Slowing Down Can Be the Kiss of Life

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An excerpt from Our Wisdom Years


If someone had told me when I was in my late fifties that idle time was what would propel me toward the most fulfilling stage of my life, I would’ve laughed at the irony and said I was way too busy for that.

Ease was not part of my universe.

I didn’t make fun of people who talked about relaxation or letting up on the pace or doing things just for the pleasure of it. That was fine for them. But I’d been pushing myself since before kindergarten, and I had no sense of what life would be like if I didn’t have to be bigger, better, best, no matter what I took on — not just in the business world, but in my personal life and social service work.

In my mind, there was no such thing as stopping; if a goal successfully achieved didn’t lead to a more difficult or higher goal, it wasn’t worth it. When those questioning CEOs asked what they might do next after their careers, I’m afraid I tacitly discouraged them from the fishing and dreaming they longed for and needed. I didn’t say, “Don’t do it.” I just dismissed their longing reveries by saying, in so many words, “Oh, I could never do that.”

I admit I was a hard case. But many of us have our own deeply ingrained sense that there are certain standards we must always reach, a certain kind of focus and strength and competence we always have to bring to our lives as leaders or parents or “good examples” — an ability to push on, no matter how tired. That’s who we are.

Fortunately, for the many of us who spent our adult years feeling driven in one way or another, our bodies eventually begin to tell us that they’re not perpetual-motion machines, and our Wise Self finds ways to penetrate the white noise of our nonstop routines to send a quiet message: “I’m done. I can’t keep doing this. It’s not me anymore.” The trick, when this happens, is not to resist or rush past it, but to wander in the place of unknowing where nothing feels quite right anymore. Space opens up around us as we wait for something new to emerge. And quite often, grace flies in through that opening.

I was laid low, at first, during the four years I struggled with my arthritic hip. Because I’d prided myself on being athletic, it was a blow to my ego and my sense of self, not just to my mobility, when suddenly every step I took was slow and painful. Anytime I forgot myself and tried to rush, a stabbing pain brought me back to my new reality: I had to slow down.

I hated knowing that I was now the guy who would still be in the crosswalk when the signal turned, trying to get across. I resented having to sit down so often to rest. I wanted to hike, not be stuck on a park bench. All I could see was diminishment and decline, and as I quietly railed against it, I was a depressed and cranky old man.

But as time went on, the slowdown created a kind of spaciousness in me, an unplanned opportunity for reflection. When I sat down to rest, I’d look at the people passing by and wonder about them and how their lives were going. People I’d never noticed — older folks, street people, neighbors walking dogs — began to catch my eye and say hello. I remember being in the middle of a crosswalk when a man slowly going the other way pointed to my hip as I limped by.

“Right hip,” I said. He pointed to his leg and smiled.

“Knee,” he said. We both laughed, wounded brothers.

Slowly, almost imperceptibly, a whole world opened up. This steady stream of connection with the people around me was calling to me. I began to enjoy my time in slow motion, the pauses for rest when I’d think about my life, gaze into the trees, pick up ongoing threads of conversation
from the day before. All of it, the thinking, the chats, the sense of being woven into my community, receiving small acts of kindness from them and returning smiles and kindness, felt — and feels — as important to me as anything I have ever done.

There was so much more to me than my aching hip, so much more to value than the next thing on my list. I felt my reality take shape around the axis of now, not some point in the future. And as that happened, I stopped being the guy with better things to do than inhabit his own life. I started to be present there on my corner, on my street, on my bench. I became intimate with my life again.

Is this “successful aging?” I’m fairly certain that’s not what the success mavens had in mind. But is it rich and satisfying? Yes, it is. It feeds a hunger I never realized I had, and even after surgery replaced my hip and made slowing down less necessary, I’m savoring what I’ve learned to be.

We have a terribly incomplete model of what it means to grow older. I mentioned the way we tend to celebrate the showy blooms of youth and often feel bereft when the flowers scatter, leaving the branches bare. But I’d like to suggest that what happens next, after the flowers are gone, is the point of it all. The fruit within us ripens invisibly then, the sweet essence of ourselves that we’re here to cultivate at this time of life.

Our goal now isn’t achievement or success for their own sake. It’s to tend this fruit — our wisdom, our fascinations, our kindness, our hearts softened by loss and love, selves made sweet and deepened by time — and give it all away.

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Charles Garfield, PhD, is the founder of: Shanti, an internationally honored volunteer organization dedicated to the care of the dying, the elderly, and those living with cancer and AIDS; the Shanti National Training Institute, which has taken Shanti’s model to organizations around the country and world; and Shanti’s newest program that serves older LGBTQ individuals. He has been teaching the skills of serving vulnerable people for more than forty years and is a pioneer in developing service-oriented volunteer organizations in which peers, not professionals, become “the difference between zero and one” for people at the end of life and, more recently, seniors in the LGBTQ community. For more than four decades, as a clinical professor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California School of Medicine at San Francisco (UCSF), Dr. Garfield continued his work in the care of dying patients and their families, many of whom were elderly. He is the author of Our Wisdom Years (Central Recover Press).

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