I know that surviving on this small green planet for longer than the Good Book tells me I’m supposed to means only that I am a survivor. A long life didn’t make me smarter or better looking. But inside my head is a wonderful collection of memories that few people want to know about, and an impressive rule book, a sort of road map of life that only works for me no matter who it is I wish to advise. Nevertheless...
Something attracted my attention recently, an old poster thumb-tacked to the door of my closet. I’ve had it a long time and read it now and again. This time it was a fragment about growing old.
Written in faded calligraphy on much-folded, raggedy paper, it is a copy of a prose poem about attaining happiness in life, written by Max Ehrmann back in 1927. It’s entitled “Desiderata,” a word that I think has to do with something to be desired. I bought it at Wal-Mart.
Occasionally, this poem can still be found on a poster or greeting card. Back in the ‘60s, it was widely circulated, accompanied by a claim that it was found in St. Paul’s Church in Baltimore, Maryland, written by an anonymous author in 1692, the year of the church’s founding. Not so.
“Take kindly the counsel of the years,” the poem reads about halfway through, “surrendering gracefully the things of youth.”
If, I pondered, these “things of youth” are that attractive that we must strive to surrender them, then what are we left with? I found some answers.
If there is any place in the world to grow old in, it is probably here in the Deep South, where part of the culture includes a built-in respect for old folks. Gradually I learned to accept, and now cherish, being addressed as Mister Duncan. And the respect doesn’t stop there. Not long ago, a young lady smiled at me and brightened my day. Then she opened the door for me that I had approached and insisted that I go in first. How’s that for “surrendering the things of youth”?
It is probably more accurate to say that if we are wise, we are not surrendering things, but simply exchanging them for other things more useful to us as we turn gray. And there are several.
In conversations with younger people, and that means almost everyone else, we find ourselves with insights that surprise them. How do we do that? It’s simple. It comes from the dual perspective of being our present age while having been their age too, and can still remember how we saw the world. They only have the single, often callow view from where they are now. I have learned not to try to explain that to any young person. They mistake this for senility.
As we grow older, of course there are concomitant aches and pains, but they are no match for the joy each successive day can bring, knowing that we have fewer left. When we were young, it was assumed that we were in some way immortal, and we went through whole years without considering that one day we would run out. Besides, there is this familiar expression: “If it don’t hurt, it don’t work.”
A long life can teach us much that can give us comfort. We can learn to value who we are, and can stop trying to look or act like some impossible Hollywood figure. We can learn to live in the present, not some future that will never arrive. For me, it was learning that all the years I tried to prove something about my own abilities was like slaying imaginary dragons. Even when I won, something told me the dragon was really second class, and I needed a larger one. It was maturity that made me realize that dragon slaying was both useless and unnecessary.
Until we started getting gray and wrinkled, we worried too much about what others thought of us. Now we can see that essentially life is often only an interesting game we can play, and that we are responsible to ourselves. We can continue to play the game, but we can make up some of the rules, and from time to time play a different role if we choose, and not be fooled by the expectations of others. It is probably that characteristic that makes grandparents so attractive to small children. We can be children ourselves, once again, and grandchildren welcome us into their world.
The poet Robert Browning wrote about the aging process, “Youth shows but half. The best is yet to come.” I think he was right.
I was much younger when, as a member of the local Lions club, I approached a very elderly member named George. I asked him what was his secret to long life. His answer was simple: “Just keep on having birthdays,” he told me. I believe that George was right too.
There are drawbacks in growing old. Probably for me it’s in a decreasing ability to remember things. But even that can be good. A poor memory can be a viable substitute for a clear conscience. If I get a lot worse, then perhaps I can start hiding my own Easter eggs. I can start as early as next year. That is, unless I started last year. And if I did, I wonder if I ever found any of them. Oh, well...