From The Gift of Years
“Old wood best to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to trust, and old authors to read,” said Francis Bacon.
And he was surely right, at least from one perspective. There is something about getting older that tempts us to settle down a bit. We begin to run the ruts in the road, not because we cannot find our way to other paths, other places, other people but because we really don’t want to make the effort it takes to do it. To meet new people, to develop new ideas, to talk about new things, to learn new patterns not only takes effort, it also demands new attention. The thought of the familiar, on the other hand, comforts us. It assures us that life as we have known it is still there, still stable, still secure.
So we settle into a routine of friends and foods and places and plans and ideas. It’s easier. More than the fact that it’s easy, it is also fulfilling. These things are our identity as well as our pleasure. They say who we are, who we have always been, where we belong and why.
But there is a cost to be paid for settling in to be totally and only what we have always been. The cost of familiarity is the angst of loss, the anxiety that comes with feeling more and more alone as the old commonplaces of life disappear: the neighborhood bar that is no longer there, the sports club that has closed, the old clothing store that knew both our sizes and our tastes. As one thing after another goes, there is our growing awareness that we are becoming a world unto ourselves, whom no one knows anymore.
No wonder there is a natural melancholy that sets in as the years pass by. The world around us begins to change and, little by little, the world that shaped us fades away, without so much as a notice, with hardly a nod. But then one day, in a rush, all the beauties of those years come roaring through us in an emotional whirlwind. The problem is that nobody cares about them now but us. Those years have taken with them a part of ourselves. Is it to be mourned – or celebrated – for its disappearance?
The life that’s gone is the life that shaped us. And what makes us sad is not so much that it isn’t here anymore – it’s the wondering whether what this life formed in us is still there or not.
The remembrance of the days we learned to kneel down to say our night prayers and stand up straight to sing our hymns has nothing of absolute value to maintain the present, of course. But what is worth wondering about, perhaps, is whether or not we still have any of that early piety in us. The pain that comes with the remembrance of piety lost is a good kind of pain. It means that there is something in us yet that holds on to the innocence of childhood. We have not become nearly as jaded, nearly as unbelieving as we thought we were. We have moved now to the hard-won truth of hard-won virtue, the kind of virtue a person learns the hard way. Only after the rules are broken – after we stop worrying about whether or not the passions of youth endanger salvation – are the lessons really learned. If we forget the presence of God in our lives, we know now, we find ourselves terribly alone. No doubt about it – there are moments from the past which, when they flash back, carry the sting of new awareness.
The sadness comes to tell us, too, that there is a value to age, including our own. What ages well, we know from wines and cheeses, are the ones that have the most quality, the greatest flavor, the staying power over time. To allow ourselves to age without vitality, without energy, without purpose, without growth is simply to get old rather than to age well as we go.
Aging is the process by which we face the tasks of every level of life. And the ones we fail at, or postpone as we go, are always unfinished business, left to be resolved in the years to come.
Life is meant to form us in independence, usher us into an adulthood that begins in apprenticeship and ends in mastery, and then, those tasks accomplished, to bring us to the acme of integrity, of wisdom, of eldership in the community of the world. It is a process of ripening as we go, getting stronger, getting more caring, becoming more procreative, sharing more wisdom as we grow – so that those who come after us can walk a clearer path.
The sadness of friends lost, then, is the sadness that comes when the companionship they brought us through each of the earlier stages of life, laughing and learning all the way, begins to unravel. We lose contact, they move away, they disappear. They leave us thrown back on our own devices. Or maybe we left them for shinier lures, only to discover later that there was nothing in life that could match such fellowship. Any mountain can be climbed, we come to understand, as long as we are tethered to someone at least as good as ourselves. The images come and go through the years and with them the remembrance of love unearned.
Finally, we remember the great heroes, the noble ideas, the fine deeds that we ourselves inherited from the past. They focused our hearts on higher goals when we were young. They filled us with the notions of the grandeur of the soul. They acted like a magnet on our heart. What happened to those? What happened to us? Were we up to the level of any of them at all? The sadness comes because we know we wanted to be as pure, as fearless, as true in our own lives as they in theirs. But somewhere along the line, life became more absorbing, more overwhelming, more complex than that. And so now, in the time that is left, life is not over. There is unfinished business aplenty to do, too many things left unsaid, too much teaching yet to be done if we are ever to do our part in making our world as good as those heroes of earlier generations made theirs.
A burden of these years is the desire to give in to the natural sadness that comes with the shifting journey through life, to cling to it in ways that make living in the present a dour and depressing prospect.
A blessing of these years is the realization that there is still so much for us to do that we have no time, no right, to be sad.