Mary Pipher has a radical idea: that you can age with joy.
A clinical psychologist and cultural anthropologist out of Lincoln, Neb., Pipher is perhaps best known for her 1994 book, a guide to girldom called Reviving Ophelia: Saving The Selves of Adolescent Girls.
She’s done the same for her own demographic in her recent book, Women Rowing North: Navigating Life’s Currents and Flourishing As We Age.
Think of Women Rowing North as a GPS for navigating your later years. And while Piphe, says she wrote it specifically for women crossing from middle age to old age, there is much in the book that is useful for any of us.
Women face a lot as they get older: harmful cultural stereotypes, ageism, misogyny, to name a few. But Pipher urges us to remember we have the capacity to make it a better journey.
“Women in their sixties and early seventies are crossing a border,” she writes. “And everything interesting happens at a border.”
Here are the five important insights from her book that may help you navigate your own journey through getting older.
1. See the most of what you have in front of you
“Attitude may not be everything, but it is almost everything,” Pipher writes.
We don’t always have control as we age, she reminds us, but we do have choices over how we deal with it.
Yes, it is the timeless half-full look at our existence, that is not about settling for less, but about seeing the most in what you have in front of you.
“Happiness,” Pipher says, “depends on how we deal with what we are given.”
Books, book groups, travel tour groups, writing, grandchildren, friendships, and family can all be assets to cultivate so that we survive the hard times better.
“Friends are emotional health insurance policies,” she writes, and female friends are the best return on investment for women, helping to define us.
2. To fight despair, take action
Our bodies wear out. We have afflictions, heartbreak, hardships, physical, emotional and mental exhaustion from the realities of aging such as caretaking, grief, and unwanted limitations.
One paradox, Pipher notes, is that at times those who have a terminal illness may see their post-diagnosis lives as particularly joyful.
“Pain drives us deeper and makes us kinder,” Pipher writes. “It also toughens us up.”
“Part of what allows us to deeply appreciate our lives and savor our time is our past despair,” Pipher writes.
Never diminishing or abolishing the negative, Pipher advises instead to do a “subject change” in order to shift into positivity.
Volunteering, activism, even taking care of grandchildren can offer purpose and dilute the taint of despair. “Especially when we act together, we can create power out of thin air. “
Acknowledging “our goals can be greater than our energy levels,” Pipher writes, our desire for action should not be seen as another burden.
“None of us has the responsibility to singlehandedly save the world, but we can all do our best under the circumstances,” Pipher writes.
3. Reframe the narrative
So many of us know people who tell the same old, same old sad stories, rooted in tragedy, loss and pain. Husbands die, children move away, get angry, disconnect, relationships with friends end, illness or isolation are the new realities.
Yes, these stories can all be very true and an accurate account of our existence. But is it the only story?
Instead, we can “train ourselves to think in stories that allow us to flourish,” Pipher writes.
The true story of hardship and obstacles can be re-told as a story of resilience and of lessons learned, a way to reshape ourselves.
“Grant ourselves mercy,” Pipher writes.
And while we are reframing our own stories, we can also reframe the story of aging that society enforces and that minimizes everyone of a certain age.
“We can take responsibility for educating other people about the negative stereotypes and the reality of our lives,’ Pipher says.
4. View death with less fear
The older we get, the more we deal with death. A death positive movement is making hospice more accessible and accepted as is the idea of telling the whole truth to patients who are dying, keeping them informed of what is happening to them.
More people speak about and prepare openly for the end of life. While every death is sudden, it doesn’t have to be feared for ourselves or for those we love.
“Losing a loved one is rather like being in a bad storm, often we discover surprising reserves of strength and courage,” Pipher writes.
This is not to say we shall not mourn each loss on our own timeline and at our own pace, but as we will each face dying, we do not have to look at it with fear.
5. Forgive yourself
As we age, we gain perspective, hopefully a forgiving one of ourselves. It is not about denial, but it is about honesty.
You can be more self-aware and become more authentic as you grow older. She advises to say no when it serves you and to “say yes to your own needs” when you can.
Keeping a “circle of kin strong and vital” while maintaining partnerships and friendships that allow you to be your true self will help you appreciate who you are in the greater world, allowing others the chance to shine as well.
Pipher writes, “We need to sort out what we truly desire and then go for it.”