Thoughts on Aging: Is Independence an Illusion?

As a member of the Baby Boom generation, I am interested in reading books that discuss the wisdom that comes from one’s later years. (I’ve heard that we are aging). So, when I saw Mary Catherine Bateson’s new book, Composing a Further Life: The Age of Active Wisdom on my library’s new-book shelf, I snapped it up.

Bateson discusses at length the issues of independence, dependence and interdependence. Her writing style is comfortable and conversational as she tells stories from her own life and others, including a retired boatyard worker who now makes jewelry, a woman who reveals her insights about what it means to be a grandmother, and Jane Fonda who shares her thoughts on developing a spiritual life.

But it was this passage in her prologue that caught my attention:

 “The reality of all life is interdependence. We need to compose our lives in such a way that we both give and receive, learning to do both with grace, seeing both as parts of a single pattern rather than as antithetical alternatives.”

When I was young, independence was my sole goal. I embraced America’s pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps philosophy. I left home three days after my high school graduation and got on a plane to Holland, so eager was I to be on my own.

These days I think much differently about what it means to be independent. I value my connections and bonds with others in a way that never seemed attractive to me in my early years. I’ve come to appreciate the gifts that come with getting to know someone over time. And I find great pleasure in being helpful to others, while also I’ve learned to ask for help when I need it and to feel OK about doing so.

I love what Bateson says about interdependence, for isn’t it true that the extremes of total independence or complete dependence do not really reflect anything that is real? I thought I was independent when I traveled through Europe. Yet, I depended on the proverbial “kindness of strangers.”

These days, I think of giving and receiving as being flip sides of the same coin and dependence and independence as being two ends of a see-saw, a single idea that connects them both and us to one another.

What about you? Have your ideas of independence and dependence changed as you have entered different stages of your life?

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