I like the life I’ve created. I find pleasure in living. I’m blessed with rich relationships and am supported to do the things I love. Even so, I recently woke up in the middle of the night with an anxious sense of dread. There was no apparent reason for it. I knew it wasn’t real, that fears are heightened at night and that once morning came and I was up and about my normal routine I’d be fine.
In the morning and throughout the next couple of days, I examined the feeling that woke me. Trying to put it into words, I described it as a sense of meaninglessness, a feeling that I was not up to the task of daily living and that life was passing me by.
And it’s true! The majority of my living has already happened, and it’s all going by so fast. I don’t have the motivation for outward epic living or to take on new projects now. I also don’t need a fix or the latest self-improvement. I don’t need more novelty or even more meaningful experiences because the challenge for me is to find meaning from within and to be present to what I already have.
Yes, there is a fatigue factor. There is also an underlying thread of depression that I’ve been aware of for a very long time. But the depressive aspect exists along with curiosity, playfulness and an appreciation for the beauty and richness of life. It’s a balancing act to hold both darkness and light at the same time, one that brings a sense of wonder.
The poet David Whyte talks about the elder stage of life as a time for preparing for our own “great disappearance” and for developing a relationship with the unknown. At this stage of life, I find there are as many big questions as there were when I was in my 20’s and was engaged with others in deep conversations about the universe and the mysteries of humanity on this orbiting planet. But it’s not as theoretical now. It’s in my body, and the unknown is closer at hand.
In his audio series “What to Remember When Waking” Whyte asks, “What if it’s all about nothing, you made it all up just to play the game?” Simply ask the question, he says. He reminds us that humans are the only species that lives with the awareness that we will eventually lose everyone and everything we love, including ourselves. His articulation of aging as a time of soulful harvest is a reality that is rarely talked about openly.
When I told my husband, Joe, about my experience with dread in the middle of the night, he reminded me of when my brothers Jim and Dan died and the hole of grief I found myself in. I wasn’t in a hurry to come out of the hole. It was a powerful and painful place that created a heightened state of awareness. I wanted to learn from it and let it change me. I was open to experiencing it fully, as if it was a foreign country to explore. I took field notes that turned into a book. “Write about it,” Joe said about dread.
I was afraid that I couldn’t trust my clarity, not wanting to impose what I have traditionally judged as negative onto others – fear, doubt and dread – without a solution or conclusion. But the thought of writing about my personal experience of aging as a developmental stage gave me some relief. “I’ll think about it,” I told Joe, laughing as I realized that thinking about it was a step and all I was willing to commit to.
“The word dead is in dread, but so is dear,” I pointed out to Joe. It’s like the paradox of what I am living with, needing a simple life with simple routines, while also finding the repetition of days and chores monotonous. I can’t seem to get enough solitude but too much becomes debilitating isolation. Another balancing act? Yes, one that falls if either piece isn’t recognized.
I think the instinct to pare down my life is right. It makes the inner landscape more visible. I might not always like what I see in that landscape, but it’s there affecting me whether I acknowledge it or not. I know that the sense of dread and monotony I feel is only a reflection of me and my inner world, of the things I’ve left there, put off tending to and witnessing while growing up, raising kids and making a living.
This time of life that I find myself in is not so much about doing (which can be a placating distraction) as it is about being and being with. We slow down for a reason. It takes bravery and honesty to ripen fully. I want to learn from it and let it change me.