From The Gift of Years
“For a younger person,” Carl Jung taught, “it is almost a sin – and certainly a danger – to be too much occupied with himself. But for the aging person it is a duty and a necessity to give serious attention to himself. After having lavished its light upon the world, the sun withdraws its rays in order to illumine itself.”
Carl Jung, the great psychologist of the inner life, brought to human awareness the notion that life develops in stages, some of them more centered on the outside world, others of them focused almost entirely on interiority, on reflection, on the search for meaning. The end stage of life, it seems, has something to do with making sense out of everything that has gone before it.
It requires a capacity for questions about what happened to us as we went through life to come to this point. And why. And how we handled what happened to us. And, most of all, perhaps, what it means to us now. Clearly, it also requires the courage to brave the answers to questions like that.
But that is not done in chaos. It can be done only in the center of the soul and with brutal honesty. Now is the time to stop excusing ourselves. This is the time to drain the dross of life and to celebrate its victories over the self – even the victories unknown to those who think they know us best. Certainly the ones that made new and better people out of us.
Indeed, that kind of thinking and reflecting is only really done well when it is done alone, in solitude. When we find ourselves alone, all the people we have ever known, still very much alive in us, come back again to help us see where we have been, to understand what we have become, to help us chart what it will take to make these final years our best ones.
“They’re all gone now,” the woman said. “My husband’s been dead almost ten years now and my son and his family are in California.” So was there no one with her at all? “No, no one is here anymore,” she said. “Sometimes my sister and her daughter come to visit. And I go there, too – once or twice a year. But it’s too long a trip to go often.” The words would likely be overlooked, perhaps, as an unfortunate description of a unique situation, if they weren’t so common. It’s not the rare elderly person who lives alone nowadays. It’s almost all of them. Everywhere.
Aloneness is the new monastery of the elderly.
Sometimes in life aloneness is a conscious choice. There are, after all, a growing number of singles of all ages living alone now. They like the freedom of being on their own. They want the experience of taking care of a place they can call completely their own. They are following jobs that will be good on their resumes, and so they live alone till this position leads to other jobs in other places. Or, they are in between, like in between the family’s home and settling down to create their own. For them solitude is not a way of life.
In old age, however, aloneness is, more than likely, not chosen at all. It is simply thrust upon us. Then, it brings with it none of the romantic images of a log cabin in the woods or a loft apartment in the city or a condo on the beach somewhere. Now it is only an empty house or a small apartment in the new housing complexes for the elderly that have become so common with the rise of the nuclear family. Few members of most families continue to live in the same neighborhood or town anymore where they grew up. Corporations took care of that.
The problem with solitude is that we often confuse it with aloneness or isolation. Isolation means that we are cut off from the rest of the world by circumstances over which we have no control; people don’t respond to us, for instance, no matter how hard we try to make contact with them. We live outside the mainstream, on a farm out in the prairie, perhaps. We are too sick, too lame, too shy, too angry, too far away from people to have any kind of social life.
Isolation, in other words, is either separation or alienation from the world around us. Solitude is something quite different.
Solitude is chosen. It is the act of being alone in order to be with ourselves. We seek solitude for the sake of the soul. Even with easy access to other people, we take time to be by ourselves, to close out the rest of the world, to concentrate on the inside of us rather than wrestle with everything going on around us.
Solitude opens us to the wonders of a world without noise, a world without clutter, a world purged of the social whirl. At least for awhile. At least long enough to immerse ourselves in the balm of simply being.
When the outside world, its clatter and volume, its pressures and pesterings go silent, then we are alone with ourselves.
In solitude we wait for all the noise to quiet in order to find out what we are really thinking about, what we are really saying to ourselves underneath all the layers of other people’s messages that threaten to smother the words of our own heart.
Solitude empties us of the detritus that has built up in us over the years and lets us find the deep, calm place that makes aging such a serene part of life.
It’s in the center of the soul where the unspoken in us runs deep. Here are the ideas we long ago refused to allow ourselves to think and yet could never not think. Here, too, are the ideas we never knew we had. Now, in solitude, we have the opportunity to take them out, turn them over in our mind, look at them, own them – or disown them. Once and for all. They are the parts of us that cry for some kind of settlement, not with anyone else, but within ourselves. Is the old anger worth it? Was the loss really a loss in the long run? If we didn’t do what we wanted to do, in what way did we grow instead? It’s in solitude where we come to peace with ourselves and the life that is behind us now.
We find ourselves back in contact with our past in a new way. We are beyond it now, not able to be hurt by it now, no longer humiliated by it now. Whatever we have done, wherever we have been in life, we are what we are because of it. Stronger because of it, perhaps.
It is here in the well of the self that our unfinished self, our real self, lies waiting for attention. No, there is nothing we can change about what was – except the way we look at it. If there is something in us that has yet to be grappled with, this is the grappling hour.
Solitude is not a way of running away from life, from the aging process, from our feelings. On the contrary. This is the time we sort them out, air them, get over them, and go on without the burden of yesterday.
There is a life to be lived in the last years that ought not to end infected by what went before this. We have an obligation now to live well with the people around us who are making this new life possible. We owe them the best we have. And the best that is in us is what is undefiled by the past.
Solitude is what forces us to assess our present as well as to review our past. Are we living now the happiest way we can in the circumstances we’re in? That responsibility will be ours to the end. Solitude is what enables us to illuminate for ourselves whatever it is in us that is making that impossible.
A burden of these years is that we fail to understand
that solitude is the gift that comes naturally to those
who take the time and the space to explore their core.
A blessing of these years is that solitude is their natural
state, the gift of reflection that makes the present
a contented place to be.