Growing Old: The Fine Art of Learning to Lose
Have you come across this character type—the nasty old woman who barks at you when you try to help her as she is struggling to get the wheels of the shopping cart over the curb again and again? Or the reclusive miser next door who barely speaks to anyone, not even his posse of twenty mangy cats? I often cringe at images like this of old age because I fear that I more than anyone else will wind up a crotchety, stingy, miserable old hag. I cannot but think about the process of aging as I see so many of those around me enter into the final season of their lives. In my experience I have seen two types—either the sweet, loving, patient sage who has come to terms with the visictitudes of life (sort of like Yoda or the wise old medicine woman) or the miserable grouch like Scrooge or some of the demanding senior women who complain about everything on the early-bird menu and leave no tip. Is the path to becoming a grumpy old relic inevitable? Is there a way to think about the process of growing old in a way that does not bring with it bitterness, resentment, cynicism, and despair?
From the little I have understood about life, it seems that it does not travel in a linear path of progress and happiness. It is a fallacy that life gets better as you get older. In fact, for some us it becomes an unlivable hell; the final chapter is the worst to read. In contrast to the many televised cases of young people falling to their doom by jumping off the Verrazano Bridge or overdosing on sleeping pills, depression and its consequence are purviews of old age. Depression and suicide are highest among the elderly in this country. As an indication of the general souring of the soul in later life, skim through Ecclesiastes. The last book the Wise Solomon composed at the very end of his life is perhaps the most pessimistic and hopeless of all (in fact, I believe some parts were altered or glossed over to lift its somber color). The main theme running through it is “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. In the end, nothing matters. What you thought was so necessary, what kept you up at night, what you stressed and twisted over was not so important. With the graze of the great sickle, nothing is that important. And all is in vain.
It reminds me of a colleague who during his farewell speech at his retirement part, raised his glass and said, “Friends, after 35 years of teaching, I have accomplished nothing. It was all in vain. It was all a waste of time.” After this , he took a seat and proceeded to get drunk. At the end of your life, I believe the greatest spiritual struggle will be not to lose faith, not to fall into the spirit of despondency, and that fall into the trap of misery.
Several reasons might account for this. I think optimism and trust in the best intentions of humankind are hard to sustain with each successive year of disappointments, betrayal, heart breaks, repeated news about the heart of darkness and the brutality in the world. It is hard to hold onto youthful enthusiasm when the trials of daily toil reduce you to a slaving, grinding automaton. By the time you are 40, you will have witnessed your fair share of horrifying acts of crime, perhaps even murders, wallowed through two or three devastating heart breaks and break ups, a few betrayals at the hands of an overly ambitious colleague, and maybe you might have experience the worst milestone yet, the death of a beloved one. The older you get, the harder it is to keep smiling. You get tired of the whole damn thing.
The path of least resistance is to retreat into yourself, become bitter and lash out at everyone. Compound this tendency with the general irritability that accompanies the breakdown of the body, the aches and pains, the strains in the back and the knees, the general increasing fatigue, and it is an hourly struggle to stay hopeful. With the changing of the seasons, the warning signs just like the turn in the oak leaf, that you too will die. You might have experienced the first scare of the “c” word and maybe you sighed with a “phew” when it was pronounced benign. The joints begin to groan with the constant to and fro. And the places you used to show off in your youth are now the ones you try to cover up.
But there is one reason that I believe can be both the cause and cure that leads to the “bitterness” in growing older. It is the realization very few things are and have been in your control. It is the bottomless sadness that comes with the resignation that all you could have done is a kernel in the palm of what had to be. It is the wisdom gained at the hand of sweaty experience that understands that this thing called life is precious and fleeting. And it is a paradox, the grandest and greatest paradox of all– a sewer of maggots on the one side and a thimble of angels on the other. It comes with the strain in the thighs of straddling this wide paradox that this life is on one bank a tragedy and the other a farce, on one side a folly that pisses on itself and on the other a symphony of seraphim.
In order to brave this wide gap without going insane, you must I think relinquish control. Just allow things and people to be so that you do not grow bitter. Acceptance—this is key. Accept that human nature extends a bloody fang along with a helping arm. That you did all that you could have done. That this was the course of your life and look back and be content with it. There is a fine line perhaps between acceptance and resignation, resignation implying surrender a certain sense of giving up while acceptance brings with it a profound peace, the peace that comes with the understanding that all is as it ever and could have been. That there are really forces outside our control, forces that we mistakenly give ourselves credit for, that govern our destinies more than we may care to think. Whoever has managed at the twilight of his life to still keep a positive stance on life is worthy of sainthood.
The net underneath this greater acceptance has to do with submission to God’s will. Only when one submits his/her will to God’s greater plan (or “the Universe” as others call the power) can he be released from the bitterness, the regret, and resentment and rage at the universe for things that did not unfold according to your plan. This leads to the serenity that accompanies old age. It is also the isotone that predicates wisdom. Once you have let go and acquired that inner stillness that transcends the throes of the subway car of life’s tracks, you have already arrived at your final destination in that deep place in your soul. I think this is what life may be about—learning to ride the rails and enjoy the ride as it swishes by you and not worry so much about your last stop. You cease from raging against the universe, from cursing at yourself and the should haves, could haves, would haves and just accept yourself and those around you as they are. The older one gets, the more one realizes that the things in our control are miniscule in relation to the forces much larger than ourselves. To spend mental and emotional energy going against the raging current of the universe is often malproductive as it leads to stress, disappointment, exhaustion and an early death.
The elderly character in the Mexican film “Maria, Maria,” summed it up best. He plays the role of a widowed retired communist organizer with ties to the underworld of illegal arms smuggling. In a motley match up of personalities on the quest to rescue the title character’s husband from a vicious band of kidnappers, he pronounces his view about growing old in one of the end scenes as they are gathered around the dinner table drinking wine:
“When we are young, life is all about acquiring things. We work hard to gain more experiences, get more friends, make more money, more material things. But when you grow older, you realize life is about what you give up and learning how to give things up, lose, and give up all that you have acquired. I’ve lost my friends, I’ve lost my career, and most of all I’ve lost the love of my life, my wife. Growing old is the fine art of learning to lose.”