Since I turned 60 I’ve been thinking about growing old. Despite the general lack of longevity in my family, with each passing year, the likelihood that I might one day become an old lady is increasing. And, while I have a ways to go yet, I’m considering the kind of old woman I’d like to be.
In my profession, I have been blessed to spend time with a number of people, mostly women, who have experienced a century of life, give or take a few years. Some of them seem to do it with such grace, while others (… I’ve re-written this so many times that I think I’d better just say…) don’t do it with so much grace. So, which kind might I become?
Truth be told, I suspect I’ll have my good days and my bad days, just as I do now. One of the things I’ve observed about old people is that they don’t suddenly become different people simply by the passage of time. They tend to be who they have always been, only more so. If they were kind and loving when they were young, they tend to become even kinder when they’re old. If they were mean and vindictive when they were young, they tend to become even meaner when they’re old. It’s a bit unnerving to think that as I grow older I will probably reveal my true self to the world.
As I have often observed, old people have lots of reasons for sharing their unhappiness with others. Their lives are all about loss. Just think about how it must feel to be the last one of your siblings standing. Imagine having no remaining peers. I can’t get my head around one day finding myself in a place where no one around me can remember what it was like the day that Kennedy died. The loneliness of old age is exacerbated with the isolation that comes from losing so much of our capacity to interact with others because of our diminishing ability to hear or see.
The world that we once commanded in all its fullness gradually becomes smaller for us as we age. Surely a senior citizen’s worst day is the one where they have to relinquish their car keys, knowing that for the rest of their lives they will be dependent upon other people for something as simple as picking up a loaf of bread. And then, there is the humiliation that comes when you realize that even if someone picks you up in their car and takes you out, you have to be ever mindful of the nearest restroom, lest you get caught in a situation where you can’t get to it in time. And let’s not forget how you are forced to obsess over the most inconsequential details of life, not because you have grown petty, but because you are so afraid you are going to forget something important that you have to hang onto it with the tenacity of a two-year-old who has been told not to say a dirty word.
Oh, I could go on with this, but I think you get my point. Yes, I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately and I’ve had a revelation. I've changed my viewpoint about growing older. It had seemed to me in the past that growing older is primarily about loss. I think a lot of people see it that way and that’s why they spend so much time pushing against it. Few people like to admit to being old and they will resist the notion for as long as they can. But I’m thinking that’s not the way I want to do it. If I should live long enough to become a bona fide old lady, it’s my hope that I will do a lot more than resist and resent it.
This is the other side of my previous blog post where I talked about how a big part of growing from childhood into adulthood is discovering what the possibilities and limitations in our lives are. But that’s not the task of growing older. As I see it, growing older is about accepting our limitations and being at peace with them. Notice I’m not saying that we need to fight against our limitations for as long as possible and then ultimately resign ourselves to the inevitable, which is what I often see among those who are approaching old age. I’m talking about being at peace with where your journey has brought you.
I’ve seen so many older people come to this place in their lives and they have taught me about what matters the most. It’s not about achieving social status, or acquiring a bunch of stuff. It’s not about all the things you accomplished or didn’t accomplish. In fact, it’s not about what you’ve done at all. I know it’s a cliché, but it's true that once you can no longer prove your worth by doing, you can finally appreciate the value of being.
I will know that I’ve arrived when I’m more concerned about being than doing. When I’ll have nothing better to do with my life than live into the person God created me to be. A big part of that is coming to terms with the fact that I am a finite being. One day my heart will stop beating and my brain will shut down. It’s the ultimate limitation, the one that we all face. I’ve done a pretty good job of pretending it’s never going to happen for most of my life. As I get older, it’s becoming more difficult to dismiss it.
I don’t know whether or not I will live to be an old lady, and if I do, I don’t know what kind of an old lady I will be. But it’s my prayer that I will be one of those people who grows old gracefully, at peace with the limitations of my life.