Friday, August 20, 2010

I was 21 only yesterday

Tomorrow, August 21, I turn 60. I am neither sad nor excited. I just accept aging as part of being alive and look forward to continuing on.

Jane Pretat, a Jungian psychologist, writes of the spiritual challenges that arise when we are moving through our late 50s, our 60s, and into our 70s. She says that each age has its spiritual and practical challenges: youth brings newness to a world that may be jaded or overcautious; middle age consolidates the insights learned so far, and creates new spiritual outlooks that will serve the changes happening in our families and bodies and lives; seniors tend to be more contented and happy with life and with who they are. Boomers who are now in their sixties, along with people who are now in their seventies, are among the first generations that can look forward to twenty or more years of being neither middle-aged nor very old. According to Pretat, they are "coming to age."

Due to advances made in the medical field, people in their sixties and seventies are healthier and more active than ever before. They are no longer considered ‘very old’ – but of course it depends on the person’s health as to whether they feel ‘old’ or not. Old age is now placed in a category containing the eighties, nineties, and on. It is predicted that in the next decade there will be many, many more lucid, active centenarians that ever before.

To me, Pretat’s words ring true when I am able to transcend the culture-driven youth obsession. It is a time when we genuinely face our own mortality. We know that we are going to die and yet we are still relatively productive. Because we know death is real, we have the chance to face it, not fear it, and hence appreciate life so much more dearly.

I am carrying into my senior years two very important things that I have learned. First and foremost, fitting God into either a reasoned or emotional discourse is impossible. You cannot really explain or refute God, not even with the words of the Bible. If you could, it would not be God. We humans can only understand God in our meager human terms although God is something much greater than our words could ever begin to define.

Second, no matter how famous you may be or how many friends you may have, you will always have times when you feel alone. And no matter how solitary you may be, you will always be surrounded by friends, even if you seldom see or never have seen their faces. The poet Kahlil Gibran describes this sentiment very well:

Your friend is the field where you sow with love and harvest with gratitude. He is your home, he is your table. Even when he is silent, two hearts continue to talk. When you have to leave him, don’t suffer, for you will see the importance of the friendship all the better because of this absence, just as a mountain climber sees the landscape around him better when he is far from the plains. May you be able to share with your friend all that is good. Let him know and share not only your moments of joy but also your moments of sorrow. And know that a friend is not by your side to help you kill the time, but rather to help you enjoy life in all its fullness.

Childhood in the 1950s, teen years in the 1960s, and young adult in the 1970s, the common mantra was never trust anyone over 30. But when I looked in the mirror, I saw someone who looked barely 20. I felt young; and looking back now, I see that I was very naïve with very little understanding of how the world worked or how the brains of the opposite sex functioned. My 20s and 30s were a time of trouble, a time of many bad decisions that brought me great sorrow. I came very near to suicide because I could not see a way out. But I did climb out. Life finally got better.

The only traumatic birthday I think I have ever had was my 40th. Even though turning 30 did not feel bad at all, turning 40 felt wrong, felt old. I felt like a failure because I had not found my soul mate or true happiness. Yet that decade turned out to be quite good because I met my wonderful husband, my soul mate, just weeks after I turned 40. Under the light of his truly unconditional love, I slowly began to blossom. It eventually occurred to me that being in your 40s is not so traumatic after all. The reality is that I had survived some tough years to see another decade of my life begin with a happy turn. Although during my 40s I lost my beloved grandparents, the ones with whom I had lived with for a very short four years (the only happy years of my childhood), I had gained the gift of my soul mate’s love to see me through.

People looked at me oddly when I said that I was excited to turn 50. I had just retired from teaching and had plans for a wonderful decade. Sure, it turned out to be a difficult one, full of illness. But all through the difficult days from about age 46 through my 50s, I managed to hang in there, hoping for better health and a chance to follow some of my dreams. I think I may make it.

You are either going to turn 60 or you are not. It comes down to a matter of choice. The only way to not turn 60 is to die before you get there – and I do not consider that a good choice. Turning 60 is not so bad. The youthful face and figure may be gone, but my spirit is young. I very much look forward to this next decade, especially since my husband has just retired. I predict days, years actually, of happiness and contentment – maybe some travel. I am “coming to age”.

Yet, some part of me is very suspicious that aging is a very high price to pay for maturity. So, like others, I sometimes will say that I wish I could go back to being in my 20s while, at the same time, keeping the knowledge and wisdom I now have.

What I cannot figure out is how I can be 60 now, when I was 21 only yesterday.

*Pretat, Jane, Coming To Age: The Croning Years and Late-Life Transformation. Toronto, Canada: Inner City Books, 1994.