One of the good things about growing older is that you have ample time to adjust to growing older. When I look in the mirror, I see a face I’ve grown accustomed to. Unlike friends who haven’t seen me for three or four decades, I don’t have to have to suddenly see the older me.
I’ve grown accustomed to my face
My breathing out and breathing in
I’ve grown accustomed to the way my hair won’t rightly lay
It won’t lie down
I will not frown.
Life is only short once it’s done. On the way, we get lots of time to drink freely and fully from the spring of life.
We live longer now than we used to. We used to have missing childhoods; now we have missing adulthoods. We used to have to hurry through life: Grow up; find a spouse; have kids; keep ‘em alive; maybe see the grandkids; check out. Now we have ample time to spread all these stages out. No matter. We can grow up after the first batch of grand children. Maturity, lately, is a slower process and we get more time to perfect and enjoy it.
At the turn of the last century we typically lived only 50 years. Then came the cures for infectious disease, and vaccinations, and better water, and better nutrition. Now we typically live about 25 years longer. In those longer lives we have more time to reach maturity. What is maturity lately?
Maturity: noun. 1. a being full-grown or ripe, 2. a being fully developed, complete, or ready, 3. a becoming due (Webster’s New World Dictionary).
Ripe, ready, due.
So, we age longer, which is good, because the alternative is worse. We live longer, which presents its own challenges, like being expected to be mature or wise. In ages past, the forty year olds had reputations for accumulated wisdom. Now, the forty year old is still hoping to get married and have kids. It’s hard to be an elder or crone with botox, uplifts and hair implants ready to deceive others and ourselves a while longer.
There are advantages, though:
Your years of investing in health insurance finally start to pay off.
Your secrets are safe; your friends can’t remember them anyway.
Your parties aren’t even noticed by the neighbors.
“All nighters” mean you didn’t have to get up even once.
We can pull wisdom from the music of our youth, if we can remember the actual words. I’m not sure I ever knew the real words, no matter how many times they were overplayed. Now they sound almost the same:
“Papa’s got a kidney stone.”
“Splish, splash, I was having a flash.”
“You make me feel like napping.”
“I am woman, hear me snore.”
“The first time ever I forgot your face.”
“I get by with a little help from Depends.”
“On the commode again.”
Some ministers make you endure their eschatology; I bring you scatology. If we can’t laugh at ourselves we’re prone to whine. Whining for forty years of old age is not a good plan. Let’s see if we can alleviate our situation and elevate this consideration to something more fruitful.
It’s hard to take advantage of a sermon like this, for only about 3% of persons actually act on the information they receive. Or maybe we could put it that only 3% of our being changes. Even that would be some help. If our lives are, as it says in Psalms, “even by reason of strength fourscore,” or five, or more, we best, as it advises, “learn to get a heart of wisdom.” How do we learn maturity in our long lives?
We have longer to have to live with ourselves and each other. Both can be problematic, and both can be a blessing. If we haven’t matured we’re stuck with our childish patterns. They never worked well, but they worked, and we tend to work them again, and again. It’s one thing to be stuck with a bad habit for a few years, but a few decades? We don’t stop learning lessons and making changes when we’re young. Some young people are already mature, while some old ones never get there. Growing stiff in body and mind is letting aging get you; flexibility and adaptability is the tonic of youth we all should sip, daily.
If you live long enough, you get to take on new eras of your lifetime. You may have been a dutiful mother and wife, but you don’t have to always be only those. You could take up watercolor painting – in Thailand. Maybe you spent much of your life in a certain profession, or even a few. An over-abundance of opportunity can scatter our desires and actions. We might drop the marginal ones and jump, both feet, into the one we really always wanted to do. Or we could do something we never expected to do. How seldom in life do we realize the radical freedom that was ours all along!
In India, life is divided into four stages: childhood, student-hood, adult-hood (house-holding and profession), and Sanyasi. Sanyasi is like retirement only more-so. When one’s obligations to spouse and children have been satisfied, one’s life is finally one’s own. In India, if a sanyasi wants to wander naked in the woods and come to the village to beg food, they do. They really do! It is an honored and supported stage of life.
We in the west need more categories than retirement, and we need more support for them. The Peace Corp needs experienced people. The kids in our own town need someone to know them and tell them things. The tourist industry needs some of your money.
But more than these opportunities, maybe you need something more vital and fulfilling than just getting old in retirement. Maybe there’s still time to realize what you should have during middle age. If you didn’t have a crisis leading to change then, maybe you can have just the change now.
George Santayana at age 48, while teaching philosophy in Harvard, suddenly he realized the futility of it all: He walked out.
Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia took 15 lovers between her ages of 46 and 67, when she died. They were all young men between 22 and 25. (Not that I, as your minister, am recommending that, though as a liberal minister, nor am I ruling it out.)
Cary Grant dropped LSD at age 54.
Carl Jung published Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious at age 59, and then, despite a severe heart attack at age 68, went on to write his best work in his 70’s and 80’s.
The elders of our society should be its glue, not its ashes. But to be the glue, to be wise, useful, and helpful, to model creative aging, we have to keep on growing in maturity. Our bodies stop growing upwards back in our twenties. Our muscles lose some tone. Our faces sag and change. But in our being we can be as young as Now. Our personalities can enter an era of creativity, contentedness and compassion.
To do this, I’ve assembled various useful reminders. I suggest you relax as you hear this, letting yourself dwell on those that make sense and rouse your soul. (I know you could also add to this list, and perhaps we’ll have time later for you to do so.)
