Aging gracefully refers to the process of moving through the second half of life with resilience and acceptance. What is good about aging? Graham Ranft from Australia posed this question to me during one of our email exchanges. During the second half of life, the process of aging lies at the root of some of the most difficult physical, psychological, and spiritual changes we will experience. In a darker sense, we might ask, “What is good about having to grow old, slowly deteriorate over time, and eventually die?” Aging is not a choice or an option; it is a biological imperative that is the underlying ground of every moment we experience.
Aging gracefully is a response to the inevitable problems and challenges associated with aging: we all hide a secret fear of moving through unavoidable process that relentlessly leads every life form on the planet into the mysterious threshold of death. This is the shadow realm of aging. The purpose of an artistry of aging is to transfigure the shadow realm of aging through creative expression. Even though we cannot sterilize our angst or eliminate our fears, we can attempt to learn from these shadow elements. In other words, the exploration of the good in aging requires a journey into the realm of our own fear, anxiety, angst, and suffering.
Finding the Good in Aging
Old age, especially as it is portrayed in the media, is often synonymous with the idea of being a burden or problem. Modern societies tend to value the bright neon light of youthful facades over the deeper and more elemental wonder, mystery, and privilege of being alive. In our modern mechanistic society we do not live as much as we endure routines in order to perform a function in a “civilized” version of survival of the fittest. The idea of finding the “good” in aging is tainted by the ageism that often permeates our cultural somnambulance.
Everything that happens to us happens while we are in our body. Every single moment we experience is imbued with the presence of aging. In our youth we tend to view the experience of youth as a developmental process of growing up, maturing, or coming of age. There is a misguided tendency to denigrate the experience of “growing old” as a period of decline dominated by physical and mental deterioration. One of our most fundamental problems is our own inability to perceive the beauty, reverence, and majesty of people in the midst of their advanced years.
Aging gracefully is a personal endeavour. We must become aware of our own underlying assumptions about old age. The presuppositions that lie at the root our thoughts and beliefs are often silent, illusive, and invisible. In other words, some of our opinions and beliefs might be built on an intellectual foundation that we are largely unconscious of. While it is obvious that the natural process of senescence will cause the body to decline, it is a mistake to assume that old age is predominantly about our decline and demise.
To find the good is aging, we must first embrace the assumption that the reality of being here in this temporary vessel we call a body is a privilege. We were not able to make decisions around the circumstances of our birth, and ultimately death and dying will approach us on its own accord. We do not know precisely where we came from before we were alive, and we do not know precisely where we will be going after our death.
In between the profound spiritual thresholds of birth and death is the privilege of being alive, and therefore the privilege of aging..
Aging and Belonging
It is surprising to find ourselves here. The sensibility of aging gracefully is closely connected to our capacity for gratitude. If our sensibilities are intimate with the belief that aging, and therefore life itself, is a privilege, a new terrain opens up before us that is imbued wonder, awe, and magnificence. When we feel grateful to find ourselves alive, our presence expands and is inspired by the incredible vitality and diversity of life that inhabits the world. Gratitude is our primary sanctuary in life.
Life is a constant flow of emergence and disappearance. Each one of us originates in an impenetrable mystery, and eventually we will disappear back into it. We do not know where we came from; we do not know where we are going to. Perhaps the role of faith and religious narrative is to provide some degree of comfort and assurances about these mysterious realms that lie beyond our comprehension. However, the surprise, wonder, and strangeness of finding ourselves here in a human body experiencing the life in front of us always lingers within.
The moment of birth is an incredible moment in life. Each one of us originates in a moment of conception, and experiences the first months of our life inside our mother’s womb. While we develop in the womb, we are an unknown gift waiting to make our emergence into the world. And then suddenly, we emerge into the world as a newborn child and become a visible presence on earth.
Aging gracefully is a deep conversation with impermanence; senescence means that we are biologically programmed to gradually deteriorate and eventually die. Those of us that have had the honour of remaining by someone’s side while they die know that the stillness and silence immediately after the moment of death is overwhelming. In one moment a person’s energy inhabited a body, and when they die the body becomes profoundly silent and still. And we are left to wonder where the energy of who they were has gone, and what our own life has now become.
From the moment of conception to the moment of death, we are all subject to the primal march of aging. Even within the realm of nature we see the forces of aging affecting everything around us. Trees, plants, animals, lakes, streams, rivers, oceans, forest, deserts, and are all subject to the forces of aging. Aging in this sense means intimacy and belonging with nature and the natural world.
Aging gracefully inspires a deep and profound sense of belonging, that is to say, aging is a universal bond that connects and brings all life together in a single planetary home. There is a sense of belonging and interconnectedness that soars far above humanity’s obsession with separation and division. A “community of aging” is innately universal, and knows of no cultural separation, economic agenda, social rituals and routines, institutional materialism, or environmental degradation.
The idea of aging gracefully invites us to recognize each moment of our experience as being unique and special. We know that our life course is fragile, uncertain, and finite. Once this universal truth is fully accepted, we embrace a companion truth – all we really have is the present moment. In other words, we no longer place our lives on hold for some imagined and idealized future. We continue to optimistically plan for the future, but we do not hold ourselves hostage to the hope for better times ahead.
Elderhood, should we be fortunate enough to reach it, is the time of the inner harvest of life. This is a wonderful phrase used by John O’Donohue in his expressing his ideas about elderhood. Our final years in life are a period of deep spiritual-ecology. Perhaps part of this aspect is that we are now (hopefully) free from the requirements of the work-a-day world and have time to reflect and contemplate.
Nor should we gloss over the profound difficulties of aging with superficial idealism; we do not magically acquire greater insight, better control of emotions, or a deeper sense of peace with the passage of time. We do not become wise merely because we reach a certain age. Just as ageism promotes a false sense of aging, romantic ideals of elderhood can also have an insidious presence. Aging as a developmental task of living remains a difficult and challenging vocation.
Suffering is a spiritual canvas that aches for the presence of luminous colours and radiant perspectives. Deep awareness and contemplation of aging is difficult and uncomfortable, yet courageous. Our greatest fears in life are often the mystic harbingers of personal growth and artistry. The blunt realities of life are often the most difficult to accept and integrate. When we pretend that aging is too painful or morbid for consideration we rub salt into the wounds of our insecurity. One of the gifts of aging is the capacity of acceptance, that is to say, aging is good because offers us the possibility of approaching life with a greater sense of clarity, honesty, and beauty.
What is good about aging? This question remains larger than any answer can offer. Perhaps it is more helpful to focus on ways to creatively engage with the question as I have briefly attempted here than it is to remain determined on trying to find and express “the” answer. Answers are transient and nomadic phenomena. However, questions have a way of remaining incredibly persistent and grounded, and finding the good in aging is imbued with a universal and eternal spirit.
The most important purpose of this question is to encourage our participation in the deeper and more mysterious elements of life. Though it requires us to walk directly into the source of our fears, anxieties and insecurities about aging, it also offers the privilege of stepping into the midst of life in order to begin an adventure across an uncertain terrain. And it is here, walking through the terrain of our own uncertainties and insecurities that we can might discover a deeper sense of gratitude, belonging, and presence in life.