in a crowded room. I’d think, “What happened? I used to be an extrovert. Has MS altered that, too?” Now, in a room full of people, my eyes tire or my legs stiffen, and I need to sit down in a corner or go home.
Finally, I began to wonder if I could still follow the complicated stories that many of my clients presented. Friends and professionals told me that I am not alone, that none of us are as swift as we once were. Perhaps it was my perfectionist streak that kept trying to get things right in the trajectory of a client’s story — when did she move in with her boyfriend, when and where was the child born, and when did the abuse happen? When I couldn’t find the words to complete my sentences in session, I felt troubled. It was time for me to pause and re-evaluate. Last summer, I realized that I didn’t want to strive any more to follow the stories. I wanted to alleviate this stress, this ache.
For there is an ache that comes in the striving — the ache in pushing ahead, in trying to be more. It’s the ache that comes from the struggle to accept oneself, to prove oneself.
I’ve since moved my clinical work to a small integrative care center for people affected by cancer. I have the same number of individual clients — two to four at any given time — and I continue to run one therapy group. But this group uses journal writing as its format and focus, a jumping-off point from which to explore thoughts and feelings. The smaller, focused setting suits me. Often what’s needed the most from me is to be present with my clients as they think and feel their way through what they are living.
I’ve embraced meditation with greater intention and now have a daily practice on my own or with neighbors.
The ache has begun to quiet. Or maybe, if the ache still comes in the dark of night, it’s much lighter, more ephemeral; it doesn’t hold on to my shirt buttons so tightly. To be at peace with our good-enough selves is my hope in this world, and where I want to be.
I even question whether writing remains a helpful vehicle for me. Do I write to prove myself — to get your approval — or do I write because I have the time and believe that others share my experience? Do I want us all to benefit from that validation and connection? Especially the connection, because isn’t it in isolation that we lose our compass?
Several years ago, I was talking with my therapist about the meaning of the book I was writing.
“I want to know that I can do this, that I can finally get there,” I said.
“You are already there,” my therapist quietly remarked. I sat up straight, her words forcing me to look at my expectations of myself. At home, I went straight to my computer, typed out those four words, “You are already there,” and affixed them to my desk. And thought that maybe all this striving was enough already.
I recently replaced the worn print-out with a hand-written yellow sticky. You think I’ll forget I’m already there, that I’m fine, just the way I am?
Last month, I visited my 92-year-old mother in Manhattan. The harsh winter had kept her indoors. With little exercise for those legs and a newly diagnosed heart condition, her mobility had become compromised. As we exercised in the apartment hall, I witnessed how difficult this illness and aging stuff had become for her.
“Who was it who said that aging is not for sissies?” I asked my mother.
“That was Bette Davis,” she said, “and she was right.”
If I can give my mom a little more peace, or my clients, surprised and startled at being told they have cancer, a little more hope, then this feels like enough. For this is true self-care: to let go of judgment — of me, of you, of our elders.
The Angell article has become my talisman. I carry his words in my mind and heart, wherever I go: We’ve outgrown our ambitions. I’ve given them to a friend with MS and to a 74-year-old neighbor who has re-found love after the death of her partner six years ago. I’ve shared them with a friend and colleague, a fellow meditator. Pattie has recently retired and the phrase resonated for her. “We have to re-define our ambitions,” she responded. “Mine is to be in the moment, to mindfully live.”
So when I remember I’m already there, I let go of the striving. The ache softens and from time to time, I welcome myself to the now.
About the Author
Dana Snyder-Grant is an author and clinical social worker with over 25 years of experience specializing in chronic illness and disability. One of her earlier essays, also titled “You Are Already There,” appears in her book, Just Like Life, Only More So and Other Stories of Illness, available online or direct from the author. You can read more of her writings at her website or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.