Growing Older is Quite Different from Being Old


We are always growing older.  It’s a fact of life. We begin to grow older from the moment we are born.  When someone is young, we say that the person is growing up. Growing up implies the physical changes that the years bring to the body as well as learning the life lessons required for the next stage of life. At some stage, usually after adolescence, but not always, we drop the language of growing up and we start talking about growing old and being old.

I contend that growing older and being old are not the same.

As long as we remain on this earth, we grow older. Being old, however, is a state of mind. One can be chronologically young and be “old,”  while an 80 or 90 year old can lead an active and full life. We call this young at heart for it is in the heart that age becomes irrelevant and attitude means everything.

I love what the great Chassidic master, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov said,

“It is forbidden to be old. Grow older but do not be old: that is to say, do not be bitter and despairing. Do not oppose reality, but do not prevent life from fulfilling its potential to bring forth new things, right up to your very last breath.”

I want to continue to grow old  like that. I want to live each and every day of my life with vitality, enthusiasm, enjoyment and with acceptance for who I am, where I am in my life cycle and yes, with the reality that one day I will die.

Growing old is not for the faint of heart.  Moving into the third stage of life can be daunting.  Physical challenges, loss of loved ones, isolation, loneliness, the emphasis on youth in our culture and the societal dismissal, disdain and subsequent invisibility of elders certainly contributes to the dilemma.

AND, growing older has the potential for being a rich, fulfilling, and incredibly stimulating, fun and adventurous time of life. It is a time to reap the rewards of one’s life lessons and be true to who we have come to be.

Being old, however, is quite another experience. It is giving up on the enjoyment and joys of being alive and living in suffering and despair.  It is a death before its time.

I want to grow old in a realistic way. I want to embrace all aspects of living with curiosity, enthusiasm, vitality, connections, awareness and intention to be completely alive. I want to do this with my eyes wide open; aware that changes are already happening and will continue;  that physical and mental decline is inevitable. I want to meet this head on………realistic, aware, alive and in my ageless heart.

I am learning to accept growing older. The older I become, the more I am coming to appreciate this as a great gift. And, as with any wonderful gift that I get, I treasure and savor the unwrapping, the unfolding and in this case,  find the gift of life itself.

By Roberta Teller

Malala Yousafzai: An Old Soul, Wise Woman in the Body of a 16 Year Old

Malala Yousafzai  is an old soul, wise woman in the body of a now 16 year old.  I first heard of her exactly a year ago when the story of her being targeted and shot by the Taliban while returning home from school hit the news and internet circuit.  A year later, this amazing teen having survived this brutal attack to shut her up and instill fear in others to remain silent, is more outspoken and more of an activist and voice for oppressed and suppressed girls than ever before.  Malala has written a book: I  Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot By the Taliban has just been published.

I plan to read it.

I am a retired educator who has always believed in what I call “the infinite wisdom of children.”  I have learned over the years, that when given the opportunity, guidance, support and conditions to thrive and make right choices, children will not only rise to the occasion and do what is right, but will stand up against peer pressure and conventional thinking. I have witnessed children standing up to what they innately know to be true, just and right and not succumb to the pressures of what others want them to say, do or be.

Malala Yousafzai takes this to another level.

In October 2012,  a Taliban terrorist boarded Malala’s school bus and demanded Malala to identify herself.  When she did, she was shot in the head. Whereas, this act of brutal cowardice was intended to silence this young woman and anyone else who dared to speak out against this terrorist organization, the results were quite the opposite.

Malala survived and she is ever more the outspoken critic of oppression and suppression of girls and women’s rights. The assassination attempt to “disappear” this young woman has had the exact opposite effect.  She is very much in the media limelight.  She has been the recipient of women’s and human rights awards, was nominated for the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize and now is traveling the world promoting her book and equality for all……..

What I wonder is how does a child from an increasingly intolerant and repressive culture stand up to the powers that be?  How does a young girl have the courage and fearlessness to speak out against the suppression of girls’ and womens rights? What is it that allows such a young person to take these risks? What is it that makes leaders and visionaries and change agents?  How does an ordinary person become an extraordinary light in the world?

Maybe part of the answer is that when one is younger, the dangers may not seem as real or imminent.  Perhaps it is the innocence of childhood, not quite understanding  how cruel and vicious the world can be.

Then there is the influence of someone – a positive role model – someone who sets the bar above and beyond what the culture or society accepts. A person who speaks out and behaves with integrity, truth, conviction and fearlessness.  Someone who does not just give lip service, but “walks the talk.”  For Malala, I believe it was her activist father who encouraged his daughter to learn; to remain in  school while those around her were being shuttered and closed down……the girls becoming prisoners in their own homes.

And then there is the possibility that some people are born with or maybe learn to have the capacity and the ability to rise above themselves.  Something greater than themselves calls to them and self preservation gives way to the greater cause. We saw this with the likes of Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Gandhi…………and now 16 year old Malala Yousafzai.

I usually write about women, growing older and wise woman teachings and lessons. I write about the gifts and challenges of growing older, tapping into women’s greatness and building supportive communities of women. I bring older and younger generations together as an opportunity to bridge gaps and increase the dialogue between the ages. Normally I wouldn’t write about a 16 year old girl, but I chose to make an exception in this case because Malala exemplifies the very best qualities of women. She is brave, compassionate, and stands up for what she believes in. She tells her story with conviction and honesty. She reaches across generations encouraging, educating and inspiring activism.

After Malala was shot, women and girls from all over Pakistan protested this atrocity.  They carried signs and shouted, “I am Malala..” As a 66 year old woman, I identify with the plight of women and girls fighting oppression, suppression, visibility and equality.  I understand  those who care more for a cause than for themselves.  I have been molded and influenced by those before me and around me who have set standards and codes for living that I have strived for throughout my life.  For you see, when it comes down to it, I, too am Malala.

By Roberta Teller



Aging Gracefully: Another Lesson for this Aspiring Crone


This aging, saging crone has recently learned that aging gracefully can be, well, clumsy. In a previous blog, I espoused the gifts of elder women when they have taken the hard challenges of life and incorporated and internalized the lessons learned as opportunities to grow wiser and more mindful.  To me, it is the gifts of these experiences and the wise wisdom that emerges, that defines the essence of the aging gracefully woman.

So, why then did I spend a year worrying and obsessing about a doctor’s appointment? Where was my wise woman wisdom when I really needed it?

From August 2012  when I first walked out of my ophthalmologist’s office after my yearly check-up, I have worried, fretted, obsessed and terrorized myself with my very own original scary story. The plot of my original drama revolved around me  having to have cataract surgery. Okay, you’re saying, “HUH?”  CATARACT SURGERY for a plot?  Okay, have some compassion. I understand that probably to most “normal” and admittedly, some not so normal people, this would not be any kind of a plot and certainly not a traumatic event.  And while of course, no one wants surgery of any kind, the reality of cataract surgery is that it is safe, quick and has positive results – like immediate improved vision – even for higher risk patients like me.

Most people do not perseverate over this for a year……But I did.

I worried about this 2013 exam the minute I walked out of my 2012 appointment. In May of 2013, I took my first major step when I called and actually scheduled my eye exam for the following August 12..  I kid you not when I tell you that I dreaded just making the appointment……Once THAT was done, as I continued to worry, obsess and develop my scary story to newer and higher levels, I then began preparing myself for the  August 12th appointment.

Months before the appointment,I  began a regimen. I meditated, did guided imagery and visual imagery exercises.  I prayed for best outcome. I asked for support from the women in my women’s circle. I brought my spirit guides and my partner with me to the appointment.  And while some of these helped and the support was wonderful, the reality is that none of these steps got to the crux of the problem.

I was so fraught with fear and worry and panic. I was so caught up in my head, that I became increasingly detached from my emotional body.  In retrospect, I realize now that I was in a fight or flight mode.  You can’t be in  fight or flight and feel your feelings……that’s counterproductive -it’s not what it was designed for. Vulnerability went out the window as fight or flight took over. Fight or flight requires being defended and tough and strong…….not soft and tender and caressing……which in retrospect is really what I needed all along.

During that challenging year, had I been able to tap into my vulnerability and had I been able to experience the feelings of sadness, loss, powerlessness and even fear,  I know that I would at least have been able to feel myself……..But once fight or flight took over, any connections to my feelings were cut off. Going into fight or flight is strictly about survival, requiring toughness and rigor  It is a primal instinctive reaction to danger. Vulnerability would have required my soft and tender self to be available: to allow my deepest feelings to emerge; to cry and be in touch with my softness. The two are simply not compatible.

I know my fight or flight mode was trying to protect me, but the reality is that this kind of protection didn’t serve me.  While fight or flight might be very appropriate for some life threatening experiences, it was not appropriate for this one.

It took a year for me to finally understand what dynamic was driving me to fear.  This well-intended misguided protective modality never served me at all because it wasn’t what I really needed. I didn’t need to be out of my body, I needed exactly the opposite.  I needed to be able to feel myself, caress and hold my scared self.  I needed soothing and tenderness and most importantly to feel my vulnerable self.

