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Senior Upset or Elder Equanimity?

Posted Feb 18 2011 1:00am
By Jim Selman | Bio
I have a friend who is really upset because she feels she was pressured into a particularly large purchase and not appreciated afterwards. It occurs to me that this could be a concern for many single women, especially as they grow older. We read daily of various scams to help older people part with their money. While I don’t think that women are the only ones affected, they do seem to be targeted more often than not. In the case of my friend, the issue wasn’t one of the salesmen being dishonest, but simply not being particularly sensitive to her feelings. Add to this that he was shortsighted in his failure to say "Thank you" appropriately (which could be interpreted as a seeming lack of respect for a senior) and you have an 'upset' waiting to happen.

How can we think about getting upset in a manner that might bring a level of serenity to our lives? The key is, I think, that we need to be responsible for what upsets us. I’m talking about equanimity, the ability to ‘own’ a situation, the story and our relationship to the circumstances and to respond without assigning blame. It is akin to ‘acceptance’ in the fullest sense of the serenity prayer—“God, help me accept the things I cannot change”.

Of course, most of us relate to the world as being made up of circumstances ‘beyond our control’—with the circumstances causing us to feel the way we do. For example, how often do we hear “This situation frustrates me,” or “He pisses me off, because…”. This way of seeing the world makes us a victim of our circumstances.

In the case of my friend, she is squandering many hours (and possibly days and weeks) fretting about what happened or what should have happened or the insult she is feeling. She is ‘captured’ by her story of what happened and angry because she didn’t have control in that situation—and is getting even angrier because she doesn’t have control over her anger. She is seeking justification and agreement for her point of view and is defensive if any one suggests she has a choice in how she experiences her situation.

We’ve all been there and we may be again. The resolution is not to feel bad about feeling bad or to keep grinding the conversation about who is right over and over. The only resolution I have found on my journey is to ‘own what owns you’. When we have a ‘button’ or ‘trigger’, we need to acknowledge that is our button, and whatever story we have after it is pushed has nothing to do with anything or anyone other than ourselves. We need to ‘get off it’ and let go of our righteousness or point of view or whatever we use to justify holding onto our ‘upset’.

Upsets are the consequence of unfulfilled expectations or thwarted intentions or other variations of not being responsible for our experience of living. We cannot help it when we get upset…it is an involuntary response. But we do have a choice about what we do once we get upset. We can ‘act out’ and ‘dramatize’ the emotional content of the experience or we can acknowledge that our button was pushed and consider our part in the matter—in other words, be responsible for having our button pushed.

As I get older, I notice that I have a strong and loud conversation in my head about ‘how things should be’. Perhaps I’ve always had it. Lately, however, it has taken on the weight of authority and I find myself justifying my point of view because of my status as an ‘Elder’. I now expect that people will listen to me more because I have experience and my feelings are ‘right’—given my years. When things don’t go the way I think they should, I feel a growing sense of urgency to be heard and acknowledged for my interpretation of the situation and how others should see it. This kind of internal conversation might account for why so many older persons are feeling lonely, alienated and unhappy.

Obviously life doesn’t work this way. We must learn to be more accepting as we age and more tolerant of the shortcomings of others. We must learn to be less self-centered and accept that if we want to be appreciated, we must appreciate others first.

People ask me why I am so focused on the process of aging. I say that if we’re going to have a choice about our experience of growing older and avoid the pitfall of viewing aging as a process of decline, then we must assume responsibility for all of it—beginning with our own experience—and transform how we relate to other people and the circumstances of life. From there, we might have a place to stand to contribute whatever wisdom we have and, moreover, have others listen to what we have to say.

And, as this relates to my friend, we can spend a lot more of the time we have left enjoying and celebrating life, perhaps making a contribution—and a lot less time being upset.

© 2011 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.
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