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Sunday, February 5, 2012

Reflections on aging

The Voyage of Life: Childhood, by Thomas Cole

Some days these days, I feel old. It happens more and more as time passes. Normal. I AM getting older. As we all are.

Feeling old has nothing to do with your actual age or the signs of aging you might or might not show, depending on a variety of factors including genetics, avoidance of drugs and alcohol, and use of sunscreen.

Feeling old, just like happiness, is a state of mind.

On those days I feel old, it is because I am slowly realizing that all those lifelong dreams, plans, all this rat race to get the diploma, the job, the life partner, the house, the kids, the cat, the white picket fence... have reached their summit. We spend approximately the first thirty years of our life moving towards acquiring all the items on this "list". When we finally "have it all", instead of feeling content, satisfied... we get what I call the "What's next?" syndrome.

The Voyage of Life: Youth, by Thomas Cole

Yes, I am on top of the mountain right now. That's great, isn't it? Well, yes... as long as you don't look at what's awaiting you on the other side of the mountain: irremediable decline. In your thirties and forties, you can still hope to see some things improve: income, social status, maybe some physical endurance... and you can definitely count on acquiring more wisdom. But it is undeniable: the body is not what it used to be, and in at least some aspects, this is already tangible. Did you know, for example, that near vision starts declining as early as around the age of twenty? And that's certainly not the most disturbing example.

So! What's next? Letting yourself drift is not a viable option. You still want to feel youthful, full of energy and beauty, yes, but also full of marvel and enthusiasm for life. This is becoming a challenge, at least some of the time.

On those days, you feel like you've seen and heard it all. You feel like nothing has the power to surprise you anymore. You might not know everything about everything, but you know enough about the general functioning principles and systems of nature (including human nature) to feel slightly blasé. Sometimes even discouraged by life. The absurdity of it all.

The Voyage of Life: Manhood, by Thomas Cole

There is, however, something positive to draw from this observation. Getting this feeling is a good sign, in a way. It means that you've finally become a grown up. A real one. An adult in the strongest sense of the word: an individual that has acquired maturity, lucidity (which is a double-edged weapon - cabooseys might have it easier), an open and flexible mind, and lots of compassion, for self and others. No need to prove anything to anyone anymore. I am, and it suffices.

Feeling this way also means that you are ready to take on one of the most important challenges of life: share what you have gained with the youngest. Knowing when to watch them from a distance and let them learn, try, make mistakes. Knowing when to step in and play the role of a guide, of a mentor. Again, with generous amounts of compassion. For the mistakes they are making, we've made them all, and for their illusions and sense of wonder are precious gems that we don't want them to lose... not yet.

The Voyage of Life: Old Age, by Thomas Cole

Some days, when we feel old, I believe it's because we feel it's precisely our illusions and sense of wonder that are drifting away. We are now fully aware of our own mortality. We are aware of life's unfair and sometimes downright cruel ways. It's hard to remain bubbly with that knowledge. But instead of crying helplessly over the loss of our own illusions, we turn to the young and do all we can to help THEM keep theirs as long as possible.

Then, when we thought we had lost it for good, that sense of youth, it takes us by surprise, when we were least expecting it. We suddenly find ourselves getting excited and playful and impulsive and exuberant about something trivial... just like children. We find ourselves amazed at one of the simplest manifestations of nature: a bird's song, a sunset, a perfumed flower. Some of us will even find themselves diving head first in a new found passion, and for a moment, they will truly believe they are a teenager all over again.

Proof that nothing is ever acquired for good, that we can always keep growing, that deep down inside, we're still very young...

... and that in fact, aging itself is just an illusion.

(Please watch this video... happiness guaranteed!)


  1. I think I'm feeling a bit speechless after reading your post.....

    I am 42 years old and most of the time feel as young as I did in my twenties. However once in a while I'm very aware that I am aging. There are days that I just feel that I've not even come close to experiencing the things I'd hoped to by this point in my life.

    I feel frantic at times as if my candle is beginning to burn hotter, and I must accomplish certain things before it burns out. Other moments I feel content to just be.

    I've discovered that on the days I feel "old", I'm really feeling powerless, which in truth isn't altogether different than how I felt when I was very young.

    The hardest thing for me to accept about aging isn't my body changing or slowing down, rather that I do indeed have an expiration date. I couldn't come close to seeing and doing the things I would like to in one lifetime, much less two or three!

    Thank you for your insightful article. You've given me much to think about today.


  2. I think you are right about the hardest thing being the knowledge of our own expiry date! Finding balance between making the most of it before it's too late and feeling relaxed/at peace is the real challenge. :-)

    From what I gather, we will still feel like we are twenty (in our mind) when we are fifty, seventy, ninety. This adds to the challenge because we'll have to reconcile our perceived "young identity" with what we see in the mirror, the signals our body sends us, and the way others react to us. (Not to mention the ever-approaching expiry date!)