On October 10, 2017, St. Martin’s Press in the U.S. and Simon and Schuster in England will release my new book Ageless Soul: The Lifelong Journey Toward Meaning and Joy. Two days before the launch I will turn seventy-seven, and so I feel equipped to write about aging at this point in my life.
You may see different subtitles in various announcements of the book that have come out recently. It took us a while to come up with the right words. Now I see how significant they are. Truly we are aging all our lives, even in childhood. So many events that take place early on remain in our imagination over the years, affecting how we feel and what we do. Later in life it helps to tell the stories of the early years and to keep reflecting on those events, as though they were seeds, whether happy or sad.
As I say in the book, the “journey” is one of several phases, each involving a challenging rite of passage—a big move, a new job, marriage or divorce, the birth of a child, graduation, sickness, big mistakes, special achievements. It’s a journey of soul-making, to use a good phrase from the poet John Keats. Out of events we can nurture and condition our souls, becoming deep, interesting people capable of friendship and love. That is what I mean by aging, in the best sense of the word: becoming a real person over time.
I enjoyed writing this book, as I made fresh discoveries all along the way, especially through interviews and conversations with some extraordinary people. I had to imagine common elements of an ordinary life in fresh ways. For instance, I wondered if the idea of leaving a legacy would be important enough to include. Now I feel that the chapter on legacy is in some ways the most important one.
I wrote once again about illness as a rite of passage and realized that I have to keep saying over and again that sickness is an experience of the whole person and that our medicine has to be done by real people with a rich and deep imagination and with the help of friends and family members. We are people who get sick meaningfully, not bodies that break down like machines. This idea of the soul of medicine is developing too slowly in a fast-changing world.
I am as discouraged as anyone else by the negativity you see in the world today, but I am essentially an optimist. About aging, I want to be realistic about its sad and difficult aspects while at the same time seeing its gifts, which are considerable. So I hope my subtitle is right: We can age into deeper meaning and joy.
This is what Joan Chittester, a woman I admire for her extraordinary talents and commitment, said about the book: “”This book should be read by everyone but especially by those for whom the very thought of aging is depressing. This book can change their minds.” I like to think of my optimism as a lotus blossom rooted in the moist muck of a muddy lily pond. I can’t get to it unless I feel some of the pain and anxiety that have visited me at every big turn in my life. I always try to put both mind and heart into my writing. I don’t think any book of mine came so directly from my heart.