We’ve heard the expression ‘to age gracefully’. But what does this really mean? In this post I wish to look at two aspects of ageing, which I think are crucial:
- Why do people lose enthusiasm as they age?
- How can we keep our childlike enthusiasm until the last breath?
I am at that time in my life, when I am old enough to have had an adequate number of years that have gone by to notice marked changes in people around me. In our teens, we often do not have the maturity nor perspective to reflect back on our childhood. The changes are too rapid and we have so many thing to achieve, that perspective is simply lacking. The late twenties are a strange, transitory time. We have only come out of being teens a few years ago and we are not fully adults. Thus the mid thirties (where I am), is a wonderful mid point in life, where such an informed retrospective comparison might be made.
At this age, I notice my parents, their friends and my uncles and aunts and neighbors – all typically my parents age – have turned old. In a span of twenty years they went from their mid forties to now being ‘old’ and retired. I have noticed people change immensely – both mentally and physically. While the physical change is inexorable – general slowing down, weakness of the body, change in body posture, illnesses and so on, what is perhaps less perceptible and yet remarkable important is the change in the mental capacities. So what is it that worries me?
Nearly all of these people have tended towards pessimism. I remember a time when my parents and their friends would gather at our home and laugh. There used to be such great exuberance, enthusiasm and laughter. The same people today? Much more reserved, controlled and an overall sadness. The topics that are discussed today also tend towards the disappointments. Overall there appears to be a note of resignation – “this is life” – in their voice. What happened to the ebullient laughter? What happened to the excitable planning of holidays or visits to the latest fair? Where has the enthusiasm gone? Do we have to resign to the fact that old age equals sadness and a steady march onto the finality of death?
I think not. I surmise that the reason for their disappointments is that life has been hard – on ALL of them. This is the unequivocal truth. Life is hard for everybody. There is not a single person who has escaped the jaws of life. All of these people in their mid to late sixties have been weathered down by life and by time. The question here is why does this happen? Were they not prepared for this? No. Most of us live life in a reduced state of consciousness. I do not mean this in a derogatory manner. What this means is that we do not introspect deeply enough. We go through difficulties throughout life. School is tough. College harder. Our first jobs are deeply challenging. But somehow, we distract ourselves with friends, family, events, careers and so on that we just do not have the time to sit down and think of who we are and how we relate to the disappointments in life. Most of us in our mid thirties already have children and we know that this is a full time job that leaves us with little time to spare to ask deeper questions. And therefore two decades or so pass by in just living life – reacting to the highs and lows – without facing the harsh realities.
What are these harsh realities? First and foremost is death. The undeniable fact that all of us are going to die. We watch people die around us, but somehow think that our time has not come. This is the greatest illusion that keeps the illusion of a happy life going. The second harsh reality is the fact that life is utterly miserable. Nearly all the enlightened masters from Buddha to Eckhart Tolle have reaffirmed this truth. Life is hard. Life is harsh. These two truths – death is inevitable and life is hard are two important realities that we must each face. The earlier the better. Most of us go through our twenties until our early sixties without coming to terms with this. We ignore this fact willfully or unknowingly. What keeps us going is hope. Hope that life will be better, that life will satisfy us sometime in the future – that new job, that big home, that wonderful soulmate, that nice vacation, that nice party, the unexpected promotion – all this feeds our hope – momentarily.
As we get closer to the end, we begin to realize that time is indeed running out. And all those intense desires that were postponed, now cannot be ignored any further. We begin to realize that they may never see fruition. And this is where, slowly but surely, the final nails into our enthusiasm are hammered by life. We realize that we may never reach where we thought we would get. We lose hope and distract ourselves further – children, grandchildren, religion and worse – meaningless whatsapp groups. It’s the ultimate sickness unto death.
Is this the fate for all of us? No. It needn’t be. There is a way out – no matter how old we are.
First and foremost, accept deeply that life is miserable and that it challenges us from all directions – death, sickness, heart breaks, divorce, loss, pain and so on. THIS IS LIFE. Accept that life is unfair. This acceptance prevents us from building false hopes that life will get better someday. No. Life needn’t get better someday. This moment, this day is all we have. I often have come to think of life as a Super Mario game. There are umpteen number of obstacles – all of this makes the game more interesting. Our only task is to keep pushing on – keep the spirit of ingenuity alive to figure out ways past these obstacles. Yes, we may fail and the game might get over. But we can always restart. The joy is in the obstacles – or rather, in overcoming them. What kind of game would that be if there were absolutely no obstacles? Would we play such a game? No! Therefore, learn to appreciate, if not celebrate these obstacles for they sharpen our skills in overcoming them.
Then accept death. We will die. And we do not know when or how. We needn’t be sick to die. The healthy also die. The rich die. The poor die. The guru dies. The disciple dies. The religious dies. The irreligious also dies. Death is the greatest socialist – the greatest leveller. Feel death. Let it not remain as an abstract concept in your head. Close your eyes and ask yourself, “Imagine this is it. This is the last day. What if I do not wake up tomorrow?”. Would we have regrets? This line of inquiry is exceedingly important for it brings focus into our lives. Through sustained practice, we can separate the unimportant from the most important. Our passion. Our true calling.
Once we have assimilated these two truths, life then assumes a different quality. No longer do we demand anything from life. “Life should be like this”. Nope! How can you demand something from someone who we know cannot deliver? We accept what comes, and only see how we can still forge ahead. How can we move on? How can we play the game? As we navigate life, the energy that moves us ahead is aligned with what is important to us. Our passion. Our hobby. We utilize every moment, every ounce of energy to bring it to an activity that moves us deeply. Let’s say it is music – we channelize all that we have into learning and sharing the joys that we experience in ourselves through music. Let’s say it is cooking – then we learn new recipes, share, call people for dinner and treat them to amazing food. Let’s say it is physics – then we submerge ourselves in deep theories and continue to learn. And so on.
Living life this way, we no longer postpone our joy. We experience it in the NOW. By bringing our enthusiasm to the passion of our choice. And since we know how to do this at the age of forty, we can easily do it at seventy or eighty and until our very last breath. This is a skill quite like riding a cycle. Once learned, you cannot lose it. There is so much to explore, so much to learn. Knowledge and action are both infinite in all dimensions. Where is the room for lethargy and complaints?
So what can we do – NOW? Whatever your age may be, accept the harsh realities of life – accept them deeply. Each time you find yourself demanding or regretting – know that you have slipped into a very precarious precipice. No. Shun that at all costs. Ask yourself – “Given this horrible situation, what can I bring to my life”. This is taking responsibility for your life. Then, identify what moves you. It is never late. People have discovered music at eighty. As long as we are alive, there is a passion in us. And as we go on in life, remember whatever the challenge – bringing up kids, having a demanding job, being a good husband or wife, mother or father, brother or sister – in all these roles and responsibilities – remember to find your sweet spot – your home. Remember not to postpone living. Remember that life will not get better. And that we must life today – fully and totally – by bringing ourselves to what moves us.
As we start doing this, we start noticing an enhanced sense of freedom. No longer do other’s opinions matter. No longer do external situations and relationships affect us that much. We do feel – deeply in fact. But our anchor is our attitude of bringing ourselves to that activity (or activities) of our choice. That is our safe spot. Did we fight with our spouse? No matter. We head to the piano and play our favorite composition. We are back! Our joy and childlike enthusiasm is back. This ability to bounce back is something we can attain, since we have this beautiful, imaginative, curiosity filled space within us. That is home. And that is a space that is ever new and never ages. Then, and only then can we age gracefully.