Dr. Richard Raubolt is an author, film producer, and board-certified psychoanalyst. For more than 40 years, he’s helped young and adult men overcome trauma, set aside addictions, develop emotional intelligence, and move away from violent behaviors. He’s the father of two grown sons and a grandfather of two. In this segment of the Revealing Men podcast, Dr. Raubolt and Randy Flood, psychotherapist, and Director of the Men’s Resource Center of West Michigan talk about the topic of men and aging; the challenges of letting go, feeling left behind, and finding new purpose. This article is taken from that conversation and edited for clarity and length. Listen to the entire conversation as well as the whole of Dr. Raubolt’s “flash fiction” story on the Revealing Men podcast. Let’s begin with the story:
Letter to a Grandfather
Raubolt: This is a “flash fiction” story which means, by definition, it is 1,000 words or less. This is specifically on who would’ve been my grandfather and it’s meaningful on a number of different levels. Both in highlighting the intergenerational connections, grandfather to father to my sons, and the influence of two prominent women in my life that made all the difference.
I know you made my grandmother, Nana—my emotional lifeline until she passed on—very happy: “He was so handsome and he chose me.”
But even in her devotion she would say, “He wasn’t very ambitious.”
I know you had two children.
My father, Raleigh, a fighter pilot in the South Pacific, started his own law firm, and was a man I went toe-to-toe with long enough and often enough to respect. He never walked away. He never backed down.
You also had a daughter, my dear Aunt Angie, who, bursting with fire, would step between me and my mother, melting some of the ice. She loved her Cincinnati Reds, one nightly cigarette, Little Kings beer, and her Euchre games.
Angie, as we knew her, walked, and talked, and dressed, and did what she wanted.
You didn’t see any of this. I have a few details about your life. You died … were you 62, 63, or 64?
Does the age really matter?
Not to you. Not to me.
I ‘ve seen one photograph of you. The profile was a handsome man with a firm, square jaw, thick, grey hair, neatly parted, dressed in a suit fashionable at the time, I suspect.
The look on your face was inscrutable – some bit of personality but not enough to know.
I have a photograph of my father, also professionally taken. He’s in his Naval uniform, looking straight on into the camera, a half-smile and half-smirk. His white braided Lieutenant’s cap always catches my eye: slightly cocked to the side, not by accident. My father was far too fastidious.
No, the angle suggested confidence and daring, a man who flew into death and came out more alive.
Where were you, Fred, in those years you lived?
Why no photographs with friends or at ball games or cookouts?
Why no stories or legacies?
You died before I was born and I get that. But your son, Raleigh, died before my oldest was born.
My son heard stories, enough stories, that in graduate school he would visit Raleigh’s gravesite, talk to him, seek his counsel.
Some 40-plus years after his [Raleigh’s] death, my children, their wives, and my grandchildren refer to “Papa Ral.”
It would never occur to me to consider you as “Papa Fred.” What I heard when I heard of you over the years is that you were a good man.
I have come to understand this as a tissue-thin excuse.
You weren’t bad in any obvious way then, in this binary thinking, you must have been good.
Perhaps you were, perhaps I am being unfair, but being summed up as a good man, entering my remaining years, scares the shit out of me.
I want to be remembered as a man who could be kind and gentle, a man who went the extra distance in his work, who never gave up, who could be capricious, ill-tempered and fierce, who brought his wife to orgasms of delight, who suffered panic attacks, and was so hyperactive that, even with boatloads of Adderall, he could still drive the most tolerant running from the room.
I want to continue to be the man who is never satisfied, always wanting more experience, more to love, more to fight against, more to fight for. I want to be the man who dies swimming across the lake with his life jacket securely fastened dockside.
Legacies Down Through the Generations
Flood: It’s quite a story and I can see why you wanted to share it, relative to this subject of men and aging. You’re talking to your grandfather and then this story concludes about your life, and your legacy, and what you’re leaving. Say more about that.
Raubolt: My father was so vibrant, so confident, and ambitious in a healthy way that I modeled myself after him in many ways. And yet, I think the two biggest influences really came from my grandmother and my Aunt Angie. They were there at times to guide me and offer some balance to the criticism I so routinely received from my mother.
My son, when he was in graduate school, would go and when he had a difficult day he would sit at my father’s grave and essentially talk to him. My son never met him, but he always felt this connection to him as did so many relatives in the family. So, he really made an impact on my life and it leads me to consider one of the differences that I think is so pronounced with men: That is either acedia on one point or desire on the other.
Is “Good Enough” Sufficient in Life?
Raubolt: Acedia is a flattening out, it’s an acceptance that it’s “good enough”, “it’s fine”, “just go on.” The analogy is often made to like living in a warm oven; it’s comfortable enough. Desire is where there’s passion, the emotions; where there’s a zest for life, willingness to take chances. It is the difference of Fred dying in his office chair and my wanting to swim across the lake.
And I think that is a crucial distinction of how much desire to have in one’s life and how much acedia, but acedia in a confined way that has to do with acceptance of what is good, not accepting the prospects of any decision in life focused only on avoiding danger. Life is full of danger and that’s where the, carefully titrated, that’s where the excitement, exhilaration, and success comes from.
Behavioral Changes as Men Age
Flood: You see, specifically with men and aging, particular challenges. From what I’m hearing from you, there are just different ways in which men can age. Some men become sweeter, some become more vulnerable, some become more open-hearted and they’re not buying into this more narrow version of masculinity: “I just have to be tough and stoic.” And then others, it sounds like you’re saying, they kind of fade away or maybe they get cantankerous and irritable because of lack of meaning, and they didn’t fulfill their dreams. Or feeling left behind. So aging creates a lot of stress, meaning, and emotion for men.
