If an eight-foot-tall skeleton draped in a heavy black cowl and cape and carrying a scythe were to tap on your shoulder and say, “It’s time to go. You’ve got two minutes to collect your thoughts then I’m going to take you,” how would you react? Would you get up and try to run away? Would remorse and unfinished business and people you need to talk to flash before your eyes? Or would you reflect for a moment, shrug, and say, “Okay. Let me just finish my cup of tea.”
Societal Pressure To Stay Young
We live in a time in which our culture seems to regard growing old as a bad thing, as something to fight. Our work environment is full of age discrimination (despite the legislation passed to prevent it); both men and women die their hair; and cosmetic plastic surgery to remove the signs of aging is increasingly common. As a general matter we don’t seem to value growing old.
We seem to regard equate growing old with wearing out, to regard increasing age as a sign of decreasing relevance. The cultural norm is to discount the value of older people. As a result we resist the effect of aging on our bodies both through superficial, cosmetic means, but also through regimens of exercise and diet. How often do you meet someone for the first time after looking them up on LinkedIn and find they look nothing like the picture that was taken twenty years ago!
Why do we succumb to these pressures and invest such a huge amount of energy in staying young, fighting a battle over which we really have no control, rather than playing ju jistsu and leveraging growing old to our advantage?
A Conversation With Four Young People
Our cultural tendencies are deeply ingrained, so much so that it is perhaps hard to look honestly at the question of growing old. It is much easier to accept what we hear and delude ourselves.
A few years ago I moderated an interfaith panel of four people in their early 20’s on the topic of difference. One question the panel discussed was to identify the most difficult difference they experienced: was is race, religion, socio-economic, etc.?
The panel initially concluded that it was none of these, but rather age: each panel member found it far harder to have a conversation with an older person of their same race, faith, and socio-economic status than with a younger person very different than themselves. But on further discussion and reflection they shifted in their view and decided that age was actually not the problem and that they had older friends. Rather the real problem, they decided, is that as most people grow older, they close themselves off, become more judgmental and limited. While we want to be accepted by others, most of us live in a way that separates.
But those among us who do remain sincerely interested and engaged with all areas of community and society, this panel seemed to say, are perceived differently.
“The Big Four-Oh”
Yesterday somebody told me that she was crossing “The Big Four-Oh” and wasn’t sure how to react. I was reminded of my 40th birthday when colleagues at work threw a party with black gifts, unkind jokes, and the general theme that this was a really bad day in my life. But as I told the lady I spoke with yesterday, I am now 51 and entering the best decade of my life. I know that death will eventually come for me, and that’s okay. What is important is what I do today, and I am able to do what I want and am really enjoying it.
Somehow in our society it has become rude to ask an adult their age. Kids are proud of getting old, and will make sure they even remember to give you the months for that extra lift (“I’m not four, I’m four-and-a-half”), but as we get older, we adults obfuscate, avoid, and even lie. Very few would have the self-confidence to offer up their age voluntarily as my telephone interlocutor did. When do we cross the threshold of no longer being willing to talk of our age? Why do we become ashamed of our years?
Growing in Wisdom
But growing in wisdom is not automatic; it requires a particular attitude, a willingness to embrace what we are and what we are becoming and to look at ourselves honestly. And wisdom is also a fickle, elusive idea. Learning to manage “the system” to our advantage to accumulate wealth and reputation is certainly a sign of experience, but is it a sign of growing wisdom?
Wisdom is about developing sound judgment, about the quality of being wise. It is easy to assert wisdom but hard to validate it. At its heart wisdom is perhaps something that we can only see in others and not in ourselves. We equate wisdom with attributes such as peace, compassion, balance; with someone who has the ability to ask probing, meaningful questions that help us see ourselves more deeply, help us grow; with someone who is not caught up on appearances or possessions, someone who is solid as a rock.
No one cracks jokes about the Dalai Lama’s age, or that of Pope Francis or your own pastor or imam. We all have examples in our lives of older people who we value as counsels, as sages. And with that status we don’t so much forgive age, but embrace it. We see these people as the remarkable few who carry their years lightly, being almost child-like in their simplicity and joy of life, and at the same time have learned deep lessons that they share with others out of compassion. But is this not a life that each of us can embrace? Is this not a way of being into which you can also grow?
How Do You Live Wisdom?
Whether we can see wisdom in ourselves or not, we know it is important: but do we demonstrate that value of our own wisdom in the way we live our lives?
It is possible to remain extremely healthy and fit as we grow older, and many will run marathons into their fifties and way beyond. A friend of mine observed that when he sees an older athlete on an Iron Man, in the features of their face he can see them riding their pain, whereas in a younger athlete he sees the pain riding them. As we gain in years, we gain in our ability to related to our bodies and their foibles in a more mature, dispassionate way. While the athlete might not put it in these terms, perhaps this is about the spiritual journey of recognizing the frailty and transience of our flesh and gaining some distance, not allowing ourselves to get so caught up in it. There is wisdom to be found in this.
Not all will grow old in the manner of the Dalai Lama. My father’s trajectory, for example is very different, but I think offers many lessons. And his is a more common story, and likely similar to that of many folk you know.
When Dad retired from his career as a surgeon he seemed to lose his bearings, and Mom’s death a few years later took away whatever hold he still had on purpose. His ground of being was ripped away and he had no idea why he was here or what to do. But slowly, over the years that followed, he learned and pulled himself together and moved into a quite beautiful life. He bought a dog who he takes for a walk every day, and has regular lunches with a small group of friends; he has taken up croquet, a gentle social game; and he reads voraciously. Above all, though, he no longer holds onto who he is supposed to be or what he is supposed to do. Whether he has accepted that he is not always right, or just decided not to argue, the judging father who used to hurt me so much has fallen away. And like so many grandparents, he has found profound joy in his grandchildren, and interacts with them in simple, childish ways. He has developed a level of peace, an ease of being, which are simply beautiful to be around.
As Sir George Bernard Shaw once said, “Youth is wasted on the young”.
The converse of this is that age is a state of mind. The youth panel discussed earlier in this piece said that when an older person is open, curious, and playful, the barriers of communication disappear. One 22-year-old panelist talked of his 60+ friend with great affection.
The question Death asked of you by to open this piece is similar to the exercise of writing two obituaries: one for the life you’re living, the other for the life you wish to live (put forward in last week’s piece, “Search Inside Yourself“); it is similar also to reflecting on the conversation you’d like people to have at your graveside (described in the first article in my 10-week e-course cultivating on mindfulness). This is ultimately the question of the meaning of our lives. Perhaps the darkest side of the societal pressures to avoid aging is that it pushes us away from really examining this question.
And that is a tragedy.
We all know that the wise person, the person who has lived a good life, would smile at Death and walk beside Him with head held high. Is this not how you would like to greet Death? There are some simple things that you can do to move in that direction, and they are about mindfulness. Each of the links above to Search Inside Yourself and to the e-course will take you to a place where you can look more closely at that journey and develop tools and techniques – or enhance those you already have – to allow you to age a little more gracefully and to cultivate wisdom.