Posts Tagged ‘Stanford’

Ambiguities of Aging

July 26, 2021

One of the blessings – and curses – of my life has been my engaged, analytical mind also capable of synthesis and of so-called right brain activities like artistic design. Blessing in that it enabled me to attend Swarthmore College where, for four years, I was surrounded by people of comparable “smarts” and thus where I fit in. The experience was a soothing balm after the social exclusion and general disregard previously afforded me in school, where I was dismissed as a mere nerd. Blessing also in that I found myself, over the course of my life, able to work effectively in a wide range of fields – law, education, government, health care – and to engage with all sorts of people, across cultures, races and economic and educational levels.

The curse began with that nerd label and has carried forward in what people express (those who make the effort to express themselves) as being intimidated by my intellectual ability. In too many work environments I encountered co-workers – mostly male – who could not accept that I was as able as they were at planning, writing, envisioning, managing. I very consciously, in one totally male dominated position, chose to emphasize my femininity in dress at the same time that I showed the full extent of my mental skills. The two other women classified as professionals, in that workplace of 100 or more where I found myself in my early thirties, were both already mature (late 50’s) and treated as invisible by the men, in the way so many older women have been disregarded for generations, in U.S. society.

The blessing extends into the present as an interest in reading and responding to essays and op-ed pieces in the various outlets that send their email newsletters to my inbox. The curse extends to having so few face to face opportunities to discuss and debate those topics. During my long work career, I rarely had time for non-work-related discussions, but I did have access to people with whom to debate. Since retirement just a year ago, I have had too much free time, and extremely limited options for interesting discussions. One extreme to the other, in the midst of pandemic lockdowns, has not been an easy transition.

In the blessing column I need to list the fact that my mental skills continue undiminished so far, except for a curious, recent tendency to come up short on names. Once I stop trying to recall the place or person’s name, it rises up into awareness, fortunately often while I am still involved in the conversation that requires it. In the curse column I probably should list a propensity, now that I have so much “spare” time, to do what my spouse calls “overthinking” situations, rather than relaxing and just letting them unfold.

A current client uses the terms Harvard mind and Stanford mind to identify two different styles of communication. He feels able to deal with either, but finds it challenging to switch quickly from one to the other. He says he admires that I can work with both simultaneously. If I understand him, he is referring to tightly reasoned “intellectual” discourse (Harvard) contrasted with a more emotionally directed interpersonal connection (Stanford). A dichotomy kin to the traditionally perceived left brain/right brain dichotomies of thinking that have increasingly been relegated to the status of outdated, inadequate explanations of mental differences between people. For my easily distracted client, having both capacities with neither under good control is decidedly more curse than blessing. For myself, having both and knowing when to use each is clearly a blessing,

About those ambiguities of aging – I am attempting to decipher whether my mental skills are blessing or curse or still a mixture of both, as my opportunities and situations change with advancing age. Having skills without much occasion to use them is frustrating and contributes to feeling old and past one’s “sell by” date. Recognizing that mental skills are of limited value for advancement in spiritual endeavors, it is a blessing to be able – at least at times – to just stop thinking and allow myself to be guided minute by minute throughout days that in retrospect show themselves full of accomplishment that “I” don’t claim credit for. What has been achieved has been done through rather than by me. The ambiguity lies, perhaps, in my hesitance to accept that I have reached the age when what I “should”, per societal dictates, be focusing on is a less engaged, more abstract appreciation of the simple acts of daily life, with perhaps a bit of legacy wisdom dispensed. The trouble comes from the fact that I have never easily done what society expects I should do.

Others have written extensively about the disconnect between chronological age, with its more or less decreased physical function, and their self perceptions as still vital and engaged persons frustrated by the limits to engagement that they keep running up against. In all that writing I have not come across any useful guides to follow, to be less frustrated. I have not so far found much comment on how the recommended activities with which one is urged to fill retirement – to ease the transition from work life to a more measured pace – when pandemic isolation, and now because I live in the West also wildfire smoke, force me indoors and into increased isolation. 

Yes I can email, I can and do talk on the phone, I read, I write essays and letters to the editor in response to opinion columns that catch my interest. I run my home, filling my time with a variety of tasks and I rarely encounter my blessedly few physical limitations. These are all Harvard brain activities.

What I miss is the interaction, the human to human contact necessary for my Stanford brain to feel itself heard and engaged. That bit of self feels like the small girl, the unsiblinged and sadly overlooked nerd child still crying softly “see me, look at me, hear me, I have something to say and to contribute, if only someone would take the time to notice and listen.”

How too many of us feel like that these mid (I regretfully do not feel we are yet at post) pandemic days!


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