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Getting Wiser in Our Later Years

Aging with joy, fulfillment, wisdom, and quiet gratitude.

Key points

  • As we get older, we can also become wiser if we pay attention in the right way.
  • Life can open up in new ways as we move from being busy and trying to be "productive" to taking time to "just be."
  • Asking ourselves questions such as "What genuinely matters to me" and "What pettiness can I drop" allows us to see what's really important.
Pixabay image by sciencefreak
Source: Pixabay image by sciencefreak

As the saying goes, getting older is inevitable; getting wiser is optional. As you age, are you finding the time and presence to be available for life? Or are you plagued by a gnawing sense that your life is not as meaningful and fulfilling as you’d like it to be? As writer Diane Ackerman put it, “I don't want to get to the end of my life and find that I have just lived the length of it. I want to have lived the width of it as well.”

Dr. Charles Garfield is no stranger to the aging process. Now in his 70s, he is a psychologist and the founder of Shanti, an internationally honored volunteer organization dedicated to the care of the elderly and those living with life-threatening illnesses. He has taught at the University of California School of Medicine in San Francisco for four decades.

In his landmark book, Our Wisdom Years, Dr. Garfield takes us on a tour into our later years. If you’re reading this while you’re young, don’t fret. It’s never too early to live your life in a way to get the most out of it. Yet it often takes decades of experiencing the full array of what life offers—times of agony and ecstasy, loss and gain, breakdowns and breakthroughs—to have tasted life in its various flavors and draw lessons from a life fully lived.

As Dr. Garfield puts it:

"The feelings, nudges, and fascinations that bubble up in moments when you let yourself step away from being ‘busy’ and ‘productive’ are the clues to what’s been neglected, what’s been waiting for you to remember; they appear in the ‘nothingness’ of silence, stillness, lazy hours, empty slots in the calendar, and daydreaming.”

Whatever our age, when we take time to just be, space opens up. We feel ourselves being here, feeling alive in this moment. We feel life and all that it contains—the beauty, the awe, the preciousness, as well as the sorrow and grief that is part of the rhythm of life. As we allow ourselves to welcome it all rather than push anything away, we become larger. We find a spaciousness that allows us to be present with whatever life offers us—or throws at us.

Dr. Garfield offers practical suggestions for reviewing our life, using death as an adviser for how to live our life, and listening to an inner calling for something deep and new. He invites us to respond to questions such as:

  • What genuinely matters to me?
  • What pettiness can I drop?
  • What longings and risks and promises to myself have I turned away from and at what cost?
  • Will I let myself die without having lived?

We’re invited to turn tenderly toward our wise, expanded self—the part of us that intuits or knows what we need to move forward in our life.

As we get older and wiser, we recognize that rather than strive for perfection, we can embrace our humanity and make choices that increase our joy. Less driven by duty in our later years, our goal, as Garfield puts it, is to:

“Be the authentic, enlivened person you are when you’re led not just by your mind but also by your heart and spirit…Pleasure, purpose, joy, and awe are the criteria your Wise Self will urge you to use as a filter for answering Death’s questions about what really matters. Our time may be getting shorter, but time slows and deepens as we sink into each moment, immersed in what has meaning for us.”

Other sections in the book invite us to express and receive love. This includes asking deeper questions to people we care about—letting them know we’re interested in their true feelings and what’s meaningful for them. He recognizes that it can be awkward to move from superficial conversation to the deeper give and take that creates real intimacy. Yet as we mature, it is often this vibrant intimacy that we long for. We’re invited to take moments to pause, make eye contact, smile, and really be present to “take the other person in” before talking or responding. We’re then empowered to speak kindly from our heart rather than from old habits or rehearsed ideas.

Embracing courageous vulnerability creates a climate for connection. Especially in our later years, we may discover that we have fewer friends than we’d hoped for. This is a time, although any time is good, to notice what we appreciate about our friends and loved ones, and to find the inner strength to express this to them.

We all like being appreciated, yet how often do we express appreciation to others? We can bring more richness and connection into our life by offering to others what we’d like to receive: attentiveness, caring, compassion, gratitude, forgiveness, and love. We can also find a deeper love and acceptance of ourselves just as we are, which creates a foundation for love and connection.

This brief review only scratches the surface of what this wise and helpful book offers, written by one of the most respected and masterful teachers on the subject of aging. Both mature and younger readers will find kind and skillful guidance to grow older and wiser through this very readable, brilliant book. Oh, and did I make it clear that I highly recommend this book?

© John Amodeo


Garfield, Charles, Our Wisdom Years: Growing Older with Joy, Fulfillment, Resilience, and No Regrets. (2020). Las Vegas: CRP (Central Recovery Press),