21st Century Aging

Living longer and better.

Growing Wise

What Maya Angelou can teach us about aging

In an interview with Oprah Winfrey for O Magazine, Maya Angelou remarked, "I'm going to die. So why can't I do everything?"

Maya Angelou has been receiving prominent recognition lately, and for good reason: she is among the most intelligent and accomplished women of our time. But I suspect there's something even more important in her popularity--she's an exemplar of aging gracefully.

With an unusual, but insightful spin on death, Angelou reminds us that the reality of dying someday need not prevent us from embracing life. Rather, the acceptance of mortality can be transformed into an inspiring confidence: since death is inevitable, we might as well make the most out of the time we have.

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Of course, for some this approach to living remains merely an intellectual idea that's hard to put into practice. So what makes this perspective on living become a felt inspiration for some but not others?

In part, it is has to do with the role of resilience in our lives. Resilience is a popular idea these days, and Psychology Today has some great articles on the topic. A basic definition of resilience is the capacity to overcome adversity and not to let difficult life experiences make you a cynic. People who are resilient can find hope even in the most dire of circumstances. Although optimism and the ability to manage emotions are traits often found in resilient individuals, what I've found in my psychotherapy practice and in my own life is that resilient people use relationships to help facilitate hope and healing. Although trauma threatens to destroy hope, people who are resilient believe that they can try again, and keep trying, by trusting in the restorative power in the humanity of other people, in relationships, and in love.

Angelou captures this idea best in the Oprah interview when she says (in response to a question about where her confidence comes from), "There are so many gifts, so many blessings, so many sources that I can't say any one thing-unless that one thing is love."

The implications for this outlook on coping with aging are profound. Relationships are what make coping with adversity not only livable, but also meaningful. Social support acts as a buffer against depression, improves health and can even deter mortality. Angelou helps us to understand that the research on social support really comes down to the healing capacity of loving relationships.

By incorporating people into our lives who care about us--and whom we care about, we create an authentic foundation for a meaningful life. We need not be so fearful of death when there are people around us who champion our well-being, but who also remind us when we fall short. And having people in our lives that we care about reminds us that we should care about ourselves too.

Relationships are what really matter. It is this kind of existential grounding that resilient individuals like Maya Angelou have cultivated and can teach us. When people have loving relationships, then hope is theirs for the taking.

Tamara McClintock Greenberg, Psy.D., M.S., is an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco.

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