Our Role in Tomorrow

MD: Nadya, I read the news today, oh boy. When I see what is happening here and around the world, I’m frightened, not only for me but for the world. I wonder what my children and grandchildren feel with the news today. 

NG: My children have been quite forthcoming with their concerns and judgments of all that is going on. More to the point, as I do not yet have grandchildren and have long had “grandma envy”, I have recently found myself thinking that maybe it’s right that my children remain childless. It’s a frightening thought, born of my own despair about the future I am imagining.

MD: We know that when we are face to face with the One who made us, we’ll be asked, “Did you keep hope for the future?” I understand your despair and struggle with my own. Each morning I say, “The dark night will end”, as an affirmation that I pray to believe. As sages, however, I feel that we’re called to keep balance between the truth of the moment and serve as models keeping hope. How can we do this, Sage friend?

NG: I think you have already begun to answer your own question. It begins with prayer and the awareness that we cannot know all that will be. We only have access to a very tiny piece of the Mystery. So, I notice my despair, and then I pull myself together and look to where I can provide support and inspiration, perhaps, to younger or more energetic folk who are on the front lines fighting to make a difference. 

MD: Well said. Bruce Springsteen has a lyric that goes, “Everybody dies, baby, that’s a fact,” and then the song goes on to say that in the meantime let’s go out and enjoy what we have right now. That helps me, too. I have a friend whose grandchild was recently put on an anxiety medication. While it saddens me, I understand. Maybe it does help to stay in the moment and enjoy all we’ve had and what remains. Walking humbly in our despair is important. As you say, we only have a tiny piece of the Puzzle. 

NG: What is working for me, most of the time, is in line with what you’ve said here, Malka. Gratitude for all that I have and for this beautiful world I inhabit. Of course, noticing the many ways that this beautiful world is eroding, as a result of human hubris, can get me down again. But I am trying to live in the gratitude and the awe, and remember how interconnected and interrelated we all are. This then spurs me on to act and speak out. One of our friends in the Sage-ing world is part of a network of Elder Activists. Some of my most inspiring friends are marching in Washington every Friday with Jane Fonda. This is where I want to put my focus and energy. To support these efforts and to share in the outrage that inspires change. The despair I mentioned at the beginning only gets a small amount of my time and attention.

MD: You’ve inspired me! Another important way to stay balanced is to talk about what we’re talking about in groups, not just from a political perspective but deeper, from the heart. Together we console and support one another. I can’t, we can is a good slogan for now. I’ve begun a Sage-ing Salon and at our meeting next week I’m going to suggest that as many of us as we can muster will take that trip to DC and support Jane’s morally audacious and holy work.

NG: AMEN. Can I come with?

“You’re Only As Old As You Feel”

NG: When I turned 60, my friends all wanted to reassure me that 60 is the new 40. My reaction at the time was, “I’ve been 40, now I want to know what 60 feels like.” This NY Times article from October 17th – whose title we’ve quoted here – suggests that age is subjective. That may be true in many cases, and I’m concerned that it still makes aging a dirty word.

MD: I’ve been short all my life, always put in the front row for class pictures. People thought when I was 12 that I was nine. I’d gotten used to passing for younger and in middle age, frankly liked being told at fifty that I looked a decade younger. But now? I enjoy the mantle of 74. When I see another woman who has stopped coloring her hair, I say, “You’re dying your hair grey too!”

NG: I think we’re both feeling the blessings of being in our 7th and 8th decades, and we want to share that. The continuing focus on the trials of aging and internalized ageism isn’t helpful. I love the greater contentment I feel with who I am and how I’ve gotten here. I delight in not caring what others think of how I’m dressed.

MD: I live in sunny California where people delight in telling you their age so you can say that they look so much younger. The truth is, I was much more stressed and unhappy when I was younger. Today, when I awaken, I am grateful for my life as I never was earlier. I look forward to a long lunch with a friend that is usually about our broader perspectives than about our latest difficulties. Leonard Woolf called the second half of life “Downhill All the Way”. I love not having to pedal so hard anymore.

