Getting older is, so far, inevitable. We haven’t yet invented a way of keeping ourselves completely young for ever. Even if we did, accidents happen, and no sooner would we have solved the problems of telemeres and stem cells, than we might fall under a bus by mistake.
Age, even, has many meanings. In our daily lives, we don’t think about the different nuances of the word. But pausing and considering, we would find several concepts fused together in the same three letters.
AGE AS NEARNESS TO DEATH
One of the main things we mean by getting older, or ageing, is that the moment when our internal system collapses is getting nearer. Even a car is described as getting older, until the time when it is scrapped, and deregistered. After that, it is described as something else, or left without a word, as its husk loses its insides, its headlights empty, and ultimately only the skeleton remains… and then not even that. It is buried, or used for parts. In this sense, ‘I am old’ means ‘I see myself as close to that time when I will deregister as a being’.
AGE AS DECAY
This is subtly different. This time, we are referring not to the time of death, but to the functionality of our bodies. We get arthritis, dementia, illnesses of age. Parts of our body start wearing out. Even if our hip or our knee gets replaced (giving us a ‘new lease of life’), the rest of us is noticeably losing its freshness. Skin loses its elasticity; so does the brain. We cake up like old gutters, and our flow, in so many ways, becomes interrupted and stilted. We may shake, or forget, or need to rest a lot. In this sense, ‘I am old’ means ‘I notice that my body’s functioning is getting worse’.
AGE AS A COMPARATIVE MEASUREMENT
Another meaning of age is a simple count of the number of years something’s been around. This is a relative judgement. The universe, at 65 years old, was very young from our perspective. A person, at 65, is often regarded as old. When we use the number, we use it as part of a value judgement as to what old means in that context. A five-year-old may describe himself as old compared with his two-year-old brother; or young compared with his mother.
AGE AS WISDOM
A favourite of mine, is the respectful consideration that, when we grow old, we are a bundle of assimilated experience. So, an old tree in a wood has wisdom in its age. Its branches show the history of storms. Its structure is a wise compromise between stretching and conservation – that is why it has survived so long. Animals and other plants shelter underneath it. It forms part of the structure of the forest, a familiar landmark for shelter, orientation and beauty. When we say a tree, or a land, or an elder, is old, we are respectful of its position in the scheme of things, and are aware we can learn from it.
HOW ARE YOU OLD?
How are you going to judge your own age? Will you choose to think of how near you are to death? There are advantages to this: you may start to realise that, as they say, ‘you can’t take it with you when you go’. You may develop a wish to prepare things for the next generation, and see the pointlessness of gathering all things to yourself in the mistaken belief that greed is good.
Will you choose to notice the ways in which you are wearing out? Will you buy creams and disguises to fool the world into thinking you are younger? Will you ask chemicals to be harvested so that you can hang on to young energy, young colour and young smoothness?
Will you, perhaps, start to spend time around those older than yourself, so that, in relative terms, they describe you as the ‘youngster’ in the group? Will that help you to feel, compared with those around you, not so old?
Or will you look upon yourself like a great oak tree in a forest? Will you look at the branches that got cut off, and the branches still there, in the same light – as the evidence of a life lived, with all its good and its bad? Will you watch those sheltering around you; will you feed them some things they need; offer them a bit of shade from the hard sun; bind a bit of earth together with your roots and make the forest cohere just a little better? In autumn, will you show what can be done when the air turns cold and the wind blows? Will you demonstrate resilience, and peace, and the beauty of an organism that lets its leaves go at the right time?
Those who die early have a special place in all this. Somehow we feel that it wasn’t their time; that it’s against nature that they left us so soon. Of course it was too early; but it was also their time. It’s a good question to ask of yourself what remains of them in you. What is it that you valued the most in what they did while on earth? What do you hold in your heart that they brought you? What was valuable?
I doubt it was anything to do with the beauty products they used. (Though it might have been, and if so, maybe they were a creative talent, and that’s how it expressed itself!) I imagine, from my own experience, that it may be how they showed their character in the worst of times; how they took time to lend a hand to others, to be considerate, when everything was difficult.
Applying this to yourself, just in case you die early, look around you, and see where you are with yourself.
I dare you to spend some time thinking gently about what you bring, to yourself and others, that lasts. What seeds are you planting, in yourself and others, that have a chance of becoming cherished memories, sources of strength, or useful things, for the next generation? If you dare, ask some friends what they value in their own friends, colleagues, and heroes who have died. What stays with them? What helps?
Age, and being older, mean many different things: nearness to death; decay; time-comparison with others; but also an opportunity for wisdom. We all have a choice as to how we perceive our own age. As an aid to wisdom, we can think about those who have died, but whose contribution we valued. What did they bring that we still so cherish? What might we bring to others in a similar way? What can we give, quietly but consistently, that will bring lasting benefit after we are gone?