This month–October–I will be 77 years old. Not 77 years young, and I beg those who favor that euphemism to stop using it. It infers that aging is so bad that it needs to be cosmeticized. There are a lot of people that feel that way; in truth, the whole business of being unhappy with growing old has become institutionalized. It is usual to joke about it, but the humor is always dark and sometimes gallows. Industries–billion dollar industries–exist for the sole purpose of hiding age in one way or another, even though every wrinkle cream is seen for what it is by anyone who cares to look. But aging is only an enemy when we make it so. It is not aging that is our enemy, but decrepitude, and the stereotypes of aging our culture encourages us to accept.
Decrepitude, the loss of function and vitality, eventually comes to most of us unless we die young and healthy, but much and often it is something we bring on ourselves by disrespecting our body and mind. On top of that, we are forever adopting the negative views and distortions of old age that surround us. How better to throw away the personal power and vitality we own at any moment in our lives than to buy into the black balloons, the “over the hill at 40,” or “old people are weak, lonely, forgetful, and burdensome.” It is not that life may not force us into situations where one or more of these conditions is our lot; the problem is owning them before they’re ours because they are part of a common view of aging.
So here I am at 77, neither decrepit nor pumped full of negative thinking about aging. For the past few weeks I have been anticipating this birthday, not to celebrate the day but to take stock of where I am at this moment in my life. I have done that, pretty much, and will share some of it with you. Not as advice, but in the manner of an open letter which you’re welcome to read if you care to. Some of the things will appear so obvious the critical importance of them may not be obvious; others may be irrelevant or make no sense. But if you remember I am writing these things down for me, as stock-taking, then it will be OK.
First of all, here is a list of the things I have done less well. I have not succeeded in getting rid of all the excess weight I carry. I have often not been courageous in the face of physical or emotional threats. I have not been a warm and caring parent or husband. I have often indulged anger at myself or others, knowing how destructive angry feelings are.
And here is a list of the things I have done better. I have lived, and lived well, within my means. Except for a home mortgage and car payment I am debt free. I am mentally and physically active: walking and writing are necessary parts of my daily routine. I am reasonably knowledgeable about diet and nutrition: I avoid red meat, most heavily processed foods, and sugar; eat lots of fruit, nuts, seeds, chicken, and fish–often organic. I do anonymous acts of kindness when I can recognize a need. In offering arguments or disagreements, I have learned to choose my battles carefully, and have become more successful in avoiding them. I understand what it means to live in the present moment, and why that’s beneficial. My journey at this stage in my life is live in the here-and-now, and gain greater access to that reality that transcends our sensory experience. And there is one last thing I am getting better at: letting go of the things age takes away. It started with my hair, of course, but advanced to things I cared about more. My sexual enthusiasm has faded, and I can no longer run distances of 10 or 15 miles as I once could. I miss those things, but there would be no better way to ruin the life I have left than to cling to or ruminate about them. And for everything that I have lost, I have found a new thing of interest to replace it.
I feel that, however many calendar years remain, I have important things to do: learning to care more and love unconditionally, for example. And living in the exact moment I have to live in, Those tasks seem important to me, and worth the time and energy I expend on them. If you’d like to give me a really nice present for my birthday, wish me well with those tasks. And if you ever choose to make those goals your own, I will wish you well, too.