We’ve Never Been This Old Before

Even though our book is written, our conversation continues. The latest dialogue:

MD: Isn’t it great that we’re hearing from so many of our readers? It’s comforting to know that I’m not the only one finding the path of growing older a little bumpy.  I find myself with less enthusiasm for work that I once enjoyed as much as pizza. While I’m still able to do the work, I’m not sure that the spark is there. 

NG: One of the gifts of having friends a decade older than I is that I get a peek into my future.  Another friend of ours, close to your age, has been sharing the feeling that she has almost no capacity left for the work that once engaged her. She’s feeling the energy drain from health challenges she’s navigated for a long time. Sometimes it scares me.

What can you do to reimagine yourselves in new ways? Ways that will rekindle the spark so that life feels as full as you want it to be?

MD: First thing I’d say to my friends a decade younger, Nadya, is to get done as much as you can! The other is feeling that I’m entering a new chapter of activity. I no longer want to do what I’ve been doing for the last forty years. Political activism is calling me today. My family and friends. And while I feel uncertain of what life will be without writing and being a pulpit rabbi, I’m curious. I feel freed from what I once felt driven to do. I’m actually enjoying my life more without the need to produce.

NG: You answered my question precisely. You are reimagining yourself in this time of your life. And, first, you have to allow yourself those moments of grief or sadness over the loss of what was. That’s to be expected, and is healthy. It says that you loved your life before, too. Now you’re showing up as the best example of what Reb Zalman taught us was the role of the Sage – one who has the longer view of life and the world, feels into what is most needed now, and speaks to that in whatever ways one is able. Your political activism may not look like that of the 20-somethings we once were. It will have to take into account the energy that you have, and your physical capacity. And, it will be informed by wisdom that was not present in your 20s.

MD: Thank you, dear friend, teacher, and colleague! What glorious words with which to enfold myself as the New Year unfolds! Wishing you a sweet, good, and active year!

Elders to the World

MD: Nadya, last night I watched “American Factory”, a documentary hosted by the Obamas. It tells of a General Motors factory that went out of business and was bought by a Chinese company. The American workers lost jobs and those that remained worked twice as hard for half the money. All I could do was sigh and wonder about the wise response of the elder. I feel helpless, a dangerous place to be.

NG: My first response is grief. We really thought we would be leaving a very different world to our children and grandchildren than the one we’re experiencing today. So we simply have to express that grief. And, then we can allow that feeling to give rise to the awareness that we still have important work to do. We can still make a difference. Let’s not forget that the 8th Step in our book is about “serving as an elder, as a guide, mentor, agent of healing and reconciliation on behalf of the planet, nation and family”.

MD: Thank you for echoing the center of my heart. Sometimes when I’m with young people, I want to ignore the grief and talk about anything other than this moment in time. I’ve had spirited conversations with my grandchildren about the 2020 elections. I tell them to work for whomever they like, not simply to talk about it. What else can we do?

NG: Our greatest role now is as mentor, which begins with respectful listening, and then gives us the opening to encourage, inspire and guide their work in the world. Some of us may also be called to action – there are Elder Activists out there, and they are an inspiration and model to the younger generations.

MD: It’s the inner work that I need to do so often: to keep hope for the future. Then I don’t need to hide the surface feelings of anxiety. I try to remember to walk humbly in my despair and attend local meetings concerning government. Reb Zalman taught us to be the “eco-wardens”, because the elder has time to be the activist for the natural world.

NG: Remember that activism takes many forms. As elders we have varying degrees of energy and capacity. Some of us are still on the front lines of demonstrations and others are listening carefully to what their children and grandchildren long for and helping them find ways to make their dreams come true. We can work behind the lines and have just as much influence. Don’t despair about how much you can do. Just do it.

