There was a time when we couldn’t wait for things to change — for school to end and the summer to begin, to go away to college, to find a job, to find a better job, to find a partner, and perhaps find a better partner, to watch our kids grow up. But now we are just as likely to fear change, especially if we become preoccupied with the unpleasant ones that come with age.
Actually the worst thing for our well-being is to stop experiencing change. The biggest threats to healthy aging are isolation and tedium, according to all the experts. But we don’t need experts to tell us that; we all know people who have shut themselves off from change and aren’t doing well. New discoveries, new friends, and new challenges keep our juices going and generate life-giving opportunities. Many of us have been surprised to find that contrary to the bad press aging gets, the years after 50 are a high point in our lives. In other words, many things are changing for the better.
The big revelation for me is the discovery that my perspective itself has changed. I am not who I was, only older. Even familiar experiences and relationships take on new meaning. Some have become more important and others not so much. More and more often I find myself choosing to only spend my time in situations that I consider worth my time, and I am more engaged than when I used to just show up. In the same way, the people who matter in my life matter more than ever, and I want to spend any time I have with them.
A second big change is that I am no longer so concerned with what people think of me. I am more interested in what I think of myself, and what I can learn about my authentic self now that I have outgrown the expectations I thought the world had for me. The freedom from approval opens up all sorts of “inappropriate” possibilities, such as liberating an inkling to try — oh, I don’t know — tango dancing or traveling alone. Most exciting of all, every new experience brings new people into our lives, people with their own stories to tell and interests to share.
But I am skipping over the hard part. It is one thing to see the appeal of change, but it is quite another to get up and at it. Anne Morrow Lindbergh nailed the feeling. “Is there anything as horrible as starting on a trip?” she wrote in Gift from the Sea. “Once you are off, that’s all right, but the last moments are earthquake and convulsion and the feeling that you are a snail being pulled of your rock.” That sluggish feeling, as much as the fear of change, can hold us back.
I have found that making change is not about earthquake and convulsion, but happens in tiny almost imperceptible wiggles. “Nothing changes if nothing changes” is an AA mantra, but it is the key to shifting gears on any life path. The smallest adjustment to a routine can set everything in motion — taking a new route to work, switching from books to a Kindle or from reading novels to reading history, talking to the person standing behind you in line, or “forcing yourself” to go to that community meeting.
We are impressed by those who throw over everything in pursuit of a lifelong passion, but the truth is that most of us haven’t got that kind of buried fire to illuminate the road not taken. What we do have is a more modest but just as meaningful “pilot light” to guide the way. It may not even be something you have been longing to do all your life but rather something you have been doing all your life that you are now prepared to approach with new vigor. I know of hobbies turned into businesses, of an abiding interest in people elevated to a volunteer or mentoring commitment, of professional drive scaled back to make room for neglected relationships.
Now is the time to play to our strengths. Sure, our bodies and minds aren’t what they were, but our brains and our spirits are enjoying a growing sense of mastery. We are simply better at living than ever before. That is the change that really matters.
Photo courtesy of Suzanne Braun Levine