Richard Strozzi Heckler
At an age when most of his contemporaries were wondering what to do with themselves after retirement, Richard Strozzi Heckler embarked on a new and exciting journey uncommon to men at any stage of life.
The words of the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung seemed to have been written just for him: "Wholly unprepared, we embark upon the second half of life ... we take the step into the afternoon of life; worse still, we take this step with the false assumption that our truths and ideals will serve us as before. But we cannot live the afternoons of life according to the program of life's morning—for what was great in the morning will be little in the evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie."
We cannot tell if we have entered the second half of life solely by counting the candles on our birthday cake. We do not really step into the afternoon of life just because we reach a certain age. To know where we are in the process of becoming a new elder, we must learn to look inside.
When Richard Strozzi Heckler looked inside at age 59, he discovered that living in his 60th year was a time of transformation—a time of spiritual awakening. Instead of answers, he was left with questions: "What exactly does it mean to be an elder? How do elders grow? How is the process the same or different for everyone? Who are the new elders?"
Just as predicted by Jung, Richard had noticed a shift within himself. Noon had passed. He had entered a different part of the day, about which he knew very little. But he was aware of crossing a threshold; he was aware that this was a new stage in his journey.
Many older adults pretend that the second half of life is no different than the first. Billions of dollars are spent by millions of people trying to avoid the inevitable changes that attend the advancing years. Jung wrote that such a person "must pay with damages to his soul." Whether we enter the second half of life on purpose with our eyes open, or against our will with our eyes shut, enter we will.
Richard Strozzi Heckler is entering the second half of life with his eyes wide open. He says, "It's an internal thing, definitely! It's clear I am my own obstacle. To be free in the second half means to release those internal mechanisms that hold me. Freedom now feels much more like extension, engagement, striding into an open field."
Richard is the founder and president of the Strozzi Institute, an organization dedicated to exploring the frontiers of somatic (mind-body) learning and living. Combining a Ph.D. in clinical psychology with a 30-year history as a student and teacher of the martial art aikido, Richard still glows when he discusses his love for teaching—particularly the teaching of young people.
"When I'm teaching younger people, I wake up with a warmth and a fire in my chest that gets me going. I wake up and see a wreath of color—I've been given another day to serve. I hold a genuine feeling of possibility, that there's something out there today that will allow me to help them advance their dreams."
Richard, like many of the new elders we interviewed, has a life that represents an exception to the traditional model of aging in our culture. We spoke with him early one morning while he was making breakfast for a 6-year-old child—his son, not his grandson. At an age when most people his age are launching their children into the world, Richard finds himself in a welcoming space with a second family and three young kids. For Richard, finding purpose in the second half of life involved marrying and starting a whole new family.
"Our world is so open," Richard claims. "There are more options than ever before—more lifestyles and workstyles available. I have choices before me at any given moment to put the best part of myself forward."
In addition to his family, Richard feels the fullest expression of himself emerges through his work. "If I sold my business," he admits, "it would be like selling myself."
Reflecting on what qualities he would look for in a wise elder, Richard names his friend and colleague, George Leonard. At age 80, George is "still future-looking. He sees the horizon. And he's a stand against ageism!"
According to Richard, "wise elders like George are patient—patient in the sense of having the long and panoramic view. Not just that someone takes time, but that their patience comes from a deep and wide perspective on life. Wisdom is the intelligence and generativity that is beyond the self. Over three billion years of evolution is evident in wise elders. They know how to tap into that and show others how they can tap into it."
Adult life increasingly develops to different rhythms. Some people begin new careers when others their age are concluding their final ones. Some start families at a time others are facing the "empty nest." In this era of choices, new twists and turns are the normal ingredients of growing older. We are free to experiment with new ways to live and work in the second half of life. Some are training for triathalons at 65, while others are headed for rocking chairs. Who would have thought, for instance, that a 77-year-old former astronaut named John Glenn would take another journey into outer space?
