The Arch and the Staircase
Here you see two diagrams that I have had drawn, because they make visualizable two conceptions of human life that have come to mean a lot to me.
One diagram, the arch, represents a biological concept, taking us from childhood to a middle peak of maturity, followed by a decline into infirmity. The other, a staircase, shows our potential for upward progression toward wisdom, spiritual growth, learning— toward, in other words, consciousness and soul.
The vision behind these diagrams was developed by Rudolf Arnheim, the late professor emeritus of the psychology of art at Harvard University, and for me they are clear metaphors for ways we can choose to view aging. Our youth- obsessed culture encourages us to focus on the arch—age as physical decline— more than on the stairway— age as potential for continued development and ascent. But it is the stairway that points to late life's promise, even in the face of physical decline. Perhaps it should be a spiral staircase! Because the wisdom, balance, reflection, and compassion that this upward movement represents don't just come to us in one linear ascension; they circle around us, beckoning us to keep climbing, to keep looking both back and ahead.
Rehearsing the Future
Throughout my life, whenever I was confronted by something I feared, I tried to make it my best friend, stare it in the face, and get to know its ins and outs. Eleanor Roosevelt once said, "You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face." I have found this to be true. This is how I discovered that knowledge about what lies ahead can empower me, help me conquer my fears, take the wind out of the sails of my anxiety. Know thine enemy! Remember Rumpelstiltskin, the evil dwarf in the Grimms' fairy tale? He was destroyed once the miller's daughter learned his name and called it out. When we name our fears, bring them out into the open, and examine them in the light, they weaken and wither.
So, one of the ways I have tried to overcome my fears of aging involved rehearsing for it. In fact, I started doing this in Act II. I believe that this rehearsal for the future (along with doing a life review of the past) is part of why I have been able— so far— to live Act III with relative equanimity. Being with my father when he was in his late seventies and in decline due to heart problems was what began to shatter any childhood illusions I'd had of immortality.
I was in my mid- forties, and it hit me that with him gone, I would be the oldest one left in the family and, before too long, next at the turnstile. I realized then that it was not so much the idea of death itself that frightened me as it was being faced with regrets, the "what if's and the "if only's when there is no time left to do anything about them. I didn't want to arrive at the end of the Third Act and discover too late all that I had not done. I began to feel the need to project myself into the future, to visualize who I wanted to be and what regrets I might have that I would need to address before I got too old. I wanted to understand as much as possible what cards age would deal me; what I could realistically expect of myself physically; how much of aging was negotiable; and what I needed to do to intervene on my own behalf with what appeared to be a downward slope.
The birth of my two children had taught me the importance of knowledge and preparation. The first birth had been a terrifying, lonely experience; I went through it unprepared and unrehearsed, swept along passively in a sea of pain. The second birth was quite the opposite. My husband and I worked with a birth educator in the months leading up to my due date, so that I was able to visualize what would happen and know what to do. The physical ordeal was no less grueling, the process no faster, but the experience itself was transformed. With knowledge and rehearsal, I found it easier to ride atop the sequence of events rather than be totally submerged by the pain.