Aging Strong: Fully Engaged – The Key to Being Fully Alive

“When death finds you, be sure she finds you fully alive.”

This saying from an old African folktale has stuck with me for many years. One of the first steps we must take in becoming fully alive is to overcome our collective ideas that we are always supposed to be happy, think positively and handle everything ourselves without bothering anyone else. These ideas plus the notion that we shouldn’t dare miss a few minutes of being productive encourage us to appear to submit cheerfully to our misfortunes and to blame ourselves too quickly for our difficult circumstances; and, in fact, to deny reality.

So what does “being fully alive…fully engaged in my life” really mean?
Well, one thing we need to learn in this society is that busyness is NOT engagement. Stimulation or even in quotation marks – “having fun” – is generally not engagement either. To be fully engaged in life, we need to:

  1. Feel like we are doing something valuable for life and other people in general;
  2. Feel we are competent at what we are doing;
  3. Feel like we are expressing an authentic potential from within ourselves;
  4. Feel connected to other people.

In the past, our conventional wisdom told us that retirement should be a reward for a life well lived and hard-worked; and that we should avoid a post-work letdown by staying active, involved with family, friends and community, along with volunteer work and hobbies. That attitude may have been okay a few generations back. Even though I knew a number of people who wanted more satisfaction than pleasantly getting by and sleep-walking through the balance of their lives, the majority of people seemed to go along with the prevailing conventional approach.

I suppose that attitude may have been alright if you only had a few years to live. But what if you have a few DECADES to live? What if science is right and you have the capacity to live to one hundred and fifteen or twenty years? And what if science is right again when it tells you your longevity and health depend on how engaged you are and how strong the spirit of your life is? These are the questions I bring forth in my new book, Aging Strong: Living It Forward and Giving It Back.

Being fully engaged in life on a new level and creating a new defining sense of purpose for ourselves is a matter of heart. It requires our emotional devotion. And as a new era in our identity and sense of purpose, it requires the cultivation of feelings we haven’t been using very much, and may have repressed up to now.

To create a healthy environment within ourselves, we have to face the truths that lay hidden in our inner reality. To truly feel like we are doing things that are valuable, to feel a renewed sense of competence, authenticity and relatedness to the people we value, we must explore the story of our lives. We all repress memories and emotions from our childhoods that have to do with ways we were scared, hurt or shamed. More importantly, we learned to deny some of our potentials – the ones that didn’t fit the images of who we were expected to be or that could create conflict with people who were more powerful than we were. It would seem nice to be able to say, “Well, all of that happened many years ago. It’s over now. I’ve moved on and there is no need to dig it up now.” But the things we buried, we buried alive – and they remain alive and active within us. The reality is these memories and emotions are patterned into our brains, and this means there is no timeline in our unconscious minds. Unless we have had to excavate and face these things, they are still alive and repressed in our unconscious.

Now there are two things we need to remember about repression. The first one is that repression is an unconscious activity and a defense mechanism against threatening events and emotions that could overwhelm or fragment us. So repression isn’t something bad. It is more like an inner guardian that protected us when we were vulnerable. The second thing we need to remember is that once repression has outlived its usefulness, it takes an increasing amount of deadening ourselves, our heart energy to keep this material repressed over time. Then, if we stubbornly or fearfully stick to denying our inner reality, it will cause the kind of unconscious emotional stress that can make us sick.

Repressed and denied emotions and the stories behind them that we Jungians call “shadow material” and “complexes” block our ability to grow. They block our desire to grow. They bottle up our capacity to be more compassionate with ourselves and view ourselves with more loving kindness – which hampers our ability to do that with others.

They limit our vision of who we are and who we can become. They limit our trust in ourselves, in other people and in life. They limit our trust in growth itself. Repressed and denied emotions limit our capacity to be passionate and creative. They limit our ability to experience the desire that can take us to our best capacities in living.

However, the very journey of encountering these challenges carries its own potentials for new birth, for defining a new sense of purpose, for seeing in new ways, through new eyes and discovering a new life – one we are fully engaged in. Such knowledge frees us, gives us strength and empowers us for the future.

Artwork above: The Shadow, Pablo Picasso



Categories: Articles by Drs. Bud and Massimilla Harris, Book Excerpts and Resources
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