It’s True What They Say About Aging
by Richard Thieme
There are lots of funny stories about the erosion of physical and mental processes as we age, and it’s true that when I meet old friends near my age (73) or older, we often spend the first half of the conversation discussing health issues, friends we have lost, and making jokes about ears, eyes, skin and all the rest. We talk about how hard it is sometimes to sleep through the night while sleeping in front of the television is a breeze.
All that’s part of the game. But there’s a bigger game afoot, a corollary to the slow erosion of our senses, and it’s a surprising benefice. I’m talking about the growth of insight, even wisdom, as our perspectives lengthen like the shadows of an early sunset as winter approaches and we see more deeply into the life of things.
Jokes abound about short-term memory loss and not knowing what you came downstairs to get. But something more important happens to memory. Long-term memories are more vivid, sharper, more readily at hand. Images in dreams follow suit, manifesting with greater intensity. The longer reach of memory provides the perspective which enables us to see the real relative value of things.
In addition, detachment from many of the emotional investments we made in the past just … sort of happens … and it’s good detachment, neither indifferent nor uncaring, but a recognition of the diminished importance of so much we thought was such a big deal once upon a time. We cared so much, we see, about things that mattered so little, and time is short, so we had better give our energy and attention to what matters most.
That detachment occurs in part because when we think about things we have done, places we have gone, the images are somehow flatter and don’t grab attention with the urgency they once did. They move with greater fluidity through our minds. Contemplation of our histories is like watching branches flow past in a fast-moving stream. And time runs faster, and faster, and faster.
We don’t have to work at this – aging always brings new phases of growth, new developmental stages arrive gradually but seem to arrive suddenly, as surprising as all the others when they first kicked in, from adolescence to midlife.
I read a book called The Seasons of a Man’s Life about 50 years ago. It provided an orderly succession of developmental phases and gave them names, but when it reached the mid sixties, it called the rest of the journey “senescence,” a polite way of saying, “beyond these isles be monsters and the deep.”
Longevity has made a mockery of that taxonomy of growth. The sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties carry their own challenges and rewards, like all of the other stages. The fastest growing segment of the US population by percentage is 100 and older. I remain robustly non-retired and continue to travel the world to give speeches – the part of the brain that does that and engages with audiences for hours seems better than ever – and I have published four books in the last six years. I never would have anticipated that and would never have predicted it. But my focus is changing, I want to address what matters most and not waste precious time on what matters little in the bigger picture — and it is the ability to take a step back and contemplate things and simply see that bigger picture that comes with age.
Viagra jokes aside, the progressive lessening of intense sexual desire which once pervaded every waking hour makes room for a sublimation of sexuality into a different kind of love, not just love for special partners, but a more general love that is concentrated and focused on whoever is before us. We relish the achievements and the promise of youth as the unity of life claims our allegiance more and more. We owe what we have, what we are, to the world. The technical term in Greek is “agape,” a selfless love directed at just about everyone, and a love for being, for creation itself. That happens more and more. We’re still ourselves, but the ability to revere others ripens. We know the difference we each make is very little, but we also know it is the totality of the difference we can make, and we are here to make that difference while we can.
The special love for partners evolves too – it includes greater degrees of gratitude, respect, even piety toward the other that transcends mere affection – and as the more manipulative search for an emotional buzz wanes, the desire to nurture, support, care for others grows.
So yes, there are struggles to adapt as the cold friction of expiring sense, as Eliot put it, becomes a daily challenge, and there is genuine grief for what is lost, but the compensatory expansion of understanding and feeling, what I am trying but failing to describe adequately, expands our opportunities in rich and unexpected ways. We want to make this torch of life in our hands blaze even more brightly while we can, as Shaw said, and be all used up when we die.
In the moment, there is nothing but life to live with intensity and ardor and mindfulness and focus. We hope we have miles to go before we sleep, but however many miles there are, here and now is where we are, and here and now is the opportunity to use our power to reach out and make the difference that we can.
Richard Thieme is an author and professional speaker based in Milwaukee and Minneapolis. He has published four books in the past six years and his clients have included Microsoft, Medtronic, NML, WE Energies, UOP, and Allstate Insurance, as well as the NSA, Secret Service, FBI, U.S. Department of the Treasury, and Los Alamos National Lab.