The wisdom of age
I celebrate my 67th birthday this month, and I’m telling everybody! How else am I sure to receive birthday wishes? Or a nice dinner and cake? Or, best of all, gifts?
Now among folks in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, age 67 is nothing to brag about. Among the under-40 crowd, however, grave questions may arise: When are you going to retire? Are you able to walk unassisted? Can still you eat solid foods?
I am blessed with good mental and physical health, a loving spouse and children, a nice home, financial security, a rewarding ministry in the community where I live and the Unitarian Universalist religious tradition I love, and an ever-deepening faith.
So, I’m not sure: Is turning 67 a big deal or not a big deal at all?
The more important questions are these: What have I learned? How have I grown up? Where have I deepened?
I am in the third and final act of life. Childhood and youth are but distant memories. The lights on the middle years of family, career, and the fervid acquisition of homes and material things are dimming. Now raising the curtain on the later years, I seek to enter the stage of wisdom and self-actualization — and the hope of leaving a legacy in the family and community where I once lived and served.
The odds of a long third act are in my favor: I’m white, educated, married, financially secure, a nonsmoker, a moderate alcohol user, a committed walker, and suffer from no chronic diseases. So that gives me a 75-percent chance to live until age 84 and a 50/50 chance to make it until age 92. I’ll take those odds. I’d rather count up my years than count down my days.
So I believe it is possible to talk about mortality without being morbid, to look back without nostalgia or regret, and to look forward without fear or dread. Rather, I wish to accept and honor the time I am given, to be thankful each and every day, to keep living a life of meaning and purpose, and to savor the present moment. I find that open-eyed awareness of my mortality brings comfort and hope, new possibilities, and the affirmation of life.
As the realization of my finite earthly life preoccupies me at this time, I’m looking back, doing a life review, and trying to name the key moments and passages in my life from a higher and broader vantage point by softening my gaze, reserving my judgment, and seeing the broad shape of my life. What was once significant becomes less so. What once seemed trivial and fleeting takes on new meaning.
Looking back is not the same as going back, as the poet Wendell Berry writes, “No, no, there is no going back. Less and less you are that possibility you were.” On the other side of those truthful words, I hear a positive message as I enter into my elderhood, “Yes, yes, there is only going forward. More and more I am the possibility that has yet to emerge in my age and wisdom.”
My life, even in my later years, is still a work in progress. My progress and formation, however, are less about striving and more about being, about letting go of ego and letting in grace.
What I find helpful is to be both participant and witness to my life-affirming process of aging. I am at once in the process and outside the process, both actor and audience, being myself and seeing myself. This way of observing and reflecting upon myself in this third act of life makes my aging a spiritual practice.
I choose to age consciously, maintain fearless awareness of my certain death, and eat a big slice of cake every birthday.
Photo: Mohegan Park, Norwich, Connecticut