Growing older. A lot changes. In some ways you feel the same, you donít even notice, until little things begin to remind you that the body-home of your soul is in the process of transforming. Of course, you notice that you are not as limber as you used to be, as strong or long-winded: on a physical level you cannot do what you once were able to do when you were young. And you remember, fondly, the days of yore when it seemed you were a superman. But if you are wise and disciplined and lucky, you manage to keep yourself in decent shape, and by working within your limitations, avoid pushing the "envelope" that could remind you, too explicitly, too painfully, of your decline. In this out-of-shape society, you may, in fact, even be able to persist at a level of physical conditioning that places you above the norm. You may walk, while others drive cars or take taxis, go out when it is raining or snowing, allow yourself to feel like a tough survivor from the days of old, "when men were men."
But even so, age begins to affect you. You can sense its impact all around you.
As a man grows older, he is often still willing to think young and feel young, and yet, he begins to notice his age in the subtle relationship, the subtle interplay with girls and women on the street. For example, there is a different energy in passing by a beautiful young girl, now that he is older, there is not the mutual spark or interest, or sense of adventure, or magnetic pull; the aging man may forget himself, and admire the young womanís beauty for a moment with all the passionate desire of his youth. But the girl does not react in the same way, her blossoming or shyness is not triggered by his gaze, the beautiful game is not activated, and the man wakes up to the fact that he has grown out of her world, and disappeared into his own. Like a ghost who can stand right beside a living person and not be seen, he has faded into another dimension - the old manís dimension. His sexuality, his continued ability to be attracted and heartstruck by beauty has become invisible to the ones who excite him in this way, it has been hidden behind his changing form, which locks him into another role, a more harmless and innocent role from which he cannot escape, without becoming a "transgressor." For for him, what was once "natural" has now become "unnatural." And he realizes that it is as though he had evolved into a different kind of animal, a different species, altogether, from what he was in his youth. Once a seagull, who flew about with other seagulls, and participated in their mating joys and struggles, now he is a goose, wandering on the shore alone amidst the swirling gulls, who do not notice him.
This is the time when young girls begin to give him the "old man" smile, and when the bodies of the girls who he sits down next to on the train or bus do not tighten up in the protective way they do when a young man sits down beside them, defending themselves from a sexual threat, or else gripped by that electric tension, the tension of the flower bud that wants to open but is holding itself back, waiting for a sign that the sun will be there to greet it. In the girlís relaxation, in her comfort with his closeness, the older man knows, yet again, that his youth is past.
This is also the time of life when he begins to hear an occasional "Sir" coming his way, something that he may find amusing, flattering, and amazing, all at once, although on a deeper level, he knows that it means he is in decline.
Still, there are benefits to the changes. Now he can walk down a street where a band of youths is hanging out, and not worry so much about getting caught up in their struggles, in the fights between their social cliques, or becoming a victim of their prejudices. For the man who, as a youth, got picked on, or jumped by other kids (and who hasnít?), it bestows an incredible sense of power and relief to be able to walk right through a bunch of nasty-looking teenagers who, if he belonged to their age group, would surely have scrutinized him from head to toe, and maybe tried to intimidate him or start up with him, if not only say something cruel or hurtful. But he is out of their "prey range" now, no longer a target, and so they let him pass without a word, most of the time not even looking up from their own banter, their own world.
Although this condition of safety may actually have kicked in some time earlier in his life, another form of safety is likely to kick in about the time his hair turns gray or white - especially if he was unconventional or "dangerous-looking" as a youth. Now he can walk through fine neighborhoods, and no longer feel the eyes of the police staring down at him suspiciously, making him feel unwanted, like a potential burglar or criminal suspect. I know a person (I wonder who it is?) who used to be questioned by the police in days gone by, just for walking down a residential street that was not part of his expected territory. Now, whenever he walks down those same streets, the policemen smile and say "Hello", as though he were a pillar of the community. Gray hair and white hair does wonders, in that way. The loss of youthís power makes others feel safe, and their acceptance is another way of telling you that you are fading.
And, then, of course, there is the benefit of wisdom. Whether you are wise or not, others are more likely to see you as so. Your white hair (or loss of hair? or both?), which steals your loverís credibility, at the same time endows you with an image of experience and knowledge that may be fully undeserved! Just as the genius dressed in rags may be branded as a fool by a society which is hooked on appearances, and which blocks out any sign of his genius in order to defend its assumption, so the fool disguised with white hair may sometimes be mistaken for a sage, a wise elder, and be protected by the same screening mechanism, which blocks out his folly, so that the expectations of society may be preserved. Admittedly, the assumption that wisdom comes with age is no longer as powerful as it once was - thanks to the 60s! Still, I have noted, the gray and white does help, in this regard!
