Is growing old getting better?
When I was young, my parents would sometimes point out the ancient rock walls seen along the side of the road here in Sonoma County – which seemed to my young eyes to have been there forever – and they would tell me how the walls had been built a hundred years before by the Chinese, who had come to help build the railroad.
I would marvel at how ancient those walls were, older than my parents and my grandparents even – and I would marvel that they were still here, a full century later. Now I drive past them and realize it’s only been 150 years since they were built – and I marvel at how ancient I’ve become, and that I’m still here.
What is it about time, that it’s seen with such a restless impatience by the young and with such a slower, seasoned perspective by the elderly – with patience if not, perhaps, with resignation? Is the unknown future an infinite and eternal, trackless journey that lies ahead, and is the past only a known path to be retraced with nostalgia or regret?
Time is so elastic – it shrinks and spreads according to our perspective, changing everything we see. I so easily remember my grandfather chewing thoughtfully on his cigar, gazing out the window across the bay at the Golden Gate Bridge. For me the bridge had been there forever. He, however, was 55 years old when it was built, and so he saw it quite differently than I.
I look in the mirror and get lost in the face that looks back at me, the now familiar face that has seen and responded to so much. I observe the wrinkles that have evolved across the dimples of my youth, and note the way they have recorded the smiles and frowns of all I have experienced. This is indeed how I have faced my life so far. There is something about being seasoned – about accumulating and registering the experiences of life over time – that contributes to the more deliberate attitude of a wise old age.
All my life, a measure of my age has been remembering how old I was when my parents were my age, and thinking of how they had seemed to me then. And I’d say, “Wow, things look so different now.” Not only has the world changed, but so have I, and my point of view. Special moments have been when my own children – now grown – have turned to me to say, “now I understand.”
Life may be divided into thirds: youth, adult, and elder. As children we explore a seemingly infinite field of experience, believing we are immortal, and enjoying the risk we take to learn our possibilities. Youth is spent as the children of adults, learning what is possible. As adults we realize this is a finite world, and begin to understand what is possible and what is not. We perseverate upon responsibilities, and become involved in being the instructive parents of our own children – while our parents meanwhile begin entering elderhood, almost without our notice.
But now I’ve come to outlive my parents, a sure sign of my own elderhood. I’ve grown much older now than my father was when he died in an accident, and this year I become the age my mother was when she succumbed to cancer. The deaths of our parents often seem to define that great third third of life, when we’ve outlived being the children of our parents and so, losing the keepers of our childhood, we become orphans.
This third third of life, elderhood, is fraught with our conflicts about the aging process. It’s hard to embrace the benefits and pleasures of these “golden” years. Our bodies begin changing in ways we’re accustomed to thinking of as disabilities. Our place in the community begins to become marginalized, while younger and more vigorous people pursue their own agendas and change the world – which will become theirs, perhaps all too soon.
Bill Thomas (a gerontologist whose rousing TED talk should be seen at www.youtube.com/watch?v=ijbgcX3vIWs) says that a very subtle ageism crops up when we brag about our old folks, using the word ‘still’ – “my father is 83 and he still drives a car,” or “my grandmother is 94 and she still lives independently.” This sort of ageism judges people according to adult skills, but not the skills of elderhood. It measures aging by measuring a loss of skill, and not by what is gained. Thomas goes on to suggest this is a form of developmental disability.
I simply can’t agree with Paul when he wrote in his first epistle to the Corinthians, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” I’m still the boy who followed the cows each morning to the milk barn, who picked apples through the summer for his school clothes, and who lay back in the hills in the evenings afterwards – dreaming of a future deep within, and far away.
Memories alone do not suffice. We must also have self-agency and self-respect – a personal authority and dignity that easily considers the opinions of others while remembering the ardent dreams of our childhood, with the tested discipline of our adult life. There is something about being seasoned, about accumulating experiences throughout time, that develops a more deliberate approach to life – and acting upon it.
We gather our identity through the experiences of life, and our responses to them. We ought not leave our history behind like those who leave their vacations behind when they go back to work. Childhood is not something we return to in nostalgia, or worse, as a slumming tourist looking for souvenirs. We always bring our childhood with us, whether we know it or not, and are surrounded and nourished today by the vistas and aromas that we knew then.
I want this old age of mine to be a time to appreciate who I’ve become. Reaching elderhood, we can finally retire the roles that we’ve had to assume. It is time to set aside the careers we built, in order to resume our greater vocation. Who we are is now called forward, who we’ve been all along but now without constraint – the one that’s been there all along, biding time like the fruit within the seed, and like the sap rising within the root. Now, finally, it is time to flourish.
And as Dr. Thomas says, the great good news is that we are all – every one of us – elders in the making.
Jim Shere is a local writer with a private practice as a counselor in Glen Ellen. You are invited to explore his website at jimshere.com, or email him at email@example.com