What’s Up With
“Aging and the Loss of Ambition”
John C. Robinson, Ph.D., D.Min.
I’ve written a blog for my website, johnrobinson.org, on a wide variety of spiritually relevant aging topics over the past six years. I know from the analytics that people read the blog but they rarely comment. One blog in 2013, however, has received 35 responses to date and they just keep coming. What nerve did I strike?
The blog was titled, “Aging and the Loss of Ambition,” and described the second stage of aging – “middle old age” – as frequently characterized by a decline of ambition, motivation and productive energy. Often associated with the final ending of careers or formal employment in our late 60’s and early 70’s, we discover that our capacity for big plans, great aspirations and great adventures seems to have run out of gas and we wonder what happened. For near all responders, this developmental shift was baffling and, for many, genuinely troubling. “What’s wrong with me” some asked. “Is this depression?” others queried. “Am I just lazy?” Another common refrain was, “What do I do with myself now?” Based on their own descriptions, these were often hard-driving high achievers who now wondered where the Type A energy had gone. Especially poignant was the concern a high school student expressed for a teacher who said he’d completed everything he wanted in his life and no longer had ambitions. She was worried about him! The only upside for most responders was a sense of gratitude that someone had finally put this motivational dilemma into words without out pathologizing it and that they were not alone in the struggle.
But what is this motivational downshift all about? Do these folks need psychological diagnosis and treatment? For most, I think not. Sadness, nostalgia, and concern for the future, sure, but these reactions are also normal and appropriate for this change of seasons. For me, the middle aging years have become a time of deepening into something much more than I was, something more related to soul than ego. As I pointed out to one woman, “Ambition is the world of the young and middle aged, it’s the realm of the ego making its way in the world of work, love and life. As one moves through aging, ambition wanes so that something new can emerge from the soul, a new blossom of who you really are.” We begin to live more in the consciousness of being than doing and a new kind of “work” emerges in this stage – the work of completing the self, sharing one’s gifts, and loving the world. And it happens naturally, you can’t force it.
For each of us in this age range, something new is growing in the dark and fertile ground of soul but we must discover and nourish it, not seek, control or exploit it for the ego’s purposes. As the poet Stanley Kunitz wrote in his 90’s, “Though I lack the art to decipher it, no doubt the next chapter of my book of transformations is already written. I am not done with my changes.” And he added elsewhere, “I can scarcely wait till tomorrow when a new life begins for me as it does each day, as it does each day.” My message to these responders was, “Don’t push yourself. Make space for something new to grow and form inside. Gardens grow in their own timing and so do we. This is a new stage, not like the past, relax your expectations and standards and wait to be surprised.”
It is neither unexpected nor remarkable, therefore, that many of us turn to reflection, contemplation, and wonderment in our 70’s, enjoying everyday things like colorful Fall leaves, old friendships, playing with grandchildren, sharing quiet thoughts with our spouse, reading poetry by the fire, or exploring new creative callings. We are experimenting, waiting, nourishing our souls until the new life begins. And we needn’t lose the fire of our political or social indignation about our world, but it’s as if, knowing that Winter is coming, we also long for something else. We can’t fix the world – that’s now the job of our grown children and one day their children – but we are now evolving into a new stage of consciousness. We are like a work horse finally put out to pasture who doesn’t yet know what to do because it’s lost connection with its instinctual nature. But it will come. It takes time to move from ego to soul, but it will happen if we are patient and pay attention.
One way to pay attention is to ask yourself meaningful questions like, “What is the vision of my soul?” “What do I long for?” “What brings me alive and makes my spirit dance?” “What makes me irrationally happy?” “What do I love wasting time doing?” Don’t question or censor your soul’s responses, just listen. And pay attention to those crazy or unexpected things you find inside that have been waiting a lifetime to come out. Let the new you unfold in its own way and time. You may discover new interests – genealogy, time with grandchildren, walking in the woods, retreats at a monastery, saving animals, or creative writing. But remember, the unfolding self will not be a logical or deductive outcome. It’s not going to come from your head or what someone else is doing. More importantly, it’s going to be entirely and uniquely your own. So, don’t rush it. Just sit with it, let it be. You came here for a reason. What is the reason that you’re still here? And this journey never ends. As Kunitz suggests, just because you get to 75 or 80 doesn’t mean your soul work is done. Wait. See what comes next. Look at your dreams, listen to the songs that play in your head, wonder aloud what are you being called to do.
Aging is an initiation into a new kind of life, a more soulful and divine life, and a new kind of world. Let your life be brand new. Love in ways you never expected. You may even become a new kind of person or discover talents you never anticipated. You are a cornucopia of possibilities, open them up and let them out.
John C. Robinson, Ph.D., D.Min. is a clinical psychologist with a second doctorate in ministry (studying with Matthew Fox), an ordained interfaith minister, the author of nine books and numerous articles on the psychology, spirituality and mysticism of the New Aging, and a frequent speaker at Conscious Aging Conferences across the country. You can learn more about his work at www.johnrobinson.org. His major works include Death of a Hero, Birth of the Soul; But Where Is God: Psychotherapy and the Religious Search; Ordinary Enlightenment; Finding Heaven Here; The Three Secrets of Aging; Bedtime Stories for Elders; What Aging Men Want; his first novel, Breakthrough; and The Divine Human. John’s work has been praised by numerous visionary writers including Angeles Arrien, Arjuna Ardagh, Robert Atchley, Robert Bly, Allan Chinen, Matthew Fox, John Gray, Andrew Harvey, Gay Hendricks, Robert Johnson, Aaron Kipnis, Stanley Krippner, Malidoma Some, Harry Moody, Carol Orsborn, Kenneth Ring, Bernie Siegel, Jacquelyn Small, Jeremy Taylor, and Jonathan Young.