The passage that Richard is exploring in his 60th year is not merely a shift from one chronological age to another. As Joseph Campbell put it so well: "The call rings up the curtain, always on a mystery of transformation. The familiar life horizon has been outgrown; the old concepts, ideals and emotional patterns no longer fit; the time for passing the threshold is at hand." Richard Strozzi Heckler is showing us the way across that threshold into a deeper dimension of ourselves.
To age successfully, we must do more than keep fit and stay healthy physically. Like Richard Strozzi Heckler, and George Leonard, we need to stay mentally and emotionally healthy as well by initiating growth to a new level. To do that, we need to deconstruct and reconstruct our stories— we need to pursue self-understanding by poring over the pages of life we have written and making sense of them in context of the chapters now unfolding. Too many people live their lives as a short story that warrants no revision. They live fully for only a short time and extend the dying process far too long. New elders point to an alternative. They show us how the second half of the story can be as vital and compelling as the first.
To set a path for the second half of our lives, we have to know where we've come from in the first half. "Life can only be understood backwards," wrote Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, "but it must be lived forwards."
At any stage of life, we can review where we've come from and take stock of our lives. But mid-life is a time when it may be possible to recover the life we have lost in living. The inward journey involves the return to our place of origin. Or, to paraphrase T. S. Eliot in "Little Giddings," the end of our explorations "will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."
The process of recalling our stories is one of the critical steps toward vital aging. It is never too late to begin to know oneself for the first time. The extent of our earlier inability or refusal to honor our stories will determine how long it will take to recover the life lost in living.
Most of us have been too busy writing the story of our life in the first half to be able to read it, Attention to our own stories is partly forced on us by the circumstances in the second half of life. Our children mature and move out, our colleagues retire and move on, our parents and friends grow old and pass away—all of these events focus our minds on who we are, how we've gotten here, and where we're going.
However successfully we've managed to deny death, changes in our bodies make an awareness of it impossible to ignore. Indicators as commonplace as graying hair and slower recovery from injury expose a new—or at least long-neglected—understanding of what it means to live and to die.
With this understanding comes an opportunity to draw and communicate great wisdom from the life we have led, through the recollection and retelling of our life's stories. Of course, many people are reluctant to share those stories. Usually, this is because they feel there isn't much to tell or because they fear revealing secrets. Yet, it is commonplace that from the most ordinary lives often come some of the most extraordinary tales.
Recalling our stories moves us forward and frees us from the wounds of the past by helping us to put our lives in context. Taking stock of the first half of life is a step toward being freer to live the second half with greater vitality. The events of the first half forced us to pay attention to the "doing" of them; we spent more time making things than making sense of them. But there is something about systematically recalling our stories that accelerates the growth process and puts us in a more solid position to move forward creatively.
As we tell our own stories, a new relationship with the world emerges. We move from an emphasis on external matters to a focus on inward feelings, replacing a feeling of outward obligation with a renewed sense of personal purpose. The inward look transforms the outward journey.
Paradoxically, by becoming better acquainted with our own story, we more fully understand the stories of others. We are freed from the perspective of seeing all reality as revolving around ourselves. We continue to be important, but what's around us—individuals, society, all of nature—takes on new significance. We often move from an egocentric view of reality to one that is more universal.
Increased attention to one's own story carries with it a deeper appreciation for the stories of others. Recalling and affirming our own story frees us from the wounds and despair so evident in many older people. Recalling our own story uncovers feelings of kinship with people with whom we have shared times and places. Doing so enables us to rediscover and respect a new and potentially more purposeful way of relating to the world—both within and around us.
Nobody is beyond growth. No person ever reaches a stage where further development is either inappropriate or unwarranted. We all need—and whether we know it or not, want—to keep growing. Of course, there are times when staying on a plateau is legitimate and times when, for good reasons, we hold back from advancing, but overall, there is no denying the truth: We either continue to grow or we begin to die. Recalling our stories is an antidote to such stagnation and a catalyst to growth.