There is a great need to reclaim the word “old” and permeate it with the qualities of gratitude, dignity, respect, integrity, beauty, and wisdom. Many of our socially-constructed beliefs about old age have been reduced to bleak statistical contrivances. The word “old” has become too plastic and malleable. It also suffers from a wide range of derogatory, prejudicial, euphemistic usage. We have confined ourselves to views and ideas about becoming old that are unremarkable and uninspiring. The modern view of old age and what it means to be old is too small and uncomfortable for us to fully inhabit.
During midlife we are required to release our youth into the past and then turn to face directly into the realities of becoming old. Throughout the second half of life, the experience of becoming old increasingly takes the form of a pilgrimage of body, mind, and spirit directly into the heart of impermanence. The deeper undercurrents of aging gradually expand the feeling of being in the world; we begin to sense a different rhythm in our movement through time. Our curiosity and imagination about the future begins to feel the persistent influence of growing old.
Becoming old is a natural phenomenon that it is impressive and extraordinary. There are incalculable ways of becoming old, just as there are myriad ways of becoming an adult. The experience of becoming old is rich in diversity, variation, and subtlety. No one experiences the felt-meaning of becoming old and the presence of oldness in life in precisely the same way as you.
In our increasingly hurried and worried modern lifestyle, we can forget that the experience of becoming old is perfectly normal. To place ourselves into contradiction with the realities of becoming old is to fan the flames of our own neuroses. The alternative to old age is far less desirable. In becoming old, we required to inhabit our deepest fears; impermanence is often the essence of the anxiety we attempt to hide ourselves from.
The feeling of becoming old places us firmly in the midst of our own insecurities and vulnerabilities. We begin to realize that the essence of becoming old is both profound humility and reverential awe in the immensity of life. To be mindful of the experience of becoming old is to fully participate in the natural wonder of life. To be sure, each one of us will have many unexpected, unique, and difficult challenges to move through along the way. The underlying ground of becoming old is to remain focused on moving through life without letting the vagaries of negativism and prejudice poison our spirit. In other words, the heart of becoming old lies in the essential challenge of finding gratitude in the midst of our own perishability.
To become old is to engage in a deep and courageous conversation with the raw elements of life. Our task is to develop a sense of belonging to dynamics in life that our imagination cannot fully grasp or completely understand. Our courage originates in the effort to turn toward and lean directly into the source of our fears associated with becoming old. We are most courageous when we meet the inevitable difficulties and challenges of aging with a creative spirit.
We are all artists of life. Becoming old is a work of art.
Ways of Old
In our youth, our consciousness of life is both limited and confined. When we are young, the idea of old age is barely perceptible; old age is something that happens to other people. However, our youth inevitably takes up permanent residence in the past. As our youth is burned away in the crucible of midlife, we move through a primary threshold in life and begin walking toward an entirely new, unfamiliar, and immense horizon.
Youth is perishable. An important truth about our youth is that it will vanish. In one moment we can feel as though we are “in” our youth, and in the next we wonder where it has gone. All youth is transient and eventually takes up permanent residence in the past. One of our most important tasks in midlife is to let go of our youth in order to open up new creative space in our life. There is no need to hold on to it anyway; it provides no consolation or insight in the second half of life.
In a certain sense, the middle passage in life is a time to grieve the disappearance of our youth and embrace the new realities of becoming old. It is a mercurial period of time in which the thought of becoming old stirs our fears, anxieties and vulnerabilities. During the mid-life transition, we gradually begin to lean into to the subtleties and mysteries of becoming old.
Chronological age is often used to establish social norms and customs. For example, the age of retirement and the receipt of public pension is socially constructed milestone generally considered to begin at age 65, which is often considered to be the “official” beginning of old age. While there is a practical need to establish a fixed age in order to coordinate public policy, it is not relevant or meaningful indicator of old age. Although we may retire and begin receiving a pension at age 65, we do not enter into the realm of “old age” by virtue of a number.
The feeling of becoming older is a fierce and humbling reality from which there is no retreat. In one sense, becoming older means building an integral relationship with death, with the finite nature of our presence here, and with the mystery of our own disappearance. Impermanence has always advised us that the end is the beginning.
Old age is a deep narrative; it is a creative endeavour in which cultivate a sense of belonging to the mysterious undercurrents of existence. From this perspective we recognize that old age cannot be reduced to our confined by mere numerical representation. The phenomenon of becoming old is an adventure into the raw nature of the human condition and the very essence of our destiny.
The ways of old is not a reference to the past; the ways of old animate our present condition and the future that has yet to come. What remains confined to the past is our youth, while the experience of becoming old and old age remains firmly planted in our present and future.
Every human life is a unique pattern of experience within incalculable patterns experience across the entire expanse of humanity. The experience of becoming old is a form of direct participation and belonging to diversity, variation, and subtlety that permeates all life.
