Getting older, it has been said, is not so bad considering the alternative. Many people would not choose to age if there were no such consequence; yet if the only alternative were to have to retain the same mindset as we had when young, many people would still prefer to age. Several of my friends who gathered in the clubhouse today said that they would not want to be seventeen or twenty-five again. Adolescence and young adulthood certainly have their angst. I suspect that if we really thought about it, we may not want to be thirty-five or forty again, either. Once adulthood is in full swing, the angst has gone considerably underground, but it is still there. We are at the top of our game, but to stay there, we can’t stop running.
With age, we stop running. The level of true self-worth goes up, the false ego softens. This happens naturally and sometimes with a sigh of relief. Often the shift follows a series of losses. I mentioned in my last post that recent research tells us old people are overall happier than younger people. If youth and attractiveness were really as important as the imagery everywhere present in our culture suggests, this wouldn’t make sense. In fact, many of our attitudes toward aging, and death, for that matter, reflect a huge shadow projection of our youth-oriented culture.
Other cultures don’t necessarily share our bias against aging. When I was traveling in Asia, One of the first questions people asked to strike up conversation if riding next to me on the bus or at a restaurant was, “How old are you?” Although I had heard about this, and even though I prided myself on having a positive view of aging, I was automatically taken aback by this questions. Cultural conditioning has taught me that this is an impolite question. You don’t ask a lady her age!
Instead, we might ask someone “What do you do for a living?” How polite is that, when you think about it? It’s almost like asking someone how much money they have, since we all have some idea what various professions earn. People in Asia rarely ask that question. Of course, in Asia, being older is nothing to be ashamed about, just the opposite: It is a matter of pride. One has that much more living experience, greater wisdom, and the strength to survive. It is as if with every passing year one has earned a higher degree in the University of Life.
A man in Jamaica once said to me, “Life is full of little holes.” So it is. At each age, something is less than satisfactory. Childhood, supposedly carefree, is burdened by a lack of self-determination. Adulthood is burdened by the responsibilities of parenthood and making a living. The retirement years, while relieved of some mundane responsibilities, is burdened with a loss of physical strength. On the other hand, life is an amazing journey and filled with delight at every age and stage. People who have lived longer have had more opportunity to become the best we can be. It is something to be proud about and something deserving the honor and respect of others.
When I refer to myself as old, people immediately respond, “You’re not old.” They mean, I guess, that it’s not yet time to give it all up and sit quietly in my rocking chair. But when is it ever time for that? When I say I’m old, what people should say is, “Congratulations! You made it!” Hopefully I’ll live to be older, but let’s face it, I may not. They don’t give you social security and medicare because you’re not old. I’ve survived childhood. I’ve survived youth. I’ve survived intoxicating substances. I’ve survived parenthood. I’ve survived uninspiring jobs and cranky bosses. I’ve survived taxes. I’ve survived travel. I’ve survived graduate school. I’ve survived marriage. I’ve survived crossing city streets numerous times. Aging is not a bad thing. It’s a great achievement.