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Aging Men and Irrelevance: How to Find New Purpose

Jan. 20, 2023 Psychology Today

My last post on the irrelevance of aging men struck a nerve, based on the number of emails I received. The post said that men need to develop their internal world to balance a loss of focus on external achievement that aging and retirement inevitably bring. The men who wrote ranged from a former professional baseball player to a retired doctor. They nearly all asked the same two questions: What is the inner world, and how is a man supposed to explore it?

Here’s one example:

I literally stumbled upon your [post] titled “Aging Men and Irrelevance” and was stunned by how directly it applied to me. I am a 72-year-old man, retired for 12 years, feeling worthless, and constantly asking myself the same question your patient did: “What’s the point?” I ask myself that question every day.

At the risk of asking what might appear to be a silly question, what am I looking for? When I explore my internal, what might I find that will help me overcome this feeling of uselessness? And how will I know when I find it?

I have written at least four separate drafts of this post to try to answer these questions. Nothing I write seems to capture what I want to say or to do justice to the poignancy of what is being asked. It turns out it’s far easier to describe the problem than to prescribe a meaningful and workable solution.

But that doesn’t let me off the hook, because this call from these men touches me deeply. (It also, by the way, proves that men can express their feelings when the circumstances allow.) It makes me feel a certain pressure to perform, to be able to give an answer that will be useful, and in 500 words or so. In addition, there is the additional pressure of a follow-up to the external performance of the first post. As of this writing, the original post on men and irrelevance has been viewed over 300,000 times. How can I achieve similar success externally while writing something meaningful about our internal world?

What I’m trying to illustrate here, in my sharing my process, is how to walk the balance between the internal and the external worlds. I feel the pain and the plea for help from some of the men this post touched. That’s internal. The external is, “How do I respond in a way that will be helpful?” I also have to let go of the hope of it performing as well as the first post, because there’s no way this one will get picked up and used by a major newsfeed as the first one was. In other words, I have to walk my talk that as we age, it’s not the numbers that matter so much, but the meaning. And finally, I have to experience the limits of what I can do and be okay with it. This is the best I can do, given the limitations of this format.

Enough about me. Let’s turn to you. What do you really value? How can you find meaning and purpose in this last part of your life? How do you figure that out? You’ve been trained, almost since birth, to perform in one way or another according to outside metrics. You’ve been stripped of a lot of what gave your life purpose and meaning as you’ve aged out of your job and your external relevance. How do you find your internal importance and your purpose now?

You’re not going to like my answer, but I respect you too much to soften the blow or try to give you an easier solution. The best thing I can tell you, the thing that has the highest likelihood of working, is to get yourself into therapy. I know, I know, that may be a huge stretch, especially if you’ve never done anything like that before. But you’re not going to be able to do what’s required from reading this or any other article or book. You spent years, if not decades, mastering your profession. How do you think you’re going to master a new line of work—your internal world—without investing in it? You may have retired from the working world but you haven’t retired from life. The malaise you’re feeling is a signal to you that it’s time to get to work again, but this time on yourself.

What I can offer is how to go about getting started on this new job. I’m going to break it down into small discrete steps that you can do, one at a time, at your own speed:

  1. Begin by researching, just for the heck of it, who you might want to see. 
  2. Ask for a 15-minute consultation (most therapists will do this for free).
  3. Schedule a first appointment with the intention of giving it a four-session trial.
  4. Either start over if you don’t feel comfortable with the person or keep going until you see the benefit.

Just don’t wait too long to get this going. In case you haven’t noticed, you don’t have that much time left. Do you want to die feeling like this?

I heard a story recently about a guru in India who was consulted for years and years by her devotees on various questions. Finally, one devotee stood up and said: “We’re always asking you questions and you’re always giving us answers. Maybe you should tell us the question we should be asking you? And then tell us the answer?”

Here’s what she replied: “The question you should ask is: ‘Who am I?’ The answer to that question is ‘Know thyself.’”

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