Leading and Aging and Meaning

791 words, approximately 3 minutes…

I was with about a dozen college classmates (’80) on Sunday, and there was much talk about our parents in their 80s and 90s.  Today’s blog is for the aging.  That is, of course, all of us :-).  But I mean it for those who are a good deal older than I, and who therefore know far more about it than I do (ironic egoism here :-). And for those of my generation who love our parents, aunts and uncles, and who have gone from mostly being led by them, to now leading them more often than not.  And, oh yeah, it’s also those of us who in seeing them, also look ahead for what’s in store for us.  And this is also for those like my children and students, whose birthdays they mark less as aging, and more as “being a little less young.”

Covey said “begin with the end in mind.” That is so hard in leadership – whether leading organizations or “just” leading your own beautiful and vexatious self. It’s so easy to get caught up in what’s here and now.  I invite my students – holding their feet to the fire – to answer the questions: Why? Why you? To what end? Where are you aiming? Why are you here?  “People should follow you?” I ask, “Well, okay, where? And why?”  It’s wonderful to invite them into these marvelous questions now, when all their dreams really are possible! It’s more difficult to ask about ends, when ends begin to approach.  As my own thousand possibilities start to winnow fast – like my vision, hair, hearing and any number of other things – LOL – I return to why. And it’s harder still to ask why – why live? and why death? – when you hit those tough 80s, while you bury siblings and friends, move more slowly, are looked to for . . . for what? By whom? Being with and for our elders is a blessed opportunity we have to lead.

I thank my friends David Silverstein and John Gillis who respectively recommended I read Stephen Levine’s A Year to Live: How to Live This Year As If It Were Your Last, and Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. It is true of both life and friends:  They give you what you need, when you need it, even when you may not know you need it. I recommend these books in turn to you.

Some of Stephen Levine’s reflective chapters

Levine and his wife Ondrea spent decades working in end-of-life care, and he mines that work to make this point:  What if you really knew this was your last year to live?  Not as an after-dinner conversation starter. And not so much as a bucket-list game of fantastic experiences, but what if you LIVED from the eyes, mind and heart of someone who was intentionally and repeatedly conscious that they only had a year? He and Ondrea did that.  And his reflections in this book combine his decades of stories and experiences of people waking up to LIFE when aware of the gift it was, with his suggestions of how you might take on this task. I have not done a full year in this way, but even with a day and just repeated moments, I have found that it’s markedly changed my perceptions of myself and others.  Some of the chapters are listed to the right.

Gawande’s book, meanwhile, gets in your face and under your skin before it begins to offer blessed hope.  He is an MD and he tells you more than you might want to know about the body and how it copes as best it can against the intractable forces of nature.  Although it wasn’t always pleasant, I found this book IMMENSELY helpful in thinking about Jen’s and my parents, and anticipating a stretch of life I hope we will be fortunate to share together. Getting old is HARD.  Denial is a form of cowardice. And as in all things in life: Awareness creates choice!

At the same gathering of college classmates, a famed immunologist told us that people living to 150 is likely to happen, he believes, in our children’s life times.  That is the body – and aspects of the brain will be sustainable. But what of life and of the spirit?  These two amazing books that will act upon you on a deep level, inviting you to see your parents and/or grandparents in a new and renewing way, and to center you in a deeper awareness of life and its meaning, which will necessarily invite you to new opportunities to:

Lead with your best self.

  • I’m going through this with aging parents right now – both of whom need leadership, but also resist it mightily each in their own way. Another recent resource I came across: A Beginner’s Guide to the End: Practical Advice for Living Life and Facing Death, by Dr. BJ Miller and Shoshana Berger (https://smile.amazon.com/Beginners-Guide-End-Practical-Advice/dp/1501157167/ref=sr_1_3?crid=2U23IV5Z00EYE&keywords=beginners+guide+to+the+end&qid=1567542363&s=gateway&sprefix=beg%2Caps%2C208&sr=8-3)

  • Dan,

    Thanks so much for your thoughtful, informative writing on a subject I’m living, approaching my mid-eighties. I shall try to procure each of the recommended books.
    Your insights, always, are trenchant.
    By the way, thank you for the (potentially written), beautifully bounded, many-blank-paged paper —
    that i feel so daunting. (S0 much to do; so little time left to do it.)


    Frank, S.J.

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