Autumn Meditation: On Aging

The comedian Jack Benny once remarked that dealing with aging is really a question of mind over matter: “If you do not mind, it does not matter!”

For most of us, however, it does matter. The earth turns and the days ceaselessly follow one another. A friend of mine spoke to me about aging as “constant humiliation,” citing the worst indignity as feeling invisible in the presence of younger people. He described a scene of getting into an elevator in which three young women were engaged in a lively conversation, sharing intimate details about their sex lives. When he entered the elevator, they kept talking as if he was not there. “O my God,” he thought, “I am out of the game.” His perception of being ignored because of his age was strong enough to undercut any other interpretation.

People whitewash the very real process of aging by trying to “stay young” by getting stem cell injections, going on exercise and nutritional regimens, or conversely, by proclaiming platitudes about the “wisdom” and “freedom” of age, or flat out insisting that aging is “bullshit.” All of this, however, is akin to putting a band aid on a gaping wound– a wound that we as a culture have been denying since the beginning of our time here on earth.

One may begin to wonder what in the world are old people for, and why do some people’s lives seem to peak at twenty-five while others in their sixties? What is this undeniable process of transformation that we are all witness to in our own lives? As we age, we receive all kinds of messages: from our bodies, from sick and dying friends and relatives, and sometimes from an inner sense that there is really nothing new under the sun.

Messages from the body may be the most powerful, and perhaps you finally get the message: the body is built to break down; that is its material nature. You can identify with it as “you” until the bitter end, you can try to amass “bucket list” experiences (things to do before you “kick the bucket”) to make you feel that you have lived a full life, or retire somewhere to try to recapture the fun you once had as a kid, but the body will have none of it.

Mortality begins to knock at your door with ever increasing frequency, and this may be a blessing, for the transition out of the body into the next phase may be the most important calling one can be engaged in. “But we don’t know what death is. We don’t know what happens next,” one might say. True, but we also do not know what life is and we certainly do not know what will happen next in our present circumstances.

Perhaps a more appropriate strategy would be to take this opportunity to deeply listen to the body: not just where it is going or what it is saying, but what it actually wants, and, likewise, listening to memory: an aspect of mind that can be nostalgically fetishized. Why do certain memories from a certain time in a life keep returning? Is this merely advancing senility, repeating what has been repeated ad infinitum, or is it a type of soul-making, of building one’s ship of death with the memories that have deeply sculpted the inner being?

Can we trust this process? After all, if you’ve made it to fifty, you have a lot to offer, but perhaps it is not your experiences that need to be offered, but their fruits: what has been deeply learned beyond particulars. This is what can be respected: not how many years you have lived, or what shape you are in, but what you have actually gleaned from them. The tree transforms in autumn and offers its fruits at the end of its season. Albeit, while the American tradition seems to prefer dying heroically and young, that is partial. Fullness is to live out your span with dignity of trust and emergence of gratitude for everything and everyone.

All this is to say that facing aging and its attendant phenomena is an initiatic prelude to facing our death, and moving into dying consciously is to greet every moment with a fullness of presence. Where your heart goes is where you find yourself–at any age. Instead of resenting the inconveniences of this process, let us dare to embrace their teachings and let go of what must be let go of with grace and wonder.

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