The Yin and Yang of Aging

Years ago I team-taught a course on aging. We, profs as well as students, were all young and we studied issues about the elderly in contemporary society. Today I write not about “them” but about “us”. I write less from study than from experience, my own and that of friends and family.

I want to explore some of the “yins” and “yangs” of aging these days – of entering the third stage, becoming elders or senior citizens, or any of the other ways we talk about aging, even about approaching death, though we still don’t talk enough about that.

Clearly my experience of aging is not yours nor that of spouses and friends. For there is something inescapably unique about how each of us moves through the stages of our lives, even if there is significant similarity in the stages. Still, there are generalizations we may make about each of these stages and, more fundamentally, about the fact that human life takes time, is bounded by time, must move through time’s stages even when we may wish to leap ahead or retreat back, slow the pace or speed it up.

As I’m using the terms, “yin” refers to the receptive or passive or suffering dimensions of human consciousness and experience. (By “suffering” I mean both what we typically mean, but also the broader meaning of the Latin “passio” as both receiving and enduring.) Some explain yin as the “feminine” dimension, though that is problematic since women clearly embody and experience yang as much as yin. For yang refers to the more active or assertive, even aggressive, and the so-called “masculine” dimensions of life. Together they are, if you will, the tough and the tender or any similar set of words which seek to capture this fundamental tension of contraries. The terms are from ancient China and are central to Taoist philosophy. They have recently gained a certain currency in Western culture.

Classical Hindu thought describes “four stages of life” that are also helpful for thinking about aging. We first live early years of training and learning; then we live through the long period of being a “householder,” rearing children, working in the world, caring for family and society, and generally being responsible and busy; third is the stage of gradual retirement from those activities and increasing focus on the soul’s journey; and finally there is a stage of complete renunciation, going off into a forest hermitage or on a solitary trek like the Buddha’s.

Very few are called directly to that last stage, though some, like Prince Siddhartha, may experience its call while quite young, and all of us will eventually experience it as we slip into final frailty and death.

For most of us, then, retirement and aging are something like that third Hindu stage where we have left many of the immediate responsibilities of the householder yet are still involved to some degree in family and world — perhaps by continuing careers or by new responsibilities. The degree of such continuing engagement will vary, as too the degree of retreat from such engagement. The balance of yin with yang will shift with our situation and opportunities, our health and talents.

The most obvious forms of yin for the aging are physical diminishments – slowing down, aches and pains, sometimes serious illnesses, typically various forms of bone loss and memory loss. But there are also more enjoyable forms of yin – more time for reading and relaxation, time with friends and for travel, even if just for walks in the park. More broadly there is, as in the Hindu scheme, more time for care of the soul – for real leisure (not just entertainment) and various forms of contemplation, for poetry and song and perhaps prayer.

As for yang, in addition to continuing work and family responsibilities there is the responsibility that elders have for the human community – something sorely needed these days. We elders have all gained various forms (big but mostly small) of what should be called wisdom as we have moved through the stages of our lives. Nor do I mean something esoteric by that term. Grandmothers, to take but one widely acknowledged instance, continue to provide caring hearts and prudent advice to their children and grandchildren – as do grandfathers. Senior citizens are mainstays in voluntary organizations – from membership on boards to service in soup kitchens, from leadership in churches to work with schools and hospitals, and in many forms of social activism. Jimmy Carter is perhaps our most visible national icon of such senior wisdom and service. And thankfully there are millions like him in this country, giving back every day in ways both big and small.

Yet there is also a far less healthy and helpful form of yang that plagues the process of aging these days. For too many, as I see it – and as I see it portrayed in drug and travel advertisements or news features about some 70-year-old weightlifter – are pressured to feel that they must continue to be very active even if in a changed form: home office instead of workplace, or constant travel and a mandatory club and social round. Such continued and sometimes even expanded activity may, of course, be the fate of a particularly energetic biology or of an ongoing responsibility even when energy is lacking. This could be a good fortune, but it may also be a curse – as it would seem to be for so many of the world’s poor who can’t even dream of retiring.

Yet the fate or necessity of continuing full-time responsibilities is quite different from the more culturally driven compulsion to activity when it is no longer necessary.