Raubolt: True. And since you invited me on this podcast, I did some reading [Flood: Laughs “Okay. Imagine that!”] and I looked at what is the normal course of aging on a general level. And as men grow older, they grow more positive. That there’s what they call a “positivity effect” where some of the higher intense emotions, like exhilaration or enthusiasm taper off, but there’s this acceptance of calm. Which is really related to differences in the brain structure and all of that.
I think that helps explain why people can be so puzzled by what they see as a change in behavior. One that’s been so dynamic in life, more sedate—and not in an acedic formulation, but more in a sense of contentment. The world shrinks down, by choice. And, in smaller numbers, men can manage the world much better. But they’re not routinely given to the same level of anger that younger men are and I think that too has a developmental aspect to it. That the anger, if it comes, is when the challenges facing any men are just too much and they wear down over time. But initially, they’re actually better able to manage conflict than younger adults but, when it’s too prolonged, that’s where it gives way and it can be irritation and anger.
Letting Go of Societal Expectations
Flood: I often hear the phrase, “He’s softening with age.” The other side of that is hardening. I think that sometimes young men because their physicality and vitality allows them to have more of that pose, that masculine, “You must reckon with me.” That imposing figure and then, as that physicality begins to fade in some ways or soften, then I wonder if men feel less pressure to have to perform masculinity in its rigid sense and be more human.
Raubolt: As I was reading up on the literature, one of the things that struck me is that men can feel actually relieved about entering the final stages of life, because the pressure of having to perform, to produce, plan out their rest of life is lifted from them. I think with the younger men, roughly, we can say they’re on the first mountain, older men are on the second mountain. The first mountain is the driven initiative, creating a life, making your mark on the world. After you’ve accomplished that, or much of it, what comes next? The focus switches from self-interest, out. It is more of a giving away than a taking in. There’s this ethos of compassion, of looking out for the greater good, of connecting more with the outside world.
Finding New Purpose
Raubolt: I co-lead a group we’re calling the “Rough Riders,” and they’re all men who have been very successful in life. Very powerful men, driven to success, who have accomplished a great deal. Who now, approaching retirement, feel alone, I think. Their social roles have been diminished, and they don’t have the same kind of name recognition that they had. But, one gentleman was saying this morning how much this group has meant to him (that was seconded by others) and having a place to talk about these things openly, without judgment. And the recognition that we’re all in this together and what needs to happen to feel like retirement is something that you finally have the time to do that you haven’t had time to do before. And, often it shows up in social issues; gun control, those kinds of things.
Flood: You’re a film aficionado. Did you see “About Schmidt” with Jack Nicholson? He had a corner office, and he retired, and then his wife died shortly after that. He was a mess. He was isolated and so that’s when he got his Winnebago and started driving to visit his family and visit his kids. Then he started writing to this orphan boy and he started coming to life. I think that that’s sometimes what some men might struggle with the advent of aging and death coming: “Have I wasted my time?” Looking back with reflections. “I didn’t hit the home run,” ya know?
Another movie that I loved is “Nebraska.” The guy’s son took him all the way across the state of Nebraska to claim his sweepstakes win and he knew it was a sham, but his dad needed to have a dream, needed to have something that gave him a reason to get up.
Raubolt: It’s about purpose. It’s about living with purpose. It’s about retiring with purpose. I don’t think we ever lose that if we’re inquisitive about life and we want to develop our resources as far as we can go. Again, with this Rough Rider group, men haven’t stopped learning. They stopped working at the job that they had but they haven’t stopped learning and they’re moving through.
Having the Courage to Age Well
Flood: I am not, obviously, retiring quite yet but being a new grandfather—and, I work from home Mondays and Fridays, and I’m writing reports and such—I find myself, just like “gosh, I gotta figure out just a day to be with my granddaughter only.” I toggle in and out of her life quite a bit because she lives close by. But, as a father, I was ready to go out into the workforce and just ready to tackle the world and now I feel that energy of just wanting to slow things down and having more time for relationships. I think that’s one of the beauties of aging is recognizing the importance of relationships.
Raubolt: It’s also about loving. I wrote down this quote by W. H. Auden, “Love your crooked neighbor, with all your crooked heart.” I think that sums up things well. If we can accept and love some of the failings as well as the successes, then we are living in a more balanced world and we are likely to have a more resilient relationship.
Flood: Yeah. So aging, as we wind down, is definitely not for the weak. To do it well takes courage, it takes a lot of internal strength and a lot of love.
Raubolt: It takes a lot of love and it also takes avoiding what Hemmingway called those “dirty easy labels.” That it’s easy to label somebody and therefore dismiss them more easily than do the tough work of really looking at what is true and what is not, what values do you wish to uphold, where do you wish to stand in the world? I want to stand on the edge of it.
Flood: Well, you have my admiration and I will follow your lead.
Conversations With Men About Aging
We all age differently. Some of us will be healthy and vibrant at 90 and others may feel old before their time. How we view the process of aging can make a difference in how fully we live our lives. This conversation doesn’t imply that aging is easy but it does give assurance that none of us has to go through the process alone. It also reminds us of the importance of finding balance throughout our lives and not only as we approach the end. If you’re interested in joining a conversation with other men about the challenges of living a more balanced life and aging well, connect with the Men’s Resource Center about our in-person and online men’s support groups.
Contact us online or at (616) 456-1178 for more information about our counseling, coaching, and consultative services. Also, feel free to reach out to us if you have questions about this segment, ideas for a topic, or would like to be a guest on the Revealing Men podcast.