"I refuse to become a marginalized person! So many people just disappear, lose their nerve, and disconnect. Not me. I'm at the end of who I was. But I'm at the beginning of who I might become. That's exciting to me."
These bold reflections from Frederic Hudson opened his dialogue with Richard on a sunny May morning in Santa Barbara, California. As the sunlight slanted through the living room windows of the Hudson household, Frederic took Richard on a passionate journey through his recent paintings. As he spoke, he was describing—as someone who is coming to terms with the onset of Alzheimer's disease—what it is like to confront the limitations of the flesh.
"I've had to give up one era of my life," Frederic claims, "in order to enter another. I've always been fascinated with how people deconstruct and reconstruct their lives. We all need to constantly do this, to reinvent ourselves."
Frederic speaks slowly, crisply, and clearly. This friend and colleague of Richard, this new elder who one year ago worked with a vengeance—traveling, speaking, writing and creating, always creating. Frederic, founder of both the Fielding and Hudson Institutes, is one of the thought leaders in adult development and coaching in America. Today Frederic savors solitude. "The life force," he says, "now is about celebrating life and about generosity—giving it all away. It's all about being. The peace I'm gaining is coming from using my illness as a challenge, as permission to be."
Frederic uses his affliction as a new calling to confront the larger human condition. He's matter of fact about his disease. He says, "I don't call it Alzheimer's. I call it some kind of brain thing. My situation is only a particular type of what we all face," he says, "for we all live in bodies that are imperfect."
Richard reflects, "Suddenly I find myself confronting a great paradox. I see before me the possibility of all that Frederic may lose. But the mystery lies in what remains. What is clearly evident in Frederic is "the defiant power of the human spirit"—the stuff of life that our mutual teacher, Viktor Frankl, modeled and espoused." Why are we so obsessed with what we lose as we age, and unclear about what we gain?
"Just doing things now, for their own sake, is enough," claims Frederic."I'm living for the sake of the songs in my heart and giving any service I can render."
Frederic is finding meaning in his suffering, facing his condition like another calling. He is reversing an entire illness stereotype along with all the habits of thought that perpetuate it. Why does it seem that so few people are endowed with this defiant power—the courage to face suffering without embarrassment?
Frederic relates, "This condition has minimized my impact and changed my outer world identity. It has given me a new permission to be. It has allowed me time to speak with flowers, trees, birds, and my dogs." In his daily routines now, he engages in as much nonverbal expression as possible. He feels less need to be with people to feel good. He feels liberated from talking, writing, and working."This is ultimate cocooning," he says. "I can go for walks, paint, compose, play the piano, and garden. I've always been an experimenter with new ideas and this solitude is new for me. I'm reviewing a book a day and I paint every day. I plan to keep writing some and sharing my views on this process."
Recently, while looking for something else, Frederic started recycling his vast library of books to places he felt would like them. "Clearing those shelves heartens me," he says."In going through my books, I wanted to unearth some answers to this question:'What do we need to become an elder?' Living in that question, I'm releasing all the ideas I no longer need, which is most of them. In all ways, I want to enter this elder phase of life carrying as little as possible—unpacking as you say. That way my mind, hands, and heart will be free to be."
What Frederic learned as a child was how to challenge the system; that's what wise elders taught him. They helped him move beyond the set limits of his upbringing. They helped him create his own future scenarios.
"Adelaide Mead, my 70-year-old mentor when I was a child, was a radical socialist and painter in my Baptist church," he recalls. "She was totally alive. When I was 15, I would visit her to learn her ways. She adopted me. She always inquired of me, 'How is your life shaping up? You need to go to college and get out of here!'At the time I was attending a vocational high school to become a manual laborer, a tradesman. She kept telling me,'You have gifts beyond this town.'"
For over 30 years, Frederic has been a student of elderhood. "Most elders are not about wisdom," he claims. "They haven't earned the right to be considered wise. To earn the right, you have to know yourself, know your boundaries, know your gifts—and then be generous. I used to call retirement protirement. But I was wrong. There's no tirement at all. In elderhood you're more a human being than a human doing. Elderhood is just another calling."
Richard left his interview with Frederic in a mood of high alert. He saw that purpose is giving sense and meaning to the changes in Frederic's life. Purpose is a therapeutic idea. Frederic is living for the sake of the songs in his heart. Richard relates, "I saw the power of purpose on display in his style, habit, gesture, mood, and presence. His face reveals purpose and appeals to purpose. His new mantra, permission to be, reveals an example of another calling."
Frederic, like many of the new elders we interviewed for this book, takes pain to stress that he is proud of being an elder, not ashamed. He is proud, in spite of his challenges, of the deepening of his creativity and the ripening of his soul that would have been impossible in his earlier years. For Frederic, as for us, learning how to live has gone hand in hand with learning how to age.
Theodore Roszak's book, America the Wise, looks forward to the age of wisdom and to the triumph of elderhood. The sheer number of elders could revolutionize society to what Roszak calls, "the survival of the gentlest." Frederic is furthering Roszak's vision by being a gentle revolutionary.
And these days, could there be any revolution more revolutionary than gentleness?