Sometime ago, a friend who had just celebrated his 84th birthday observed, "You know, when I was young, I thought I knew what being in my eighties would be all about. But now that I am well into the experience, I realize that I don't know at all. Oh, sure, I have aches and pains that I didn't experience in the past and I move more slowly. But inside, life feels much as it did in my thirties and forties."
Thanks to his observation, I found myself musing about the experience of aging. Here are some provisional conclusions I've drawn that might be helpful in doing what we all do, if we are lucky enough to check another birthday off the calendar:
One: Everyone ages, not everyone gets old.
Yes, the Rod Stewart song, "Forever Young," can be a saccharine theme song, bolstered by Botox and hair dye. And, if being forever young were as simple as the physical effort to do what we did when we were eighteen, it would only take one really long run to remind most of us that "forever young" of one kind isn't possible.
But the youngish frame of mind that engages life with energy and hope is a different matter. The faith that things may change, but that God can be trusted to stand along side of us when we find ourselves facing new horizons is a different kind of forever young: One that sees life as a much larger and endless journey into a God who loves us better than we love ourselves.
So, by all means, let's sing out with Rod in the privacy of our own automobiles. But let's also remember that "forever young" is not the same thing as "forever adolescent."
Two: Aging can offer new gifts and graces.
When my friend observed that even in his eighties he felt much the way he did in his
thirties and forties, I don't think he meant that he navigated life without the benefits of the wisdom that second half of his life has to offer. I think he meant that the feelings he projected onto people in their eighties weren't anything like the interior experience.
Aging can rob us of strength and endurance, but it can enhance our grasp of life's subtleties. It can plane off the rough edges of our behavior. It can make us more forgiving, less anxious. We can even find a greater measure of humility and inner strength.
But learning those lessons and others like them requires attention. Allow the perspective that comes with aging to teach you.
Three: Aging reminds us to look beyond the boundaries of our lives.
There is much in our culture that teaches us to look out for ourselves and, because that lesson is disguised as the responsible, adult thing to do. So, it is easy to mistake selfish behavior for responsible endeavors.
Aging underlines the futility of an anxious, self-serving lifestyle. It also alerts us to the value of giving ourselves to efforts and people who will outlive us.
Four: Aging can teach us what matters.
Far too often we major on the minor and minor on the major. In the moment some things loom large that don't deserve to claim our time and attention.
It is easier to name some of those concerns with the benefit of time. Allow that perspective to change your behavior and let life's small stuff take a back seat where possible.
Five: Don't let yourself be "profiled" by your age.
Some years ago I visited a member of my church who lived in a nursing facility. She shared a room with another woman and, when I arrived, they were both out of the room. So, I waited.
Her roommate had a picture on her dresser that showed she and her twin sister on the flying trapeze. Considerably younger, then, it was an important lesson.
As my 84 year old friend noted, we tend to profile life from the outside. We assume that to be older falls into a category of behaviors. It is easy to be treated like a "retiree," a "grandfather," or a "grandmother;" as someone who is finished be creative; as someone without a past or without passions, goals, and commitments.
Some of those labels are not bad things. Being a grandparent, for example, is a wonderful thing.
But it's important for us to remember as we age, even if others don't, that we should not let ourselves be profiled. You are God's gift to the world in the making and, seen from a spiritual perspective, life is much longer journey than even the one we are on now.