Among the many lines in Mary Pipher’s New York Times Op-Ed published last week, “The Joy of Being a Woman in Her 70s,” worth embroidering into samplers and hanging in our kitchens (or home offices), I felt, was this one: “…this pendulum between joy and despair is what makes old age catalytic for spiritual and emotional growth.”

Catalytic. What a delicious word. And what an intriguing image — of a pendulum swinging between joy and despair that is capable of spurring spiritual and emotional growth.

Mary Pipher, 72, best known for her New York Times #1 bestseller, Reviving Ophelia, is a clinical psychologist in Lincoln, Nebraska, and the author of ten books, including the just-published Women Rowing North: Navigating Life’s Currents and Flourishing as We Age (Bloomsbury), from which last week’s NYT Op-Ed was adapted. I have not yet read her newest book, but I intend to do so; and I’d urge WOW readers to do the same.

Pipher writes with precision and wisdom, as if each word, each sentence has the power to transform lives. (One of her books, in fact, is titled Writing to Change the World, which encapsulates her decades of experience as a writer and a therapist as well as her extensive knowledge of the craft of writing.) In every paragraph of her Op-Ed I found a sentence worth memorizing — or embroidering. Such as:

~  In America, ageism is a bigger problem for women than aging.

~ Those of us [older women] who grow do so by developing our moral imaginations and expanding our carrying capacities for pain and bliss.

~ Gratitude is not a virtue but a survival skill, and our capacity for it grows with our suffering.

~ Our happiness is built by attitude and intention.

~ There is an amazing calculus in old age. As much is taken away, we find more to love and appreciate.

~ We know that the joys and sorrows of life are as mixed together as salt and water in the sea.

~ Lucky women are connected to a rich web of women friends. Those friends can be our emotional health insurance policies.

~ The only constant in our lives is change. But if we are growing in wisdom and empathy, we can take the long view.

I’ve read Pipher’s Op-Ed many times now, slowly and carefully (I believe we all tend to read too rapidly these days), appreciating her wisdom — and wishing I could write about this subject as well as she. I especially appreciate that she doesn’t sugar-coat this challenging stage of life. It involves pain (as my sore back has been reminding me) as well as bliss, at the other end of the pendulum, and everything in between. I look forward to reading her books, her newest one in particular, because I see her as a guide. I’m sure you will too.

~ ~ ~

[To learn more about Mary Pipher’s books, visit her website, . And to read her New York Times Op-Ed piece in full, please go to: .]

12 thoughts on “Catalytic”

  1. Dear Bon,

    I just read your post and the Op-Ed that motivated your writing it. It’s all so true. It’s no surprise that those with less are more appreciative of what they have. Our current situation proves those who have the most appreciate nothing but their own implacable greed.

    Pipher words struck me when she writes, “Those of us who grow do so by developing our moral imaginations.” Growing older can offer a vantage point for assessing the rights and wrongs we see around us and using our life experience to do what we can to improve things. Successful or not, even the attempt to effect some small change lends contentment to my life.

    Pipher is right when she says it’s all about attitude. Age helps to understand what that really means. Thank you for your Words Of Wisdom, Bon. You are a WOW!

    Much love,

  2. Have I told you how much I love your posts? If not, consider this fan mail. Thanks so much for alerting me to Mary Pipher’s new book. Have requested it at both my local library branches. I need to read more of her books. Writing to Change the World has been a favorite for quite some time.

  3. Funny, another good friend sent me a link to that opinion piece. It was nice to read it and then, a few days later, read your thoughtful assessment of it. And yes to the emotional-health insurance policies that good friends provide! We can speak to that first hand.

    1. Yes, Barbie bff! Where would we be without our gf’s? I think you’ll enjoy knowing that I sent this post to Mary Pipher directly, and she just answered me with a sweet thank-you. Ah, the sisterhood!

  4. I am going to offer a slightly different perspective on the topic… I think Pipher’s message is important ((although not new) but seems address itself to those of us who are the very lucky ones. I hope her work also acknowledges that, in the wealthiest nation in the world, many if not most older people do not have the luxury of worrying about whether they are increasing their capacity for wisdom or gratitude. They live in extreme poverty or work into their 80s at demeaning jobs, like Walmart greeters. The median income of 80% of retired people in the US is less than $20,000. That is not much more than the property taxes on my 2 bedroom house in Oakland. And this crisis is not getting better….

    1. Thanks for this, Kim. I value your perspective. Lots to discuss over lunch! In the meantime, please see my March 2017 WOW post, “Faking Normal.” I think you’ll see that Elizabeth White’s book (just reissued by Simon & Schuster) addresses the very points you raise. As a retired person who emigrated to Mexico because I cannot afford to live in the U.S., I know exactly what you mean. But as a woman in her 70s (to whom Pipher is writing), I find her metaphor of the pendulum swinging between pain and happiness quite helpful.

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