MD: You’re so right. Elders are agents of healing and reconciliation. When the world makes us feel small and powerless, Reb Zalman’s playful exercise where we imagine ourselves speaking before global leaders invigorates us. We can tell them what our families, cities, country, and world need. After we step off the cosmic soapbox, our words bring us clarity. Maybe we’re ready to storm the White House or at the least write a letter to a local official about your greatest concerns. An elder knows that the world depends upon each of us.

We will never forget you, Toni Morrison

MD: How exciting, Nadya! Our book is out, it’s beautiful, and I’ve carried my one copy everywhere to show people. Guess what? I’ve lost the lone copy of the book about the time of life when we grow forgetful. What does this mean?

NG: So what are you saying? This is your book… not your mind! I misplace things all the time, and I don’t chalk it up to an aging mind. It’s simply forgetfulness. A trait that even our children display when they’re young. 

Why is it that as we grow older, we begin to link everything to aging? 

MD: Easy for you to say, sweetie. You’re a decade younger, never forget it! I didn’t worry about this when I was your age. You’re right, however, that we feel a new fear when this happens at a certain age. We do lose things throughout life, we do fall now and then, yet when it happens now to me, it carries the chill of future mishaps. 

NG: First of all, I won’t ever forget that I’m a decade younger than you. You don’t let me forget it! And, when you forget, I’ll tell you it’s time to worry.

My personal trainer includes balance exercises regularly, because I’m of that age – and falling is both a risk and a greater possibility as we grow in years.

Still, I am determined to face these kinds of changes with curiosity and amazement at the process of aging. I don’t want to fall prey to fear.

MD: Yeah, it’s a bad neighborhood that I try to stay out of too. What consoled me about losing the book and “losing it” is that creativity still abounds. I took the image of the book and printed several pages of it and bring it to events. And if I lose the papers…well, I know how to make more. 

NG: Gene Cohen, in his book The Mature Mind, teaches that the mind becomes more creative and elastic as we grow older. I like to think of this in Reb Zalman’s computer terms. The RAM is full! We have used all the space on our hard drive and it’s slowing down. We haven’t lost anything, it just takes longer to retrieve. As we’re waiting for the information, we come up with new solutions or responses.

MD: Whew. I feel so much better, rabbi.

The conversation continues – “what is wisdom?”

MD: We hear a lot about wisdom today from clergy to celebrities. What exactly are we talking about? Does it have different meaning for our time or is it an ageless idea?

NG: Wisdom is ageless, timeless. And yet I think of it as time-bound. That is, it is sourced in an experience of time – in lived life. It’s an unfolding process. That same wisdom, when we tap into it at age 20 and again at age 50, will be experienced and understood differently. When we have more life experience to hang it on, we have a greater understanding or clarity – a unique knowing that comes with age.

MD: Webster’s’ Third International Dictionary defines wisdom as “the effectual mediating principle or personification of God’s will in the creation of the world”. 

NG: Websters has just given us a Kabbalistic definition of wisdom! God’s desire gives rise to the process of creation, which is shaped by divine wisdom. That wisdom is then hard-wired into creation itself.

MD: And we come to know God through that wisdom that we find within ourselves and in every aspect of creation. Each stage of life has its own wisdom, and the wisdom of “Adulthood II” is the picture of wholeness about our lives. We finally understand who we are and we are pleased.

NG: This is the ideal for the “third act”. In fact, Jung refers the the 4th and final stage of life as ‘maturity and wisdom’. Erik Erikson teaches that one may achieve wisdom in the final stage which he calls ‘ego integrity vs despair’. Wisdom is the successful outcome of this stage, and is defined as “informed and detached concern for life itself in the face of death itself.” Reb Zalman agrees that this is not an automatic state that we attain, and he created a spiritual practice that he called “Sage-ing” and which we are sharing in this book.

When do you start ‘Sage-ing’?

NG: When does one know that it’s time to get ourselves a heart of wisdom? To enter into this work? Is there a “right time” in life?

MD: When my mother died, I discovered that you can’t be an elder until you lose a parent. The wind was at my face. Now I was called to be my own shelter, derive my own wisdom, and enter my full power. The price for greater personhood is the loss of the ones we once believed knew everything and could do everything. I think loss has the potential to make us wiser.

