David A. Shapiro is the author, with Richard J. Leider, of the new book Who Do You Want To Be When You Grow Old?: The Path of Purposeful Aging. Their other books include Repacking Your Bags. Shapiro teaches philosophy at Cascadia College, in the Seattle area.
Q: What inspired the two of you to write this book?
A: Richard Leider and I were inspired to write this book, frankly, by each other.
Our long friendship, and our collaboration on half a dozen earlier books that explore meaning and purpose in life, were the impetus for writing this book.
Who Do You Want to Be When You Grow Old? The Path of Purposeful Aging is a natural expansion of themes we have taken on together, way back to our first book in 1994, Repacking Your Bags: Lighten Your Load for the Good Life.
As we have aged and grown over the years, and as our friendship has developed and deepened, we’ve maintained an abiding interest in what it means to live a good life, which we’ve defined as “living in the place you belong, with people you love, doing the right work, on purpose.”
Now, as we both transition into the later years of our lives’ second half, we were inspired to develop this interest in light of what it means to grow old on purpose.
Writing the book itself was inspired by a long conversation we had in the summer of 2018, at, of all places, a rained-out Minnesota Twins baseball game.
What we noticed, watching the rain come down, soaking the infield and outfield, was that when our culture conceives of something old like a friendship, the older it is, in most cases, the better. Like fine wine, it improves with age. It becomes more valuable, more honored. An old friendship like ours is seen as something special, beautiful, to be treasured.
By contrast, the dominant societal narrative about the old friends themselves is not so positive. By and large, old people are often portrayed by contemporary society as less than, as in the way, as a drain on society. Getting old is a condition to be avoided at all costs.
So, as we formulated our ideas for this book, we explored ways to overcome that gap between old as valuable and old as problematic.
Somewhat to our surprise, the rainout at Target Field provided a metaphor for us to draw upon. In a rainout, the event you expect to happen never happens. The one thing you’re waiting for—the game—never takes place. But at the same time, everything happens. Life, and especially the opportunity to connect and converse, presents itself ever more clearly.
Aging is much like that. For most of us, the “game” changes; action on the field plays less of a role in our day-to-day living. Now, it’s more of an inward game. We have the time to be more reflective and contemplative about how we want to play that game for the rest of our lives.
As such, we have a greater freedom than ever before to finally become the person we’ve always felt we were meant to be. That is the singular promise of growing old—that we will experience a freedom in our lives that we’ve never before fully experienced.
Above all, it’s about unlocking a sense of purpose and growing old in accordance with it. And that’s what this book offers to readers: a way to unlock that sense of purpose and “grow old” not just “get old” for the rest of their lives.
Q: How did you collaborate on the book? What was your writing process like?
A: Our process is a conversation, a long conversation, just like the conversation that’s at the root of this book.
It’s sort of remarkable how our process has developed over the years.
Richard typically writes in longhand and will send me a draft of what he’s working on; I revise and build upon that as I turn it into electronic text. I then send that back to him; he revises, and so on, as we construct a single narrative from our shared perspectives.
What emerges from this process—which is really a conversation between us—is something that is invariably richer, more thoughtful, and more in keeping with what we both believe than anything we could have done individually.
Q: You write, "Our focus is not just on getting older but also on how to grow as we do so." What are some of the most important strategies to achieve that goal?
A: Curiosity, choice, and courage are key. To grow old, to age on purpose, involves an ongoing curiosity about one’s purpose and role in the world, a willingness and ability to be intentional about one’s choices, and the courage to ask and answer honest questions about meaning and purpose in later life.
The path of purposeful aging involves a growth mindset in which we wake up every day with the attitude that we can continue growing and giving in spite of the adversities of aging.
Purposeful aging is about looking inside and awakening to new possibilities. It’s about asking questions—questions that enable us to look within, to review our past and grow from it, and to reimagine our future, at any age.
Questions like these which form the chapter titles of the book
• Old? Who, me?
• If we all end up dying, what’s the purpose of living?
• Aren’t I somebody?
• Am I living the good life my whole life?
• How do I stop living a default life?
• Am I having a late-life crisis?
• Will I earn a passing grade in life?
• How can I grow whole as I grow old?
• How will my music play on?
Q: Who do you see as the perfect audience for this book, and what do you hope readers take away from it?
A: We consider the book, and the topic, to be “age-agnostic.” It’s really for anyone, anywhere who is growing older. That said, we believe it has special interest for people in, and moving into, the “old” half of life, which, it should be noted IS half of our lives.
We hope readers take away from it a renewed sense of possibility for the second half of life, and an understanding of aging as a liberating experience, one that enables us to live with greater purpose and meaning for all of our lives.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Our long conversation about meaning and purpose continues; we shall see where it takes us in the years ahead.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I’d just like you to know how grateful I am, and is Richard, for your interest in the book and the subject matter it explores. We send you, Deborah, and all our prospective readers, all our best wishes for a safe, healthy, and happy later life, one imbued with meaning and purpose in all you do.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb