My Transforming Encounter with Ageism


My Transforming Encounter with Ageism

by Robert Wayne Johnston

When I was fifty-three, at the apex of a successful career in management and organization development, my employer's Fortune 500 company merged with another, and executives were replaced by their counterparts from the new parent corporation. I wasn't worried by the news of my layoff. I possessed a graduate degree in the human sciences, and had been adjunct professor of organization development in the graduate schools at two respected universities. I had also written numerous articles in professional journals and magazines, and nineteen books for corporations. I was well known in my field, and was in demand in my company's divisions as teambuilder, workshop leader, therapist, and consultant in the United States and internationally. I felt confident that I would easily relocate.

I was wrong. The following years presented some of the most strenuous challenges of my life. I sent out more than four hundred resumes, which resulted in many interviews, but I kept hearing over and over again: "You're overqualified." I discovered what they really meant was: "You're too old for us." People in their thirties and early forties were getting the jobs.

After four years of unsuccessful job searching, my generous severance pay began to run out. Exacerbated by a sizable investment that went sour, my strained financial situation was a contributing factor to the dissolution of my marriage of thirty-six years. I was subjected to a period of serious soul- searching. These were dark times for me, characterized by deep despair and bouts with depression.

Completely frustrated by outer circumstances, I turned inward, hopeful of finding creative options for solving my outer dilemma.

I began keeping a journal of my dreams, using them for meditation and study. I experienced periods when my body was asleep, but I was consciously aware of dreaming. I dreamed not only creative problem solving scenarios but negative ones, which I found I could change to positive themes by first accepting their negative messages, then replacing them with visualizations of the healthful imagery I wanted.

Among the numerous valuable experiences I had was the insight that true unvarnished generic spirituality for me is the ability to look within and to trust. What is seen and trusted are not only dreams and body sensations, but also one's interconnectedness and interdependence with everyone and everything, as well as "delegated" responsibility for self-management in harmony with Nature's laws and rhythms.

As a result of my conscious dreaming and sensualization of desired changes in my dreams, I often felt distinct changes within my body, all the way from within my brain down through my torso and into my feet. I felt wonderful— centered, healthy, lucid, and competent. In addition, I began each day by writing a brief self-empowering essay on some pertinent theme, ending with an affirmation.

These empowering experiences gave me the insight that I didn't have to fall prey to deep despair and depression. Not only did I experience surrendering my will to the all-pervading Source of all life and healing, and in so doing experience interdependent oneness with all Nature, but paradoxically, I was clearly "delegated" the personal authority, and had the freedom to manage my life by choosing my responses to the situations I faced.

Thus, by choosing healthy beliefs and values, together with committing myself to balanced nutrition, aerobic and anaerobic exercise, meditation, and service to others, I found I could manage my despair and depression, and slow, even reverse, my body's deterioration from aging.

Recognizing that I was already well trained in the human sciences, my advisor at the Andrus Gerontology Center, University of Southern California, suggested that what I really needed to qualify for my new vocation was to work with older adults in organizational settings.

Today, at age seventy-two, I am in excellent health and happily married to Millis Mershon. We are principals in "OmniMind Associates . . . for more enjoyable aging", a nonprofit research, education, consulting, and publishing group I founded. I now conduct transformational workshops on gerontology, and design and facilitate projects for various local and national councils on aging. I also act as the coordinator of an IONS group called the New Options Community Group.

What has all this turning inward—meditation, dreaming, affirmational scripting —plus nutrition, exercise, and expanding my vocational repertoire to include gerontology done for me? Generally speaking, it has meant a major transformation of my beliefs, values, motives, attitudes, and behavior in the way I view living, aging, dying, and thereafter.

Summarizing my transformational encounter with ageism, I now see that aging need not be synonymous with decline and disease. Research shows that we can choose to change our lifestyle to one that slows—even reverses in some aspects—the deteriorating effects of aging. Lifestyle changes—especially in nutrition—result in more creative, healthy, loving, rewarding, wise, enjoyable living, aging, and dying. And even if disease and pain should come due to conditions beyond our control, we can usually continue to grow and develop psychologically and spiritually.

Without my transformational encounter with ageism, I may never have come to these vital insights about how to make a difference differently.

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