On the Brink of Everything:
Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old
ERB: How did you come to write a book on “getting old”?
PJP: Well, it took me ten books to do it, but I finally found a topic that I know something about! In truth, writing has always been one of my best ways to find out what’s going on in my mind, heart, and soul—whether it has to do with faith, education, community, politics, or any of the other things I’ve written about. So this book began with me trying to understand my own questions and concerns about getting old. Then I tried to write about what I was learning in a way that would encourage readers to undertake their own form of self-examination. Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” It’s also true, I think, that dying with an unexamined life is a very sad way to go, because it probably means that you never showed up on earth as your true self.
ERB: You’ve woven a lot of delightful poetry into this book, more than in any of your previous books. Why is poetry relevant to this conversation about aging? What role does poetry play in your life as you get older?
PJP: Reading and writing poetry has played an important role in my life since my mid-forties. I think Emily Dickinson nailed the reason why with her line, “Tell the truth, but tell it slant…” Some truths are too big and too mysterious to be penetrated by running headlong at them with the rational mind, the way academics tend to do. Those truths can only be glimpsed out of the corner of the eye, and then only briefly and partially. Poetry tells the truth by looking sidelong at it and circling around it, which is the only way to even begin to understand a mystery. Every phase of life is rich with mysteries, and none more so (at least for me) than aging and dying (which is also part of life). That’s why my appreciation for poetry, which has always been strong, has ramped up in recent years. As William Carlos Williams wrote, “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”
ERB: I really appreciated your call for younger and older folks to interact together in meaningful ways. What gifts do younger and older generations have to offer one another?
PJP: I’ve been lucky to work with a lot of people half my age and less, and I’ve never failed to learn from them. Among other things, they teach me a lot about the new world that’s coming our way, across a horizon they can see but I can’t. So they serve as scouts for us elders about a world that’s arising among us—one that causes some elders great consternation, until they get help understanding what’s happening and how they might work with it. The young folks I know also walk across “lines of division”—as elders see them—involving race, religions, sexual orientation, etc., without even noticing “lines.” Too many members of my generation see lines where there are none, and refuse to cross them because of ignorance-based fear and/or judgement. And what do elder have to offer the young? First and foremost, being interested in their lives and asking them good questions to in order to understand what their lives are all about. If the young want advice from us, they will ask for it! So don’t try to start a relationship with a younger person by saying, “Let me share some wisdom from my vast and deep experience!” If you must talk about yourself, tell them about your screw-ups and how you survived them. That might help some young people deal with their fear of failure. But what matters most to the young is an older person who helps them get access to their own wisdom by asking honest, open questions—out of genuine interest—to help them hear the voice of their own “inner teacher.”
ERB: A significant portion of the book is devoted to the practice of staying engaged (with the world and with one’s soul). How has staying engaged in these ways been helpful for you as you have gotten older?
PJP: I’m sure your readers understand the intimate connection between our inner and outer lives, so I won’t say much about that here. It’s clear to a lot of us that if fear dominates us inwardly, that will be our “gift” to the world—so let hope fill us up, and we can offer the world a true gift! In a section called “Keep Reaching Out,” I have a lot to say about the importance of elders speaking their voices on all things political—which means not abandoning their role as citizens, as too many elders do. We elders have the benefit of living thru a lot of edifying history that this country dare not forget, especially at an urgent moment like this in American life. In my case, that history includes WW II, the Holocaust, and Japanese internment camps; wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan; Sen. Joseph McCarthy and Watergate; the multiple wrongs that gave rise to the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, and the movement for LGBTQ+ rights; rising wealth and income disparities; the New Jim Crow (e.g., racially biased “justice” and incarceration); etc., etc. With all that experience of social and political pathologies, I’d be irresponsible not to speak up about what’s happening today. Whatever their political views, I want to encourage elders to play their vital role among We the People.
ERB: I am middle-aged person, rapidly approaching the half-century mark. What is the one most important piece of advice you would give to middle-aged people like myself to help us age gracefully in the coming years and decades?
PJP: As you know, I’m not big on giving advice, since I believe that the best guidance comes from what we Quakers call “the Inner Teacher” or “the Inner Light,” which always needs to be tested in community. So my best service to others is usually to ask them those honest, open questions that help them hear the voice of their own Inner Teacher more clearly. But if advice is wanted, here’s the best I can in the moment. Assuming that people in midlife are looking for “previews of coming attractions” as I was at that stage of my life, choose your previews well! It’s not hard to find previews that say, in effect, “It’s all downhill from here,” or some other doom-and-gloom message. For me, as I say in the book, “Old age is no time to hunker down, unless disability demands it. Old is just another word for nothing left to lose, a time of life to take bigger risks on behalf of the common good.” I love the freedom that comes with old age, when I am no longer driven to prove anything to anyone—which means a time when the fearful ego loses some of its grip on my life. I’ve known some people who achieved that blessed state while in midlife, bless their souls! But for ordinary mortals like me, look forward to old age as a time when you are more free to say what you have to say and be what you be!