Two Ways to Grow Old
Do you lament the years gone by, or bask in them?
I’m about to write a few paragraphs in which I reflect on getting older. Which I’m assuming will bore you about as much as it bores me to hear others wax on about the same thing. I think such reflection is kinda like belching: really only feels good for the person who’s doing it.
But hang in there, it won’t last long, and then I’ll share a thought more universally applicable as we near the end of another calendar year.
Lamenting Growing Older
I’m halfway dead.
I turned 38 earlier this year which puts me almost at the midway point of life expectancy for a white male in the US, and I’m totally a cliche in that I don’t feel in my mind like I’m getting older, but my body insists otherwise.
My youngest son turned 9 this week, and in our family we get donuts on birthdays. I remember in my youth I would regularly crush three to four full size donuts: maple bar, chocolate glazed, an apple fritter and maybe a few donut holes. Now? I start feeling queasy after three to four bites.
Not only is my stomach much smaller, but what I put in there is a whole lot more finicky. Too much sugar one day? Headache the next morning. Not enough water? Grouchy. Been too long since fresh fruit and veggies? Oh that’s why I feel like crap.
I keep the sides of my hair cut really, really tight. Both because I like the aesthetics of it, and, because that’s where all the gray is. (But hey, I still have a lot of great hair on the top of my head, so I’m not complaining!). And with each passing month the percentages switch between gray and brown hair in my beard, I notice more wrinkles on my face than not, and this dull ache in my lower back never really goes away.
So yeah, my body is doing what bodies do and is beginning to settle into another phase of existence.
And as for the other parts of getting older? Those moments when you reflect on where you’re at in life, especially as compared to things like the “American Dream?” In my more cynical moments I might dwell on things such as, I’m 38 and:
I don’t own a home… and who knows if/when that’ll happen;
All I’ve ever known is living month-to-month and managing various degrees of debt;
Though I’ve worked in a field that I love and feel lucky to get to do, it’s also a vocation that doesn’t pay well—because here in America we’re stuck with these antiquated puritanical beliefs that if you work in the non-profit world then you should not make very much money.
Even though we all know the American Dream is a sham, and long gone are the days when we just move up-and-to-the-right throughout life until we retire, it’s still hard to extricate those narratives and deep assumptions from our sub-conscious. Which means the impact of failing to achieve the “Dream” can still be felt even while simultaneously debunking it as an oppressive illusion.
I’m growing older, is my point, and there are moments when this reality bums me out. When I’m conscious of my changing body, and when I get caught up in what I haven’t achieved in life, then part of me wants to rage against Father Time, curse him for his unrelenting consistency.
But friends, there’s another way. One where we don’t lament the passing of days, but rejoice that we got to live them.
Realities in My Past
Recently I read Viktor Frankl’s masterpiece, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Part memoir of his time at Nazi concentration camps and part explanation of this therapeutic approach to psychological well-being, Frankl invites people to consider that we can make a life worth living in any context when we allow what has happened to us to be the soil in which we find purpose and meaning (my apologies Viktor, I’m sure that’s the worse summary of your position).
I want to share a section with you because when I read it it stopped me cold and I quickly wrote it down, saving it for later reflection--which is happening right now.
Writing about growing older and looking back on life, Frankl writes this.
One man tears off days of a calendar as the years go by, sad that he is growing older. Another man, upon tearing off the day, then files it away, perhaps with notes on the back, and reflects with pride and joy on all the richness of his life lived.
What will it matter to this second man if he notices that he is growing old? Has he any reason to envy the young people around him or wax nostalgic over his own lost youth? What reasons has he to envy a young person? For the possibilities that young person has, the future which might be in store for them?
“No, thank you,” he will think. “Instead of possibilities, I have realities in my past. Not only the reality of work done and of love loved, but of sufferings bravely suffered. These sufferings are even the things of which I am most proud.”
One way to grow old is to lament at old age. Be sad for how life is winding down, capacities are diminishing, unmet goals further out of reach.
Another way to grow old, I’m discovering, is to keep constant gratitude in your heart for the life you’ve already lived! You have seen some things, done some things. You have overcome. You have loved, and perhaps lost, and maybe been lucky enough to love some more!
What are “possibilities” or unmet-goals in comparison to realities experienced!?
Seen in this way, ohmygoodness friends, what a life I have lived these 38 years!
Married to my best friend for 17 years;
Brought four incredible humans in to the world who are growing up in to the most amazing people;
Worked as a pastor for almost two decades, a job I’ve loved, working with people I adore;
I’ve published two books;
I’ve sat through hours and hours of therapy and have found beautiful healing in my heart and soul;
I live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world;
I’ve travelled to many places such as Greece, and Liberia West Africa, and Kauai;
And speaking, as Frankl does, of “sufferings bravely suffered,”
I’ve been fired by two churches in two years, and then suffered through an agonizing season at the church my wife and I started, and I’m still here;
In the span of just a few months (during the aforementioned agonizing season) I lost most of my closest friends, and I’m still here;
I grew up in a divorced and contentious home environment, storing away all sorts of trauma that I’m still sorting through and that have almost sunk my own marriage multiple times, and I’m still here (see above reference to “hours of therapy,”);
And you know what? Frankl is right. Those sufferings are some of the things I’m most proud of.
Life, Gift, Grace
Yeah, I’m growing older.
But I don’t want to look at that with sadness. I don’t want to focus on what my body can’t do anymore, or what I haven’t yet accomplished, etc.
Rather, I want to bask in the glory of the days I have already lived.
What a gift.
What a life.
As 2020 draws to a close there is much we could probably be sad about. Things that got ruined, cancelled, altered, lost. Opportunities. Relationships. People.
And may we properly mourn that, for there is a season for all things.
And... also... may we have eyes to see what we’ve made it through! The days that we did live. The moments, the experiences, the joys and the laughter and the life and the love. And yes, the sufferings.
We are doing it.
I’m so very proud of us all.
And so very grateful for this life.
Will you share with me what comes up for you when you think about growing older? I’d love to learn from you!
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