I was teaching catechism class to the parish children this week when one of the children, probably in a desperate attempt to distract me from whatever obscure point of theology I was rambling about, asked why my hair is turning gray. (I really need to rethink my policy of letting the children ask any questions they want.)
Among other things, the children seem fascinated with seeing their priest age before their very eyes and delight in asking why I’m so old. It’s endearing really, especially considering that I’m only 40. Not exactly young anymore, but no one should be digging my grave just yet.
I admit I have noticed signs of aging. I’m sore for a lot longer after my daily runs. Instead of eagerly staying up all night to read, I fall asleep early enough to wake before the sunrise — and I now really like being up that early. A late night out on the town is the most unappealing idea in the world and I shudder at the thought of being in a crowded place with loud music playing.
As I age, there are also vast differences in my anxiety level. Which is to say, it’s dropped dramatically. As a college student, I constantly worried about the future, getting a job, where I would live. I worried about friendships, girls, the idea of marriage and vocation. I lived in constant, existential dread. I cared very much what other people thought about me and was deeply bothered about conversations that had gone badly or embarrassing things I’d said or done. I didn’t think I’d ever live them down.
In my experience, aging has been a process of leaving all that behind and becoming free.
I suspect the reason why is as simple as experience. I’ve come to understand that no matter what I do, what mistakes I make, what difficulties the world throws my way, I won’t fall apart. I haven’t yet, at least. I’ve made it through everything that has been thrown my way, not always in the most graceful manner, but at this point it doesn’t matter anymore. In fact, gaining experiences with age has been a blast, and the longer I live, the more the good outweighs the bad. Friends are kind and generous, marriage is the best decision I ever made, children are a lot of fun, and family is a source of constant strength.
There’s a lot of security in family. I don’t think I really understood this when I was younger. I loved my family, but was more focused on making my way in the world all on my own. In my pride, I was hesitant to allow anyone to help me. I wanted my successes to be my own.
Over the years, that has changed as I’ve realized that who I am today is far more because of the love my family has invested in me than because of my own talents and skills. In any case, it’s far more important to surround ourselves with love than worldly success, so family has become more and more the focus of my time and energy.
Aging has brought a re-ordering of priorities.
As my friend Maddie says,
“No one talks about how aging can be so joyous and freeing. The years come with their share of heartache and gray hairs, yes, but also with more lessons in wisdom and selflessness with which to weather that ache and bring it purpose. I feel more free to choose what I love. And I’m choosing motherhood to two small children and marriage to my husband.”
I think that’s right. The older I get, the more confident I am in choosing what’s most important.
Another benefit of aging is that, in my first four decades of life on this planet, I’ve made lots of mistakes. I can put those mistakes in the past and am free to make new ones. Hopefully not a lot of new ones, but I no longer hold to the illusion that I’ll be perfect if I only try a little harder. I no longer have notions about how I’ll write the great American novel or be a rich and famous athlete. With those illusions behind me, I’m set free to seek excellence on more honest terms.
The writer George Eliot says, “Every year strips us of at least one vain expectation, and teaches us to reckon some solid good in its stead. I never will believe that our youngest days are our happiest.”
Aging gracefully doesn’t just “happen,” though. As Eliot says, “One has to spend so many years in learning how to be happy.”
It’s important that we don’t live in denial as we age, assuming that living more years automatically confers wisdom. This isn’t true. But what is true is that each day is an opportunity to be seized, and there’s a challenge that arrives with each day, this is an experience that only comes with time on earth. As we rise to it, we progressively become happier and more free.
As I look forward to acquiring more gray hairs, my intention is to keep wondering with astonishment at this strange, fascinating world God has made for us and my place within it. And the way that, even as time is taken away from me, I only become happier.