As we reflect and discuss our sense of place in the second half of life, we want to make sure we don't overlook one of the best and most time-honored ways of identifying where we really belong.
Traditionally, people called a place home for a combination of two main reasons: home was the place they were most needed and the place where their own needs were best met.
When Dave's grandparents, for instance, left their ancestral homes in the Jewish ghettos around Kiev to find a new home in America during the early part of the twentieth century, they did so because their needs to be free to make a living were being prevented by the anti-Semitic Czarist pogroms. But when they settled and stayed in New York City it was because that was where they could best provide for the needs of their children—and then later, their parents, whom they brought over from the old country.
In more traditional societies, these reasons are even more manifest. The Hadza elders, for instance, are accorded their places of honor around the fire because of all they have to offer their people in the way of wisdom and experience. At the same time, they are patently aware that their own survival depends entirely upon the assistance of their fellow tribespeople. Their sense of place is based much more on the relationships they have with their people than with the actual land on which they reside. "Place" is a somewhat fluid concept to hunter-gatherers; since they are so often on the move, the place they are in tends to move with them. And that place is defined by the role that they play within the roving community.
It can be illuminating for us in the contemporary world to tap into this traditional perspective. As you ponder your place in the world, think about where you are most needed. Who depends on you for emotional support?
Now, it's true that one of the common complaints of people as they move into the second half of life is that they are "no longer needed." If this is indeed the case, then it's important that a person find a way to help somewhere. Any number of community organizations are constantly crying for assistance; there's no end of volunteer work to be done. Or, if that's not feasible, then there's always a pet—we're all familiar with the studies that show how older people with pets tend to live longer, healthier lives.
Conversely, we also will learn something about our place in the world by inquiring into where our needs are met. Ram Dass talks about the "wisdom of dependency"—what we can learn from being taken care of. Suffering a serious stroke that left him fully incapacitated for many months, and which subsequently seriously limited his physical abilities, was for Ram Dass, an incredible learning experience. It was a powerful trigger for coming to understand what it means to depend on other people for our basic needs. It was a lesson in mortality that we all must confront sooner or later.
As we age, we will inevitably need help doing some things we used to have no problem with. Ram Dass writes, "Situations in which we become dependent can become transformative experiences for all parties concerned. By allowing ourselves to reveal our need, we allow those around us the opportunity to help, which is a fundamental need we all share."
Ram Dass might also have mentioned that by revealing our needs and becoming aware of the manner in which they are met, we also go a long way toward finding our place in the world. That said, however, it's also important to keep in mind the other aspect of need—that of helping to meet the needs of others—when making that determination.
For instance, the appeal of retirement communities for many people is that they satisfy the need people have to feel safe. The gated communities of Florida and Arizona confer upon their denizens a real sense of being protected. Still, some folks who live there feel spiritually flat; they don't at all feel as if they're living in the place they belong. A good deal of this can be attributed to their feeling disconnected from those they could help out: families, old friends, communities. As Ram Dass reminds us, the urge to help is a fundamental need. And if we're in a place that doesn't need us, where we can't help out, we won't feel we belong.
One of the inevitable effects of aging is that we become less mobile. Our bodies stiffen up, we move more slowly, we become less able (or at least, less willing) to quickly adapt to new places and situations. What we need to realize, therefore, is that if we cannot move so easily physically, we need to find other ways to move, ways that are more inward.
We need to understand that place is not just a physical experience, but an emotional and intellectual one, as well. "Where we are" doesn't refer just to our location on the planet; it also includes the place in our hearts and minds. Finding and changing our place in the world is, especially as we age, as much—if not more—a matter of changing how we think and feel as it is of changing where we live.
At age 56, Keith Kerrigan sold his stake in the high-tech startup he founded. That payday left him relatively free from financial worries for the rest of his life. These days, he partially fills his days by sitting on the boards of a number of nonprofit organizations, including several of his second love, the theater. A good deal of the rest of his time he spends on his first love, the bicycle.
Keith does several week-long to month-long bicycle tours every year. In the most recent year, he did a fully loaded six-week bicycle camping trip across the United States from Seattle, Washington, to Anacortes, Maine, a supported tour of Italy, and three weeks on the British Isles, visiting the towns of his ancestry and a few distilleries.
Keith says, "Being on a bike feels like home; no matter where I am in the world, when I'm on my bicycle, it feels like that's where I belong. And for me, it's not so much a matter of racking up the miles as it is about having a sense of adventure. In the morning, when you start out on a tour, you never quite know what's going to happen. What will the weather be? The scenery? Will there be a killer climb? And most importantly, who will I meet along the way? I used to be in much more of a hurry to get to my destination at the end of the road. Now, if I meet someone interesting, I'm much more apt to just hang out. So what if I only get half as far as I intended; if I've met someone interesting and shared some moments with them, I've gone much farther along in what matters, anyway."