First off, take care of your wonderful body. Though life usually structures us to live only long enough to breed, our human needs and related time frame are far more long-lasting. We’re born into relatedness. We carry our babies for months and years. We carry our elders as well, but they also carry us with the wisdom that comes of their maturity.
Eat well. We are built to crave fats and sugars because we got so little of these in our evolutionary past. Now we crave these things that kill us slowly. Our diets are wonderful, or could be. By eating lots of sugars and saturated fats we build diabetes, heart attacks, strokes, and cancer into our bodies. Simply eating more fresh vegetables and fruits and avoiding what the fast-food places are pushing will help prevent the aging diseases.
Get ample rest (including naps), eat fresh colorful foods, and exercise. Our wonderful bodies respond to the use we put them to. If you’re doing pushups, aerobics, and dancing in your 60’s you’ll probably still be able to in your 80’s. Work your muscles. Put your bones to use. Huff and puff and sweat, regularly. Use yoga and massage to stay lithe and limber. Watch out for postures and gestures that stoop you and make you walk older than you are. Instead, stand up, move with as much vigor as you can, and relish your strength. “Use it or lose it.”
Similarly, work your mind. The phrase “use it or lose it” applies to both our bodies and our mind. Play memory games with yourself. Learn something new just for the mental fun of it. Our old brains are still making neurons and synapses, that is, if we work and play in that realm. Pass on some of what you’ve learned about life and your professional area of expertise to some younger person who needs these.
If you feel so-inclined, write or video your memoir. Even if only your great-great-great grandchild reads or views it, that might be useful to them. More than that, it might be useful to you. You are the star of your own story.
But such a venture will probably also bring up your regrets, guilt, and grief. I know of no one who gets through life without some of these. They are not to be feared and avoided, but encountered, felt, learned from, and resolved. We can’t change the past. We can’t do it better than we did. The best we can do is to admit, learn, and grant ourselves the forgiveness the Lord would give. Don’t carry these emotional issues unresolved to your passing. Maybe even settle them with the living via letters or conversations, or with the departed via imagined conversations.
A lot of maturity has to do with resolving and dropping our old grief and bad habits. Years and decades of momentum need not drive you still. These old mental and emotional ruts are to be admitted and transcended. Nothing in the universe or God wants you to keep suffering with them. Drop your fear; relax your body; admit the truth; dare to be honest; dare to be new.
Our collective culture can also get stuck in maladaptive patterns. We went from the happy promise of “Make Love, not War” to making war, not love. We went from Timothy Leary’s advice to “Tune in, Turn on, and Drop out,” to buying in, turning off, and selling out. We needn’t revive the ideals of our past, but we could and should revive the ideals and passions we yet really hold.
We aren’t dead, yet. Our families, friends, and culture need our contributions as best we can make them. We needn’t adopt oldness before it adopts us. We haven’t inherited the benefits of a lifetime of learning to forget it, ignore it or timidly hide it now.
Love his writing though I mostly do, I find Emerson’s little poem about aging a bit bleak.
The losing is true dying,
This is lordly man’s down-lying,
This, his slow but sure reclining,
Star by star, his world resigning.
I know the mood, and yes, it can finally happen, but, too soon? I more favor Archibald MacLeish’s “With age, Wisdom.”
At twenty, stooping round about
I thought the world a miserable place,
Truth a trick, faith in doubt,
Little beauty, less grace.
Now at sixty what I see,
Although the world is worse by far,
Stops my heart in ecstasy.
God, what wonders there are.
To awaken to this appreciative contentedness, move from dreary passivity to deliberate activity. William Menninger, M.D., offers these components of successful maturity. Such mature persons:
Deal constructively, not passively, with reality
Adapt easily and creatively to change
Are relatively free of tensions and anxieties
Have the capacity and satisfaction of giving over receiving
Can relate to others with consistent satisfaction and helpfulness
Sublimate their hostility into creative and constructive outlets
Easy to say; harder to do. It takes a lifetime sometimes to finally admit we’re caught in futile regret, or blaming others, or self-pity, or silly old cultural roles, or misleading anger, or drained passivity, or whatever the issue and energy is that you really know isn’t the real you. And even if it took a lifetime to admit it, admit it now and transcend it. While you have life, even if you are old and feeble, you have potential. You have soul.
Break the chains of illusion and suffering while you are alive!
Do you think that ghosts will do it for you when you are dead?
The mature meet their outer and inner experiences with an open mind and a brave heart. Admit feelings; don’t submit to them. Feelings are good messengers, but they’re poor masters. We learn from them, but we also teach them. We needn’t react when we can better respond.
We can empathize with the feelings of others while not advising them to make a god of those feelings or we be the victim of their feelings ourselves. For ourselves and others, we learn how to be neither a victim nor a victimizer. We act with intelligence and sound judgment. We’re beyond confusing ourselves; we move in truth. We’re beyond living from anxiety; we’ve developed trust. What do you have to lose in the latter stages of your life but your habits and hesitation, your old, limited ego? Be new.
Those who dare to come alive during life can live fully and rest easy. Contentedness and joy can live in their heart. Satisfaction and wisdom can rest in their brain. Helpfulness and healing can flow from their hands. Gladness and awe can glow in their soul.
It’s a good thing we live longer lately. It gives us more time to meet and master this game of life. We’re not dead yet. We may be slower and a bit stooped, but we’re still in the game and more able now to give it our best. So give it your best. It’s now or never, for in the now is forever.
Reverend Brad Carrier
For the UU’s of Grants Pass
Grants pass, Oregon
February 3, 2008