Connie Zweig guides readers as they shift from role to soul.
A few years ago, Connie Zweig had what she came to call a late-life identity crisis. “As I imagined retiring from my clinical practice, I noticed I was feeling a bit lost and disoriented,” she says. “We know about the midlife crisis, but I hadn’t seen this talked about.” Her deep dive into research on aging surprised her: “A lot of people experience this disorientation,” she explains. “They lose their identities with retirement. They can’t live in the present moment because they hadn’t let go of the past and they dreaded the future. And they don’t know how to find contemplative practices for this stage of life.”
The Inner Work of Age is filled with psychological and spiritual practices to enable us to become elders, not just seniors. “Elder is a stage, not an age,” she says. “We can learn how to let go of past roles and identities, step into the unknown, and emerge with renewed vitality and purpose.”
To get there, we might have to overcome denial and our attachment to things like looking young and being super productive. “The meaning and purpose of this stage are different from midlife,” says Zweig. When we ache in the places where we used to play, as Leonard Cohen put it in a song, we might fall prey to unconscious internalized ageism.
Research shows that the images we carry—of slow, wrinkled seniors feeling useless—have a deleterious effect on our bodies and minds. The shadow of our inner ageist aims the arrow of projection at ourselves, leaving us with feelings of failure and shame.
The challenges can be different for women and men, Zweig notes. Because of America’s long history of inequity in women’s wages, pensions, and social security benefits, women are often terrified of ending up destitute, homeless, and alone. Zweig cited research by a large insurance company showing that millions of women carry this “bag lady” shadow within them.
Men, too, can fear living out their final years in poverty, but the more common anxiety is loss of self-esteem. The male ideal of heroic achievement and self-sufficiency makes the possibility of becoming dependent and helpless fright- ful—one reason so many men deny the realities of aging. For some, it’s a threat to their very identity. One of Zweig’s clients confessed, “If I’m not the CEO, who am I?”
The inner work of age is an antidote to the depression, anxiety, bitterness, and regret that too many older people feel.
“Elder is a stage, not an age. We can learn how to let go of past roles and identities, step into the unknown, and emerge with renewed vitality and purpose.” —Zweig
It opens us to deeper self-knowledge, authenticity, and spiritual renewal—an opportunity, says Zweig, “to complete emotional unfinished business with loved ones and spiritual unfinished business in our relationship with the Divine.” The passage from Hero to Elder, or role to soul, doesn’t mean giving up the pleasure of achievement. It’s more about how you do things than what you do. In fact, research shows that feeling useful enhances health and prolongs life. It’s just that clinging to the intense drive typical of earlier stages of life, and keeping a tight grip on the ego’s agenda, can be a betrayal of the new reality.
So, action-oriented people may want to find fresh ways to be of service. “There are so many causes that need the wisdom of elders,” says Zweig. “But let’s bring the awareness we’ve gathered from a long life into our contributions now and do them in a different state of mind.”
Late life calls for reflection, reevaluation, and reconciliation. We may have relationships to heal, people to forgive—including ourselves—and regrets to resolve. Joseph Campbell once said, “When you get to be older and the concerns of the day have all been attended to and you turn to the inner life ... well, if you don’t know where it is, you’ll be sorry.”
But it’s never too late. “In most sacred traditions, the central task of late life is to turn from doing to being,” says Zweig, “away from the responsibilities of the material world and toward our relationship to the Sacred.”
Our connection to the Transcendent, says Zweig, “can become a presence that lives in us and that we can continue to experience as we age.” It also can be a life raft amidst the potentially disturbing changes that accompany aging. “When you have that life raft,” she says, “you can close your eyes and be at peace.”