We all want to live well, though each of us—at different periods in our lives—defines living well differently. My friends and I resist the idea that we might be old—“I don’t feel old!”—but as a long-ago newspaper reporter, I know too well if I get hit by a car when I am crossing the street, the headline will read, “Elderly woman hit by car.”
Many may define living well as having more, especially if they are struggling to make ends meet and long for the seemingly fairy-tale existence of celebrities, a longing promoted by marketing and celebrity media interests. Others would judge quality of life by the quality of our relationships or the quality of our mental and physical health; still others, by having a purpose bigger than ourselves and making a difference in the world.
I would suggest that it means all of the above, though I know that each of us is unique. There is no one right answer. There is also no final answer. To live well, look good and travel light is a challenge at this stage of life, not a goal already achieved.
First of all: Life is not over when our most important relationship ends. We are more than an extension of our partner, our parents, our children and our career. Pause, take a deep breath and ponder the question: Who am I? Whom do I want to be? Where do I belong? Grief, loss, anxiety and fear also present an opportunity. I can reinvent myself. I can rebuild my life.
Sure. It is much easier when we are physically, cognitively and emotionally healthy and when we are financially secure—when we don’t worry about being able to pay for food, shelter and medical care. Those are the basics. A loving, supportive network of caring family and friends makes it even easier. And for me, faith undergirds everything else.
However, I am inspired by those friends who embrace and enjoy life in spite of physical and financial challenges and the lack of any immediate family. It’s all about focusing:
- on what we have, not what we don’t have;
- on what we can do, not what we can’t;
- on others, not on ourselves.
It’s about gratitude.
Who am I? Whom do I belong to? Where do I belong?
Maria Shriver continually surprises me with her wise words and positive attitude in her weekly newsletter, Maria’s Sunday Paper. This week she asked, “Feeling Anxious? Find Where You Belong…” Though not a widow, she suffered not only grief but also public humiliation and betrayal by her husband. She too was unexpectedly, suddenly single. She has lost both parents, along with the long list of losses experienced by her extended Kennedy family. She writes:
But, I think there comes a time in one’s life — perhaps it’s when your parents die, or your kids grow up and leave, or your marital status changes, or your job ends— when you wonder to yourself, “Where do I belong? Who do I belong to, if anyone? Do I belong here? Do I belong at all?”
I believe that having a sense of belonging is critical to your emotional, spiritual, mental and physical health. Belonging is grounding. It’s reassuring. It’s calming. It gives your life a foundation.
Not feeling like you belong creates loneliness, unhappiness, fear and anxiety. And I must say, I feel like I’ve been having lots of conversations lately with different people — men and women of all ages and from all walks of life — about their fears, their anxieties and about where they belong….
But, that’s why I am always trying to shift my attention and keep my mind focused on what I can control and what I can change for the better. I try to keep my home calm and I try to spend time with people who are positive, focused and centered. I strive to surround myself with people who make me feel safe and like I belong.
Feeling like we belong — to ourselves, to others, and to our country — is something we all need to feel less anxious. Belonging is calming. Belonging is powerful. It’s at the root of our being. To belong is to feel safe. It’s about being accepted and cared for. It’s about being at home in a family, in a community, and in a country.
To me, that is living well.
Barbara Bush, a role model
Today I recall another woman who lived well until age 92—Barbara Bush, wife and mother of Presidents, direct, unpretentious, witty. She was a plump, white-haired and wrinkled but radiant model of grace and serenity. She knew who she was and where she belonged.
The historian Jon Meachum describes her in a New York Times essay, Barbara Bush, A First Lady Without Apologies. He begins his article:
She knew who she was, and she saw no need to apologize for it. In the spring of 1990, the administration of Wellesley College — the alma mater, as it happened, of Hillary Rodham Clinton — invited Barbara Bush, then the first lady of the United States, to speak at commencement and receive an honorary degree. Students at the women’s college protested, declaring in a petition that Mrs. Bush had “gained recognition through the achievements of her husband,” and adding that Wellesley “teaches us that we will be rewarded on the basis of our own merit, not on that of a spouse.”
And so a generational battle was joined…. To the young women of the last decade of the 20th century, Mrs. Bush, who had dropped out of Smith College to marry, seemed a throwback to a less enlightened time.
Mrs. Bush, who died on Tuesday at age 92, never flinched, appearing at Wellesley and using her commencement address to explore the complexities of life’s choices. There was no single path, she told the graduates; one followed one’s heart and did the best one could. “Maybe we should adjust faster, maybe we should adjust slower,” she said. “But whatever the era, whatever the times, one thing will never change: Fathers and mothers, if you have children — they must come first. You must read to your children, hug your children, and you must love your children. Your success as a family, our success as a society, depends not on what happens in the White House, but on what happens inside your house.”
Both Barbara Bush and Maria Shriver dealt with their grief by focusing on others instead of themselves. Maria, whose mother Eunice Kennedy Shriver died of Alzheimer’s disease, is a leading advocate in the battle to find a cure. Mrs. Bush experienced the indescribable grief of her three-year-old daughter Robin’s suffering and death from leukemia. Without fanfare or self-promotion, she devoted the rest of her life to raising money to find cures for cancer. When one of her sons proved dyslexic, she became an advocate for literacy, raising additional millions to ensure that all children can learn to read.
We may lack the connections and resources to make the kind of difference these two women have made, but whatever our sphere of influence, we can use it to make our tiny corner of the world a better place. We can live well, despite age and loss.
Please join the conversation. You can reply in the comment section below.
- What does it mean to you to live well?
- What do you need to live well?
- Do you know who you are?
- Do you know where you belong?
April 26: LOOK GOOD, always a challenge for women of a certain age.
May 3: TRAVEL LIGHT, in regard to both the bags we pack to travel and the baggage from the past that we lug around every day.
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Photo: In front of 2200-year-old ruins of a Roman amphitheater in Bordeaux. After three days here, I move on to the Dordogne area for a week of discovery. You can click the Facebook and Instagram buttons to the right to follow my trip.
Ella’s memoir of her journey from grief, RECLAIMING JOY: A PRIMER FOR WIDOWS, will be released on September 14 by the Baylor University Press.