Such compulsion is rooted largely in our culture’s fear of inactivity and passivity (of yin), with the corresponding rejection of real leisure — of simply being present, of listening, of wide-ranging admiration and deeper contemplative attention. The best thing I ever read about the foundational human good of leisure, and the best critique of our cultural compulsion to activity and so-called “productivity,” is Leisure, the Basis of Culture by the German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper. It was written after World War II as a critique of the German cultural ideal of “total work” that came to its fullest and most damnable embodiment in the Nazi program for total war production. Yet, as the book details, this ideal of total work – interrupted only by the worker’s need for rest and entertainment – has far deeper roots both in Enlightenment (scientific/technical) rationalism and even earlier in “the Protestant Ethic” which Max Weber saw as foundational to “the Spirit of Capitalism.” Pieper’s book was published in English in the late 1940s and has been in print ever since. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

I have friends and colleagues who refuse to retire or hope to delay the date as long as possible. I do not judge the uniqueness of their situation and spirit, but I nonetheless wonder whether cultural compulsions and fears are not strongly at work in such inclinations. Some say quite explicitly that they don’t know what they’d do without the harness of the workplace – though they rarely use a word like “harness.”

When asked why I retired eight years back I typically say that I wanted to “retire while I still had legs.” Still, in other words, had the strength for activities I’d long done and for new activities I’d wanted to take up. That response has been acceptable, to myself as much as others, since it gives expression to the shared cultural emphasis on yang. What I often failed to add, since it seemed too pious or romantic, was that I also wanted time for contemplation, for what Hindu wisdom calls attention to the soul – to both atman (soul) and to Atman-Brahman, the Great Soul which we call God. For I have long wanted, even hungered for a new or much renewed dimension of prayer in my life, even as I still find taking up the passive or attentive disciplines of prayer very challenging.  I suspect this  hunger goes back at least to my early years as a member of an “active” religious congregation of teachers that also prized a monastic style of community and stability.

As I see it, then, an ideal aging involves both yin and yang. BOTH the richness of continuing activity – especially those activities that bring joy and those that serve the needs of our world – AND the joys of contemplative leisure. Yet that balance is rarely easy. And it takes time. For the transition from householder to retired (as the earlier transition from school years into adult responsibilities) typically involves much discernment along with trial and error. Even when the transition is sudden – from full-time to free time, and perhaps especially when retirement has been forced – it will still take time for the new stage to find its shape and substance: time and experiment, action and suffering.

Our “retired” forms of yin are not simply nor even primarily matters of physical slowing. They are far more matters of spirit or soul. Thus they may well involve declining spiritual energy and even the lure of laziness and other seductions from the “noon-day devil.” Yet they can (and should) also involve the emergence, slow or sudden, of unsuspected spiritual energies and the attention needed for their development.

Some may appear to escape the diminishments of aging, may seem carried by energy and culture in a seamlessly smooth transition into life’s third stage. Yet I wonder about that. My guess is that even for such folks there is an inner drama which they hide even from themselves. Yet repression rarely works for long. The real challenge is to move on through time without illusion, especially without the illusions of great leaps forward or nostalgic retreats to past ways. For most of us the ongoing drama of this third stage — and it is ongoing, not static but further phases or transitions, often with real struggle, leading eventually to death – this third stage has its joys as well as its sufferings, its confusions as well as its wisdom. And the specific joys and sufferings experienced by each of us are themselves the signs or sacraments of our unique aging, the very real occasions for thought and prayer and often for service.

One immensely important resource that Western culture adds to Asian ideas about aging is Christianity’s deeply affirmative appreciation of time. Of course, as already suggested, the positive Christian evaluation of time has in the modern era too often been reduced to little more than an exaggerated emphasis on action, on yang, justified by various notions about progress, some quite silly but others very dangerous (think both Communism and savage capitalism, or the supposedly inevitable “developments” like nuclear weapons). Yet despite this widespread contemporary aberration, we Christians do believe in the fundamental goodness of time, and thus the goodness of all of life’s stages and phases, all of time’s yins and yangs. For God created time and “knew that it was good.” And God even more fully affirmed time by  entering completely into its reality in the  life of Jesus.

It is only through the stages of our lives that we come to realize time’s goodness. That is especially true in the stage of retirement where the quiet disciplines of a more contemplative form of life are more crucial than ever.