I am grateful that I have gained great insights into what happened and have learned a very valuable lesson. When facing frightening, upsetting and scary events in my life, I don’t have to put on thick armor and protective gear to defend myself.  I can be much better served by embracing my scared child; soothing and holding her, all the while allowing my feelings to flow, emerge and be…….I understand that real inner strength is not about being hard and defensive, but instead it’s about being soft, and tender and real and true to your inner core……..It took me a year of fumbling and stumbling and eventually I got it.  I learned that vulnerability is a powerful and rich gift.  I learned that by embracing my tender, soft, frightened self; by loving my scared little girl, I was able to feel and be true to my real self. The defensive stance melted away and I was left stronger than ever. And so I learned.  By embracing my deepest feelings, and not stuffing them or covering them up with defensive armor, I came home to myself. I was able to be present in my life without future thinking and creating scary stories .  Being vulnerable put me back in my  heart, mind and body. I understand now how by allowing my tender, soft and vulnerable and real being to emerge made me invulnerable to the defensive actions of my thoughts and old patterns of being  Thank you my wise woman for finally helping me glean this most important lesson.

By Roberta Teller

Refections on Making Mistakes from this Aging, Saging Crone.


Albert Einstein said, “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” When I was a child in elementary school, I used to hide under my desk whenever the teacher asked a question.  I was terrified that I would be called upon and convinced that I would be mortified when of course, I wouldn’t know the answer.  I hid out for years like this.  Occasionally, I would be discovered and asked to respond to a question. All I can remember is leaving my body, mumbling something and trying to get back under cover as soon as possible.

I have no understanding of why I was so afraid of making a mistake.  I suppose it can go back to this persona that my parents created for me as being smart and responsible and perfect. Maybe it was about not letting them down, but the truth be told, how could I let them down if they never really saw who I was?

I suppose it really doesn’t matter why this happened.

The first time I stood up in front of a group was in 1968 when I faced my class of  32 eleven and twelve year old 6th graders at PS 116 in Brooklyn, New York.  And once again I was terrified.  Here I was, 21 years old, straight from the suburbs of Queens facing a group of African American, Puerto Rican and a smattering of white kids in a red brick building built in 1898 located in one of the poorest sections of the city.  Did I tell you that my father had actually driven me to the school just before it opened for the school year ( and unbeknownst to me )  planned to meet the principal, Mr. Kash and to elicit a commitment from him to watch out for me while I was there…..Mr. Kash did agree.

But it wasn’t necessary.

From the moment I stepped in front of that classroom, terrified, sleep deprived (for most of my teaching career, I rarely slept the night before the opening of school) and wearing the dress that I had bought for this most audacious moment in my life, something began to shift for me.  I didn’t know it at first, but I realize now, that by looking at my beautiful, hopeful, enthusiastic, and mostly underachieving (that’s test scores) students, I was looking at myself.  And that was especially true of Julio.  Mr. Kash had warned me about Julio.  Well, in actuality, he warned every brand new teacher and staff member about Julio; everyone else knew him. He was the major behavior problem of PS 116.  It seemed, nobody wanted him in their class. And while you could say that Julio’s reputation preceded him, the sad fact was that nobody  knew this child nor took the time to get to know him.  He was viewed as one big mistake, screwing up left and right. I can only imagine how Julio felt about himself. But we had  a couple of things in common.  I felt like one big mistake about to happen and no one had really taken the time to see me either.

I have come to believe that we teach most what we need to learn.  It doesn’t matter what your profession or hobby or avocation, we seek out that which will help us better understand and know who we are.  By being a classroom teacher, I morphed into being a fierce advocate for my students to be the best they could be; to take chances and make lots of mistakes as long as these errors became tools for reflection and change and growth and momentum to move forward and not become dead ends or unfulfilled dreams. I encouraged them to ask questions, especially if they didn’t understand something. “The only stupid question,” I said, “is the one not asked.”  And I meant it.

I know now that whatever I was doing for my students, I was doing for myself. When I stood next to a student who was required to give an oral report in front of the class, that was me I had my arm around, saying, “Of course you can do it.  I’m proud of you.”  As they did it, so did I. When we did art projects, I threw away anything with lines on it (like coloring books) and encouraged imagination, creative expression and individuality. While I think of myself as someone who likes to think out of the box, for my students, there would be no box………”take a chance,”  I said to them and to myself.

Learning, creativity and life are risky. Often times it requires stepping out of our comfort zone and taking chances. Trying new things and doing things differently  opens us up to, yes, the risk of making mistakes. It also opens us up to our greatest potential.

I have come to appreciate the value of making mistakes as wonderful opportunities to learn and grow. I thank my hundreds and hundreds of students for showing me how with a little support and encouragement, we can become our best selves. Mistakes are valuable teachers and opportunities to see and do things differently.  No one is ever a mistake….we make mistakes, only.  And one more thing……...There is no such thing as perfection. Mistakes are as natural as sunshine and air……..

By Roberta Teller