Old age is a creative essence, not a bland generalization. To use the term “old age” as a means to lump large groups of people according to their age is a fool’s paradise. Chronological age is not adequate in helping us to understand the phenomenon of becoming old. No two people are “old” in exactly the same way. We all reflect our numerical age differently. In this sense, reducing age to a number is unhelpful and misleading.
We play games with our numerical age. For example, the phrase, “60 is the new 40” is inherently nonsensical, counterfeit, and contradictory; it is an empty slogan. Regardless of the increases in human longevity over the last century, to be sixty-years old is to be sixty-years old; the feeling of being sixty is a personal interpretation of what the experience of being sixty feels like at a particular moment in time. And as new situations and circumstances arrive, often unexpectedly, that interpretation is always exposed to sudden revision. There is no standard or common way of “being 60 years old.”
One of the most significant problems in our approach to becoming old is the extent to which we try to live in contradiction with the natural experience of aging. The avoidance of aging, or more specifically the denigration of old age, is a popular strategy for inciting fear and prejudice that becomes a marketing platform for selling a vast realm of products and services offering solutions to problems that don’t exist.
The word “old” can be used as a term of respect or disrespect. As a form of respect, old can refer to positive qualities including depth of experience, insight into life, and wisdom. As a form of disrespect, old can refer to negative qualities including burdensome, expendable, and obsolete. In other words, the use of the word “old” is highly volatile and constantly fluctuates across a wide range of use including venerable, decrepit, skilled, enfeebled, seasoned, over the hill, experienced, worn-out, wise and senile.
We have been conditioned to perceive oldness in limiting and negative ways. For example, the colour of old is grey or silver, and the boomer generation is ineptly referred to as the “silver-tsunami” or “grey wave.” The image of “an old person,” whatever that may be, tends to originate in fragility resulting from wear and tear over time. In other words, becoming old is often equated with becoming increasingly fragile and enfeebled.
Just as harmful is the portrayal of the second half of life as an extension of our youthful vigour. This “photo-shopped” version of senior citizenship is little more than a back-handed form of ageism. We often see this kind of imagery in what is often referred to as “50+” marketing, which, like a great deal of marketing and advertising, is plagued by false imagery and outrageous idealism. The very notion of a “50+ market” is impractical and irrelevant.
The idea of becoming old is often poisoned by negativism and ageism. There is an urgent need to infuse the essence of what it means to become old with a new sense of purpose and inspiration. None of this is to say that we should attempt to sterilize the inherent difficulties of aging and becoming old and promote false optimism. Becoming old is one of the most challenging frontiers of aging that we must experience; it is a journey fraught with significant physical, psychological, and spiritual obstacles.
The essence of aging in the second half of life is about finding creative ways to constantly cultivate and inspire the quality of our experience, deepen our sense of purpose, and broaden our capacity for belonging to the world we live in.
Aging is a natural and universal phenomenon that permeates all forms of life. The experience of becoming old originates in the deeper undercurrents and mysteries of our existence. In this sense, aging is our most intimate connection with the inevitability of our own disappearance.
Aging is a temporary experience, that is to say, our lives have a clearly defined beginning and ending. In this sense, the experience of becoming old is a primary connection to the earth and a natural participation in the flow and cycles of life.
Somewhere in the second half of life our consciousness shifts from time already lived to time left to live. The feeling of becoming old is unavoidably connected with the feeling of time running out, the end of life, and death itself. Aging eventually creates a seismic shift in the feeling of our presence here, a shift that changes the underlying ground of our presence here.
Aging is also a child of impermanence, and is therefore the primary source of our deepest fears. In one sense, we are only along for the ride, that is, we have no real control over the aging process. We may attempt to hide from it, but in the end there is no way to stop it, avoid it, or alter its trajectory. We might not know how our life will end, but we with certainty what the final conclusion will be. What we do have some influence over is how we get there.
Of course, the experience of becoming old is not without pain and suffering. We are not immune from tragedy, and the greater our sensitivity to the wildness of life the deeper our potential experience of grief and sorrow. As we become older, we increasingly rely on important inner resources such as resilience, humility, and gratitude.
Perhaps part of our task in life is raw endurance, to try to stabilize ourselves enough to endure the shocking range of loss that every human being experiences throughout their own lifetime. Not only are we required to endure the loss of our loved ones and friends, we are also required to endure the loss of our own strength and resilience, until it is our turn to become the loss.
All loss inspires new growth. All forms of adversity reveal important insights into our existence here. Our task in becoming old is to transmute the baser and unpleasant experiences of life into something that is infused with personal meaning and then send it back out into the world.
Our potential to experience the essence of life only expands and broadens as we get older. Contrary to the grim views of aging that plague us, the experience of becoming older in the second half of life is a period of expansion, cultivation, and harvesting. It is a threshold into the very womb of wisdom.
It may be that old age really does begin where the earth meets the sky.