NG: Are you suggesting that when you felt the wind at your face, you had more direct access to…what?

MD: I learned to turn to myself for resources I wasn’t sure I had. I learned that absence of a loved one is as palpable at times as having lunch with a friend. I learned to look at what remained after loss. 

NG: So this is more about tapping into what was already there, rather than gaining some new access or insight? How would you describe the imperative, in the face of that loss?

MD: Maybe life’s greatest paradox is in understanding the preciousness of something only after we no longer have it. And what we’ve lost inspires us to appreciate more keenly all that we still have. We discover, also, that the past is not immutable, that although a life ends, a relationship does not. We continue to have relationship with those who are no longer on earth but remain with us always. I call the shift of perception “wisdom”.

NG: In my experience, one of the greatest sources of wisdom has been my relationship to my own mortality. When my father died, I became acutely aware of the preciousness of every moment, now that I knew that only the present moment was guaranteed. I would never again know that I could count on the future in any way. The illusion of immortality was forever busted. And, in discovering the beauty of this moment, and the gift of this life, I began to appreciate and access that source of wisdom within. 

MD: I have to confess, I wish I knew more than I know. I always wish that each experience would make me wiser than I am. The closest I can come to what I know to be my own most useful knowledge is in acceptance of all that is, all that includes loss, unexpected gift, and andall that I don’t know. I pray to embrace it all.

NG: Isn’t this precisely the wisdom that comes with life experience? When my children wanted an answer to something, and all I could say was “I don’t know”, they simply couldn’t accept that. Youth demands an answer, clarity and certainty. As life unfolds, with all its complexity and losses, both small and great, we learn to surrender to the not-knowing and to live with paradox. 

MD: The choice is ours to decide which story we will tell ourselves. We can grow bitter or we can, in accepting the changes happening to us, find the unique gifts that this time brings. I find myself more tolerant and less judgmental, for example. Actually, maybe not exactly that. It’s more like, as I’ve become increasingly aware of the shadow parts, I can accept them, after embarrassment, with self forgiveness. 

NG: There’s a Native American story I love to share. A grandfather is teaching his young grandchild that two wolves live inside each of us. One wolf is mean, angry, hungry and prone to violence. The other is good and does no harm, he lives in harmony with all that is. Each one wants to dominate our nature. The child asks, “Which one wins?” And, the grandfather answers, “The one you feed”. I have learned to accept that both wolves are indeed a part of me. I have found that growing older has brought a new sense of spaciousness to me, and I can stop before reacting to ask myself, “Is this the wolf I choose to feed?” 

MD: Both of us got our awakening when we lost parents. By sharing our experience, we hope that readers who also have lost loved ones are consoled by the vision of growth that we suggest loss can offer. We also would hope that those who have not yet experienced this can enter the realm of imagination and glimpse the possibilities of wisdom without profound loss. At the least, it may prepare them for what they may learn. 

NG: Either way, we hope the vision of Sage-ing offered by Reb Zalman will inspire our readers to enter into the work of this book. We offer it with the framework that he called “the Sine Qua Non” of the Sage-ing work – a curriculum in ten parts. Each of the ten chapters will expand on these elements and offer exercises that make the book experiential and personal. Once again, as the Nike ad says, “Just do it!” 

Why we wrote this book

Embracing Wisdom: Soaring in the Second Half of Life emerged from a conversation between us personally and professionally. Because we lived in different places, we met on Skype to write together. Each meeting began with a conversation that led us into our writing every word collaboratively. We invite you to listen in.

This is very much in keeping with the traditional way of Jewish learning: two sit and explore an idea together to have insights that one cannot have alone. The following dialogue reveals the intimate learning process that informed our work. It also demonstrates how the work of Sageing is best done: you can’t simply read a book by yourself—even this amazing one–and declare yourself a sage! Sit with a friend to reveal your truth and listen to theirs. All praise to you and your wisdom for taking the first step by buying this book–now go out and buy another copy for the one with whom you will do the work. 

