It’s strange to be aging, isn’t it? It doesn’t matter if you’re in your 20s or 60s, getting older is a remarkable experience. As I move through my 50s, I see more and more of my life when I look over my shoulder and I no longer have the feeling of limitless horizons in front of me. Whatever is ahead, it’s not limitless.
I have a friend who looks at a tape measure and finds the number of inches corresponding to his age. He takes in the distance between the end of the tape and his place at 70 something. Then he puts his finger at another 10 years, another 15 years. The visual on this exercise is startling. What happened to all those years of our life, and when did we move so close to our last day?
For at least a decade now I’ve been watching my elders and trying to figure out how to age gracefully. Every now and then I meet a remarkable elder. They have a twinkle in their eye, they laugh a lot, they’re curious and interested and they’re wonderfully authentic. I want to grow up to be just like that.
I’m convinced the great keys to aging gracefully are staying in intimate connection with ourselves every single day, no matter how old we are, and embracing change like a lover. Without consent and resilience, aging becomes a bitter battle to the end.
So many of us, as we age, live increasingly in the past. It’s understandable. We’ve been, done and seen a lot. The problem is as the years roll over us we don’t update our software. We hang on to what we were, what our bodies could do, how it all was during a time we remember as the best time (or at least a better time than now). We continue to define ourselves by outdated habits and routines. I’m not sure if this is a function of nostalgia or weariness or just plain laziness, but somewhere along the way we cross some invisible finish line, stop paying attention to embracing how things are right now and start waiting to die.
As our software gets more and more out of date, incompatibilities arise between how we show up in the world and our stories and memories. We lose credibility and effectiveness.
It seems to me the day we stop being curious about what we might learn, do or be next is the day our lives really end. People who age gracefully still have plans. They still dream. Their thinking remains flexible, even if their bodies don’t. They find some magical balance between letting go and moving forward. Change becomes a beloved friend rather than a feared enemy.
It’s not hard to see this in small external ways. We hang on to clothing, for example, that no longer fits, or was fashionable for a fleeting moment fifteen years ago. We hang on to books or movies or music we once loved and couldn’t do without, but now have outgrown. I don’t suggest there’s anything wrong with such nostalgia, but I do think all that stuff can pile up around us and block a clear view of what is now, or what might be ahead. Too often, the externals mirror our internal habits.
I notice many people my age still describe themselves by a job or position they no longer have. Some folks seem almost apologetic about being retired, as though they’ve lost personhood in the world, have become nobody. Others tell you all about some beloved skill or activity, how they practiced it, the ways it enhanced their life, their mastery, but never mention it was all long ago and right now, today, that activity is no longer part of their lives. Their lives have changed, but they haven’t updated their sense of identity. They’re stuck in their past and missing their present. They dangle in the empty gap between who they were and the stranger they are now.
I think some people feel angry about aging. We want our bodies to look, feel and perform the way they used to. We refuse to adjust to our present physical realities because they don’t match what we used to be able to do. We’re ashamed of our changing bodies rather than comfortable in them. We fear the changes the years bring and try to hide them or resist them.
Then there are people, amazing people, who know the trick of beginning over and over again throughout their lives. They spend their professional years as a lawyer and then retire and become an artist. A woman marries, works, raises a family and then, divorced and in her 60s, begins traveling all over the world. People in their 50s and 60s go back to school and acquire a new skill or a degree. They live in the day they’re in, in right now, and they’re focused on the present and future rather than the past. They accommodate their physical needs, feel at home in their skin and are constantly updating their identity, intentions, connections and contributions.
Defining ourselves by our pasts is a sad business. I know aging can feel limiting, but I think the real limiting factor in aging is refusing to participate in it! Defining ourselves by what we can’t do, don’t do or once did (but no longer) is a terrible way to live at any age, but in old age it becomes a pernicious habit indeed. After all, anyone may have physical limitations at any age. Those limitations needn’t define us unless we invite them to.
Considering what is possible, what we can do, what we’d like to do and what we’ve always wanted to do — now, there’s a set of questions for living a full, rich life, today and tomorrow. An elder who draws wisdom from years of experience and has a well-exercised sense of humor, curiosity and the ability to learn is indomitable, irrepressible and irresistible.
Life brings many things, including devastating loss, injury and illness. Every day we live we’re aging, and every day is a new gift we might choose to receive, or we might turn away and look only at the old gifts, the old days, all that came before when we were younger, better looking, stronger, more hopeful, more innocent.
I know what’s behind me. Some of it was grand and some very painful indeed, but it’s all over, good and bad. Many of the clothes I wore, the thoughts and beliefs I held firmly onto, the meaningful routines and rituals in my life, are like so many dropped leaves, fluttering in the wind of my passing. I have no idea how much time I have left or what’s in front of me, but there’s so much I still want to do! Still, I cling to the past in some ways. I tell myself such-and-such (a lovely, longed-for thing) will never happen again. I say I can’t do XYZ instead of I’ve never done it before and will you teach me how? I feel frustrated and old when I wrestle with a 40-lb bag of bird seed and my back hurts for three days. I can be just as lazy, sulky, resistant and weary as anyone else.
Yet I’m convinced enormous grace lies in aging, if we can find it. I believe aging is full of invisible gifts, insight and strength. I want that grace. I don’t want to miss the last part of my life because I’m refusing to be present with it. I want to take the time to close all my programs and apps and let my psyche and body update and reboot regularly.
Aging with grace is a work in progress. Some days are more graceful than others.
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