You have probably noticed. Regulars here will remember that I turn 65 in August. I’m wrestling with that inevitability. Mostly, how can this be? Once again “old people” were right — it descends upon us faster than we can imagine.
Getting an AARP card at 50 is dismissed as a playful hoax, especially now that the organization has dropped “association of retired persons” from its moniker. Most 50 year-olds are at the height of their careers. Many parents are paying far more in college tuition for their kids than contributing to their IRAs.
Even at 60 I was full-throttle in my career. The occasion was marked with a great celebration in our back yard with 60 of my closest and dearest friends. Awards were given to the top five winners of the “How Well Do You Know Richard?” trivia contest. Organizers regaled us with a hilarious skit, “Richard, This is Your Life!”
But 65 is different! More and more people in elevators, fellow customers in stores, even neighbors out walking with their dogs now unreflectively refer to me as “Sir”! I can no longer claim to be taking “early” Social Security. And try as I might, I must not ignore those infernal mailings from the federal government assuring me that I am being automatically enrolled in Medicare.
Don’t get me wrong! I want to be 65! The age is not the issue. It’s just that tables are turned on us so fast. No longer do I feel a creation of my past. As more trappings and traits of who I was are stripped away I discover the irrefutable truth of who I am at my core. It’s as if the future has grabbed the initiative and is now apprehending me like an unknown suitor I am powerless to resist.
My perfectionism and need to “control” will surly be one of my last personality traits to succumb. Even aging is something I want to do well, as it should be done, perfectly if that’s possible. With that in mind I was drawn to a six-month project by writer John Leland who will chronicle six New Yorkers over the age of 85 as they move into their futures. [link]
Leland recounts the popular schtick — old age is presumed to be “a problem to be solved. People’s bodies broke down, their minds lost function, they drained billions out of the health care system.” That more than a stereotype, its my fundamental fear.
About five years ago I started to resent people who would say something inane like, “You don’t look 60!!!” I retained my composure by quietly telling myself, “They don’t know of what they speak! What is 60 supposed to look like?”
Here’s what I’d really like… to be part of a massive rewrite of cultural presumptions. As Leland’s series intends to chronicle, what if we began thinking of our elders/ourselves “not as a problem, but as an asset, a repository of memory and experience?”
Research actually shows that people in their 70s and 80s, far from wallowing in despair, are happier than their younger counterparts. What do “we” know that younger people do not? For almost all of human history, societies turned to the oldest people for advice and wisdom. Now, that wisdom too often sits unheard, devalued, unexpressed.
Rather than seeing ourselves as “old”, what if we initiated a cultural movement — one by one — to reclaim our full stature as wise elders? Note well, I am certainly not suggesting that we perpetuate the status quo in which too many of us pretend to be “young.” That’s precisely the trap which holds us bound and the foolishness that’s sure to frustrate.
Growing old isn’t easy! Some wise elders have even counseled me that it was even harder than they had imagined. But still, how do we choose to proceed? No one does it perfectly. One requirement appears to be yielding control, as hard as that is for my personality-type.
Of one thing I am pretty certain, growing old well and embracing an invitation to become a true elder, is not essentially a medical problem or even determined solely by our psychological makeup. Rather, I am convinced it’s fundamentally a spiritual challenge, invitation and opportunity.
As I hurdle toward my birthday in August I am increasingly drawn to a prayer poem by the late Elizabeth Rooney, an Episcopalian from Wisconsin who seems to have fully embraced her elder-hood. I intend to take her spiritual wisdom with me into the years ahead:
I hope each day
To offer less to You,
By Your great love to be
Until at last I am
So decreased by Your hand
And You, so grown in me,
That my whole offering
Is just an emptiness
For You to fill
According to Your will.
You may learn more about Elizabeth Rooney, a “late-in-life poet” [here].