Yet such brief mention of Christian faith in time’s goodness can seem little more than a spiritual banality or even a mystification. It is neither. Any banality or mystification would be a result of our own failure to appreciate what is really good, our failure to live within and through the yins and the yangs of aging.

Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” – Simone Weil

20 thoughts on “The Yin and Yang of Aging

  1. Loved this, John.wrote a comment but found no send button to return it to you. Nice for a leisurely conversation at 4Bells Inn facing Lake Erie at sunset.

    Sent from my iPhone



  2. Terrific essay, John. This will set a clear context and spirit for the Common Bond pre-Reunion workshop. You mentioned Pieper’s book as a suggested reading. I’m wondering if we might encourage each participant to make one or two additional suggestions to add to the list. That type of reading would be a nice take-away for the participants and provide the content for future “yin” processes to occur.

    Bill Miller


  3. As happens so often, John, your thoughts move in me and move me. And, once again, they catch me right where I am, here and now, in this gift of life I’ve been given to live. (I stumbled across your marvelous meditation on aging on the eve of my 65th birthday… the irony too delicious to say too loudly….)

    And this: the marvelous mentoring — in remembering, in paying attention, and implicitly, in the art of growing old with eyes open and heart attuned to the rhythms of genuine contemplation — that I have received though my readings and multiple re-readings of the poems of Denise Levertov. Among the gems that I re-skimmed tonight, these two. First, from her penultimate volume, “Sands of the Well”…

    Denise Levertov

    In each mind, even the most candid,
    there are forests, where needled haze overshadows
    the slippery duff and patches of snow long-frozen,
    or else where mangroves, proliferant, vine-entwisted,
    loom over warm mud that slowly bubbles.
    In these forests there live certain events, shards
    of memory, scraps of once-heard lore, intimations
    once familiar—some painful, shameful, some
    drably or laughably inconsequent, others thoughts that the thinker
    could never hold fast and begin to tell.
    And some—a few—that are noble, tender,
    and so complete in themselves, they had
    no need of saying.
    There they dwell,
    no sky above them, resting
    like dragonflies on the dense air, or nested
    on inaccessible twigs.
    It is right that there are these secrets
    (even the weightless ones have perhaps
    some part to play in the unperceiveable whole)
    and these forests, privacies
    and the deep terrain to receive them.
    Right that they rise at times into our ken,
    and are acknowledged.


    And this gift, written near the end of he life and published posthumously in “This Great Unknowing.” How consoling to know that a particular moment of joy, of discovery, was real….

    Denise Levertov

    A scholar takes a room on the next street,
    the better to concentrate on his unending work, his word,
    his world. His grown children
    feel bereft. He comes and goes while they sleep.
    But at times it happens a son or daughter
    wakes in the dark and finds him sitting
    at the foot of the bed
    in the old rocker; sleepless
    in his old coat, gazing
    into invisible distance, but clearly there to protect
    as he had always done.
    The child springs up and flings
    arms about him, presses
    a cheek to his temple, taking him by surprise,
    and exclaims, ‘Abba!’—the old, intimate name
    from the days of infancy.
    And the old scholar, the father,
    is deeply glad to be found.
    That’s how it is, Lord, sometimes:
    You seek, and I find.

    thanks again for your words, John….


    1. Kevin, when Matt referenced your book on the essential writings of Pedro Arrupe, I bought it, receiving another “here” to my daily prayer for “good books”. The entry “True Biography” really struck home. A most organic part of ageing and retirement is a kind of summing up, a mental writing of our own biography. In this process Arrupe’s insight is most astute-our mystery, our “new name”, is given to us by God and the mystery of our person remains such that this “summing up” on our part is always relative to the Lord’s summing up. Arrupe puts it this way: “True biography is written only before the Lord. He alone is the one who can correct and add many things, sometimes those most precious elements which go unnoticed even by ourselves.”(p.74). Thank you for the sharing!


  4. Thank you, John, for your “timely” reflections. I fund that retirement (finishing my third year!) enables me to get away from clock time and move more in accord with the rhythm of the day. Great help in this in praying “Christian Prayer” which is set up according to Morning, Midmorning, Midday, Mid-afternoon, Evening and Night prayer.

