The most common emotion people feel about getting old is surprise. I remember reading this in my thirties and finding it hilarious. Surprise? About the single most predictable thing in life? Oh, those old folks, I thought. Those doddering darlings! How silly they are!
I’m pretty sure that was last week. Except now I’m about to turn sixty.
You have to understand: Turning sixty only happens to other people. It has literally never happened to me. It is not something I do. Every day, I have to wrap my boggled mind around the shocking, totally unforeseeable reality of my sixtyness.
In my defense—in defense of all surprised seniors—science tells us that our brains are like cameras that take many frames per second when we’re young, fewer frames as we get older. When you were ten, the sheer volume of what you learned in an hour made it stretch out forever. By the time you’re my age, the camera has sped up. Hours are the new minutes.
I think this is how age sneaks up on us: everything that seems to be plodding along speeds up while we’re not looking. So just when we’re finally settling into our own skin, that skin turns squishy and unflattering.
Then we start bargaining. “Ninety is the new forty!” we say. “A hundred and ten is the new fifty-three and a half! You’re only as old as you feel!” and of course the classic, “Age is just a number.”
Well, okay. But let’s be honest. It’s a number that means things.
If we let aging mean the things our society dwells upon, the situation becomes truly terrifying. I remember teaching a college sociology class on senescence (getting old). The textbook read like a horror film. Prepare to give up everything you love, it said, and replace your joys with lowered immunities, brittle bones, failed colonoscopies, and a widening group—village, city—of deceased loved ones.
All of this was supposed to increase my eighteen-year-old students’ empathy for the elderly. Instead, it made them wonder aloud what was so bad about a tidy midlife suicide. The monster age was already tracking them, and the only way to escape its claws was early death.
Being only twenty-eight myself, I had no comfort to offer those poor students. I wish I could gather them back around me now, my brood of sweet teenaged chickens who, if they are reading this today, will be doing it through corrective lenses.
I would tell them all what was missing from that book, which is that aging means loss after loss after loss—of things that cause us to suffer.
Oh, I know illness and death aren’t fun. My trifocals aren’t completely rose-colored. It’s just that I have enough mileage to agree with Ray LaMontagne’s song “Empty,” which includes these lines:
Well, I looked my demons in the eyes
Lay bare my chest, said, “Do your best to destroy me.”
See, I’ve been to hell and back so many times
I must admit you kinda bore me.
I’ve survived a lot of losses, and they hurt terribly at the time. But each loss, each bout of suffering, has left me lighter. I’m not thrilled to have lost my adolescent abdomen or my strapping young gums. But here are some losses for which I thank providence every day:
I’ve lost the illusion that happiness depends on circumstances.
There were times I dredged up joy in situations that looked awful, times when I moldered in misery just when it looked like all my dreams were coming true. Conclusion: Happiness comes from an infinitely deep well somewhere inside each of us. I suspect this corresponds with the source of the universe. Stay tuned for updates.
I’ve lost the conviction that I am my body.
Ridiculous! Each of my atoms recycles every seven years; my body is a cloud of molecules congregating around a wisp of consciousness, doing a dance of change so complex it counts as a full-on moment to moment miracle. Actually, it all has very little to do with me.
I’ve lost the idea that love cannot survive permanent separation.
I remember when I thought separation was real. Then I was separated, by misfortune, choice, or death, from many of the people and things I loved most. The love never budged. Here it still is, right now. Every moment of connection left me with treasure I hold in my heart the way you might fill your hands with rubies and diamonds and gold. Love is impervious to space and time. Every moment of love I’ve ever felt is still here, now, mine to keep.
I’ve lost the compulsion to run from pain or sorrow.
I mean, it doesn’t work, so why bother? Why not stay put and watch these wrenching experiences wear away our manic pursuit of a trouble-free existence? I’ve noticed friends changing in one of two ways as they age: either they cling to youth like a suit of armor, which rusts and cracks no matter how hard they try, or they let the armor break under the weight of sorrow, and simply fall away. Peace returns. Joy returns. Without the armor to hide it, these friends are beginning to project a faint, cool light, like the stars. They are shining. It’s worth the cost.
I’ve lost most of my fear.
This is the combined effect of the losses listed above.
Every morning, when I wake up and begin grappling with the stunning surprise of age, I count these losses, these blessings, and feel a tiny bit more of myself slipping away into time, into gratitude. I don’t rush this process—I know better now than to waste it. I’m so surprised to be old (Am I old? Is sixty the new puberty?) that I have to sit down and pay attention.
Alexander Pope wrote that all living things are “like bubbles on the sea of matter borne. They rise, they break, and to that sea return.”
Each morning, as I sit still and get older, I feel my mortal self as a bubble rising and falling on the swell of matter. I’m amazed by the immensity of the tide, and by the fact that time once lifted me up, and is now dropping me down, without ever shifting the inner knowledge that in my essence I am something young, something ageless.
Pope called this something the “one all-extending, all-preserving soul.” The older I get, the easier it is to see. It’s the light shining from my aging friends, from new babies, from everyone.
When my mind is still, that light sometimes flares so brightly that for a moment it’s all I can see. It comes from everywhere, even from inside my aging form. This happens more and more as the years go by. And every single time, I am surprised.
This article was first published in Maria Shriver’s The Sunday Paper.