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The Grace in Aging


Wake Up

It is time pounding at you, time.
Knowing you are alive
is watching on every side
your generation’s short time
falling away as fast as rivers drop though air,
and feeling it hit hard.

—Annie Dillard

Being old is new for us.

If we haven’t yet come to the recognition that we’re old, perhaps we’ve been lulled by an extended midlife—a new experience in human history. Nevertheless, it’s a bit disingenuous of us to pretend that we’re not aging, as if all of this could just go on forever, as the unexamined assumptions of our ordinary minds would lull us into believing. Perhaps there’s a bit of denial, perhaps a sense of the specialness of “me” that allows me alone exclusion from the river of time.

We surely have gone through the recognition that our youth has ended. We can often pinpoint it to a moment or an event or a year. It may have come in the form of a loss or a swift visual blow from a mirror or a simple recognition one day that most of the people around us are younger than we are. For many, this recognition prompted a scramble for the relief of that midlife angst: a new car, a new relationship, a renovation, new hair, a facelift, a retreat.

As sobering as it may have been to recognize that our youth has ended, it seems even more difficult for us to recognize that now our midlife is over as well. We’ve spent our entire life thinking of the aging as “others.” It comes as a bit of a shock to realize that we’ve joined the ranks.

We have growing evidence and indications that others view us as old. We also have a growing recognition of the signs of aging within these bodies of ours. We are, perhaps, not quite so spry. We are, perhaps, not quite so unscarred. Our recognition of our aging beyond midlife may have been heralded by the trials of illness or the impacts of impairments. For some, it’s the deep anguish of the care or the loss of a loved one. For others, the recognition can arise from a transition as seemingly benign as retirement or as seemingly insignificant as being either ignored or lent a helping hand by one of the billions who is younger than we are.

Our generation’s short time is falling away. We’re moving into new terrain.

There is a measure of effort involved in coming to some equanimity with the implications of our own aging. There are the aches and the sags, as we are no longer at the peak of our physical strength and agility. We need, also, to find peace in the new landscape of superfluity, as we no longer are at the peak of our engagement in the world.

Adjusting our views of ourselves can take some time. Adjusting our views of our place in the world and of our further direction can also take some time. The contemplation of these necessary adjustments is meaningful. Our views determine our experience.

New questions emerge, often clamoring for attention. Who am I beyond the functions I’ve served? Who am I when the habits of a lifetime are stripped away? Who am I beyond the persona I’ve presented to the world and to myself? Who am I, bare?

It can be a bit sobering, sometimes even stunning, to realize that there is far less time before us than time behind us. There are fewer full moons whose light we can sit in than full moons whose light we have sat in before. There are fewer pale green springs and autumn’s falling leaves, fewer quiet blanketings of snow, fewer ion-charged moments before a fierce summer storm unleashes itself. The times that we will see our children again, having spent every moment with them for the many years of their childhoods, are numbered.

Like our breath, all of the patterned markers of our impermanence are numbered. We’re looking at finitude. Aging forces us to look at our shelf life.

We know aging in the aches of muscles and creaks of bones, in the graying of the hair and the wrinkling of the skin, in the squinting to read the small print and the increased attention we must put into simply hearing conversations. We know aging in the bodily systems that just plain don’t work quite the way they used to.

We know aging in the losses we experience. There’s a growing awareness of death all around us. How many people have we all known by this point in our lives who have died, who have entered a mystery beyond our imagining?

We see our parents die and leave us with no buffer from death. We’re next. We lose siblings, our nestlings. We lose friends and cousins, our age peers. Our spouses, our beloveds, our partners die, leaving us stunned and bereft and shorn.

Most of us see the currents in the river but never actually take in what they mean for the boat we’re floating in. A good measure of stressful effort can go into avoiding any call to wake up and notice, to see the patterns of impermanence and to acknowledge that the pattern of impermanence is universal. That means us.

We prefer, often, to hide in the familiarity of our unmindfulness, usually having done so for so long that unmindfulness seems like home. The dreaming seems like waking, the sleepwalking like living.

Opening deeply to the truth of our own aging is wise. Opening deeply to the truth of our own impermanence is wise. Although such opening may not come easily at first—we all know how the ego tends to resist vulnerability—it is important to do so if we wish to mindfully use the time remaining to us.

Excerpt from The Grace in Aging by Kathleen Dowling Singh.

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