MD: Because baby boomers will age as no generation ever has before, we have an entire industry of books that explore the physical, mental, and emotional challenges of aging. Why ours?

NG: So many of the books which have appeared, and continue to appear, tell us *about* eldering, the process and experience. Some offer the good news that we don’t have to age like our parents and grandparents did. Many offer excellent meditations and insights into the aging process. What’s missing is the one book which will take readers by the hand and guide them into their eldering years–the quintessential “how to”. 

MD: The book also needs to inspire participation. You can have a better, richer third act if you enter this time with a willingness to accept and embrace the process of aging as a new adventure. I’m thinking about Disneyland when I was a child. They had ride books with the smallest ride being an A ticket up to the Matterhorn which was an E ride. Once you reach 60, you’re finally ready for the biggest and fastest ride, the one that takes you to a place that you didn’t even know existed.

NG: As you were remembering childhood, my association went immediately to a treasure hunt; we need a treasure map to help us find the hidden riches that await us in our elder years, or that place as you say that we didn’t even know existed. We found that map in Reb Zalman’s book From Age-ing to Sage-ing with his new vision for this time of life and the imaginal exercises and spiritual practices he created.

MD: Why didn’t this book inspire the revolution that is just beginning now?

NG: Because our generation wasn’t old enough back in1995! We read the book with interest but without wisdom. It didn’t feel relevant to the lives we were living then. As we began to age, however, we rediscovered his invitation to make the shift from “aging” – something that just happens to us, to “Sage-ing” – an opportunity for a more fulfilling, dynamic and creative last act.

MD: So why not just re-issue a new edition of Reb Zalman’s book?

NG: The book is dated. We don’t need to be convinced any longer of the importance to change the face of aging. Reb Zalman planted the seeds for us to understand aging as an opportunity for spiritual growth and shared his personal practices that had not yet been refined or developed for all of us. We’re loosening the soil and offering a new generation’s perspective. 

MD: We’re also adding a different perspective of aging as women, and Reb Zalman asked us to continue his work through our experience of being valued primarily for our appearance. 

NG: Yes! And we wanted to write a book that would accomplish three things: to distill the essence of Reb Zalman’s pioneering wisdom on this subject; to offer exercises polished by years of Sage-ing practitioners–our teachers; and to include the latest discoveries that support the vision of an elastic and productive elderhood.

MD: What is the “new elder”? Does the rocking chair no longer apply? I don’t feel as old as my parents were at the same age. Now I’m my grandparents’ ages! We are living longer than any generation before us–we have one third more years than a child born at the beginning of the 20th Century. While I’m sure that everyone at my age–74–has thought about what that means and where did the time go–I know it’s different for me from my parents and grandparents because of our longer life span. When I imagine my grandmothers dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, as I am today, I laugh. At 20 my father bought life insurance for his wife and child. 

NG: We want the eldering years to be a unique time abundant with curiosity, enthusiasm, a sense of adventure and purpose. Our generation has changed the meaning of every stage of life for itself. When we approached middle age, we pushed it ahead, attempting never to get there. We thought that if we didn’t grow up, we wouldn’t grow old. So we didn’t “dress the part” or buy those insurance plans. Now that we can’t deny the physical process of aging, we must develop a new perspective. 

MD: What shall we call ourselves? Elder has a church ring to it, and senior citizen is of another generation. And let’s remember that the stage that we’re talking about is new: the years of harvest have never been lived before in such abundance. It doesn’t have a single name. Richard Rohr refers to the “second half of life.” Using Erik Erikson’s framework of the eight stages, Mary Catherine Bateson adds another stage, “adulthood II”, and Jane Fonda calls it “the third act”. 

NG: Reb Zalman answers your question in the title of his book From Age-ing to Sage-ing.  He was calling us to enter a stage of spiritual eldering which he called “Sage-ing”. So when we engage in this process, we get to call ourselves Sages, those very people whom Reb Zalman tells us “expand their consciousness and develop wisdom.”