    One of my concerns upon retiring was that I’d be wasting time. Pieper’s book “The Four Cardinal Virtues”, in which he talks about the necessity of contemplatives for the common good, freed me from such apprehension. Here’s the way he says it:

    “The common good extends far beyond the range of material goods produced by mechanical means. There are contributions to the common weal which, though not immediately “useful” are still indispensable-and of very real value, as well. This is no doubt the sense in which St. Thomas’s text is to be understood: the perfection the human community demands that there be men who dedicate themselves to a life of contemplation, a tenet which signifies that the society of men relies for its functioning on a knowledge of the truth, and that nations thrive in proportion to the depth of reality opened up and accessible to them.” The Four Cardinal Virtues pp.97-98

    On the other hand prayerful solitude demands asceticism second to none! Joseph Ratzinger humbly acknowledged this when he admitted he could not live only in contemplation and prayer. He says that “I am simply not inwardly strong enough to dedicate myself constantly to divine and spiritual things.” (Last Testament pp.35, 36)
    So having fun and playing carefree surely are gifts for this period of life!


    1. Rhett, leaving a note after reading the latest post (below) by Matt Ashley, another good friend. What you cite from Thomas via Pieper resonates with what Matt cites from Teilhard.


  5. Rhett, thanks as always. The Pieper citation from virtues had never struck me before though he clearly says the same in leisure. Had never heard the Benedict citation, but it sure fits me. Blessings, John


  6. Hi John. Thanks for this beautiful reflection, which has given me much food for thought and prayer. And thanks Kevin, for the Levertov poetry. A favorite poem of mine for this season of life is Czeslaw Milosz’s “Late Ripeness.” ( ). I’ll only quote the first few lines and let those who wish follow the link (probably a no-no for poems. Sorry!):

    Not soon, as late as the approach of my ninetieth year,
    I felt a door opening in me and I entered
    the clarity of early morning.

    One after another my former lives were departing,
    like ships, together with their sorrow.

    And the countries, cities, gardens, the bays of seas
    assigned to my brush came closer,
    ready now to be described better than they were before.

    . . . .

    As far as readings go, your post reminded me of Teilhard de Chardin’s “The Divine Milieu,” which is really his text on being a contemplative in action. It has two parts, one on “the divinization of our activities” (yang) and the other on “the divinization of our passivities” (yin). I also thought of the lines from Pedro Arrupe’s final address to the Society of Jesus as General (in the book of spiritual writings that Kevin edited — thanks Kevin!): “More than ever, I now find myself in the hands of God. This is what I have wanted all my life, from my youth. And this is still the one thing I want. But now there is a difference: the initiative is entirely with God. It is indeed a profound spiritual experience to know and feel myself so totally in his hands.” What struck me in the light of your perceptive commentary on how much our culture emphasizes a sort of mindless activism and a kind of idolatry of being productive is that in these comments Arrupe shows himself a “contemplative in action” in the very highest degree, even though at this point he had been rendered so “inactive” by a debilitating stroke. With that, I thought of your essay as a profound essay on being a contemplative in action, which, perhaps, is an ideal that only the old can really appreciate.

    As I have thought and prayed over your beautiful words it has come to me that maybe what comes with age, as we move into the fourth stage of life is the realization — or better, the living out — of that powerful truth that the initiative is truly in God’s hands, and that the natural rhythm of yin and yang, of activity and passivity, of fruitfulness and diminishment, is underlaid by the deep, albeit silent and opaque, presence of God, so that “a door opens” in us and “we enter the clarity of early morning.”

    thanks again John!



      1. Matt, your reference to Pedro Arrupe’s surrender to God, Chardin’s Divine Milieu, and the importance of “diminishment”, reminds me of Flannery O’Connor, who found in Teilhard’s “passive diminishment” the phrase enabling her to accept serenely those things connected with her lupus that she could not change.Old age, as John notes, has inherent physical challenges, For Flannery the wisdom of old age came so early!


  7. Thanks Rhett for the reminder about Flannery O’Connor. I think too of her incredible, wry sense of humor — perhaps another requisite for aging grace-fully.


  8. I would add the book “Mr. Blue” by Myles Connelly, where a life of joyful self giving is narrated. It is not necessary to follow any particular path to reach a sense of wonder, as suggested by Pieper, which in turn leads to the self-giving.


  9. Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi’s great work FROM AGING TO SAGING.
    Worth looking into as one moves forward in time.


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