While every one of us will experience the mystery we call death, until recently I could empty rooms simply by mentioning the subject of aging. Fortunately, this is beginning to change as more of us can no longer can ignore the signs. The first time a younger person offers you a chair may be the awakening.
Perhaps more profoundly, the reason I was asked to write this article is for a deeper reason: we have lived long enough to know that there is no way to grow wise without growing up, and grownups accept that they won’t live forever.
In truth, watching baby boomers age isn’t pretty. For a generation reluctant to become like their parents, we are radically amazed to find ourselves with arthritis like our mothers and falling asleep watching TV like our fathers. Here is how we are dealing with it.
Consider these four models of adults moving from the first half of life into the second half. First, there are those who are swimming in the river of denial. “Who’s aging?” they say as they look everywhere but in the mirror. These are our friends who will never retire, continue to ski beyond sanity, and if they are not quite as good as they were at forty, they don’t linger on it. They’re good enough now, why worry about what’s coming?
Then there are the playful agers, the ones who didn’t much enjoy the first two/thirds of life and are making up for lost time. Cruise ships and retirement communities have lots of games to while away what time they have left.
The third group is not in denial and is not having much fun, either. These are our friends that see aging as outrage, insult, and pathology. What do you mean I need a hearing aid? Why can’t I climb this mountain I’ve climbed for fifty years? Complaint and frequent doctors’ visits are a large part of the day for these folk.
There is only one group left: those of us who are ready to accept aging and mortality so we can gain a heart of wisdom. We have decided to invest what time we have into possession of it, because it’s what we’ve waited for all our lives. And here’s the biggest secret: all the skill sets of the first half of life—ambition, ego, drive—are diametrically opposed to the skill sets of the wise one. Many of us will discover the joys of patience, perspective, acceptance, and collaboration as we age.
All civilizations until the Industrial revolution relied upon its longest-lived members of the community for guidance about everything from planting crops to going to war. They initiated the young into adulthood and they consoled the mourners. Their years gave them the calm reflection that steadied the group. Listening to the elders was once a fundamental principle of civilization.
It is difficult to imagine that world. When speed, might, and power are what matter most in this world, who can look forward to aging when all it promises is diminishment, loss, sickness, dying, and death? How can we hope for the future when we have no part in it?
Over twenty years ago, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi wrote in his pioneering book, From Ageing to Sageing, “Elderhood is a time of unparalleled inner growth having evolutionary significance in this era of world-wide cultural transformation. It is a call from the future, a journey for the health and survival of our ailing planet earth.”
Reb Zalman also taught that this work cannot be done alone. It works best when we gather together regularly for the intention to explore, discover, and reveal what it means to age. Imagine a world where we work with one another to reclaim the place of the elder within ourselves, our families, and the world.
The current generation of sages in training has greater potentiality than any generation before it. At the turn of the twentieth century life expectancy was 47. Today we can expect to live thirty-four more years! Technology makes it possible for us to be in connection with kindred spirits globally and to harvest from all wisdom traditions.
Our collective legacy can be the gift of removing the dread of aging. Instead we will live it as an adventurous, creative, and fulfilling season in which we remain essential players in the evolution of the planet. May our hearts stay forever young as we soar wisely into the third act.