Hopefully, though, age does bring some genuine benefits, to compensate for its horrible acts of pillage, its cruel theft of things so dearly loved and wanted. Hopefully, the experience that goes with the years brings some wisdom, some understanding. Hopefully, as youthís beauty and energy begin to fade, its wild faults, at least, are superseded - transcended, and not just overcome by losing the vigor needed to continue making the same cruel or foolish mistakes. Hopefully, as the eyesí vision begins to dim, the vision of inner landscapes begins to grow, and oneís sight into the heart of men becomes sharper, like the vision of an eagle that can see the movement of a single thought, a single feeling far beneath its outstretched wings. Hopefully, as the body begins to recede, the soulís power begins to emerge, everything that is no longer possible finally giving it room to enter into the center of our lives. Hopefully, as the wounds of life multiply, and as pain and sorrow lose the physical force needed to transmute them into evasion and revenge, compassion and love may grow from what we have lost. Hopefully, we can begin to recognize the hurt in the eyes of others, and to know the depth of their pain from our own pain, and the preciousness of their humanity, which hides within their defeats. As we become more a part of the country of pain, so we may finally begin to develop a kind of "patriotism" for this country, which does not mean a love of pain, but a sense of solidarity and love for those who occupy this country with us - all the suffering and wounded people of the earth. And this can be the basis for developing a new dimension of compassion.
Of course, none of these compensations are automatic. Age, with its fierce losses, can also bring bitterness, anger, desperation, frustration, rigidity, close-mindedness. Our hearts and minds must actively seek and utilize the opportunities that aging offers us, or, in our final years, we may be left with nothing but decaying bodies, and abject terror, like a person about to drown in a flood.
For me, as a "mature" male, one of the greatest compensations of growing older is the expansion of my concept of beauty, and my discovery of the autumnal beauty of the aging woman. Not to deny that I still find young women very attractive - well, some of them (usually those who have a natural spark, a marked difference, perhaps an artistís wild side, or a mind deep for their age. Maybe those who would dare befriend a Hunchback or a Beast.)
What it is about these mature women, traveling in the sacred land between youth and old age, I am not quite sure. Is it what was lost, yet remains in its absence? Perhaps the memory or trace of who they were, enshrined in a living being who is no longer the same? I remember "Fallen Majesty", the poem by William Butler Yeats:
"Although crowds gathered once if she but showed her face,
And even old menís eyes grew dim, this hand alone,
Like some last courtier at a gypsy camping-place
Babbling of fallen majesty, records whatís gone.
The lineaments, a heart that laughter has made sweet,
These, these remain, but I record whatís gone. A crowd
Will gather, and not know it walks the very street
Whereon a thing once walked that seemed a burning cloud."
Is this, perhaps, what makes Machu Picchu such a wonder? The ruins of a vanished time, whose deserted buildings, hidden in the vastness of the cloud-draped mountains, give hints of something once magnificent and unequaled, whose absence overwhelms everything that remains on the earth? Whose collapse somehow radiates more beauty than anything that is still in its prime?
Perhaps it is the beauty of the dying leaf, as conveyed by Edmond Rostand in Cyrano de Bergerac:
Cyrano: The leaves -
Roxanne: What color - perfect Venetian red! Look at them fall.
Cyrano: Yes - they know how to die. A little way from the branch to the earth, a little fear of mingling with the common dust - and yet they go down gracefully - a fall that seems like flying!
Is it the trace of death, beneath the form of life, that makes life suddenly seem to be so much more precious? So much more aware of everything it is, and can be. Is it the meeting of her eyes with your eyes, the eyes that know deep wounds: wounds that have driven the heart to grow past all the foolish things that can make hearts ugly? Is it the hearts with clocks ticking inside them, seeking one final moment of truth in the world, with no more time for lies? It is hard to define. And yet, this is certainly one of the compensations of growing older, the knowledge that one is not alone, and the knowledge that the wine of the human soul grows finer with the years. In some ways, it is like being admitted into a secret society, that knows itself from the way anotherís eyes look back at one: the light, the kindness, the life, that are the passwords of a great soul, on its way to God, but not yet completely done with the things of youth.
Growing older - how terrible it is in some ways! How frightening! Many, overwhelmed by its dark side, try to run from it, but in so doing, only lose the beauty that comes from it. For the old person who clings too desperately to the beauty of youth loses his beauty, while he who seeks the new beauty of age, recovers it. (Beauty has its phases, just like the moon, and, at any moment, is best realized by learning to express the natural form of beauty that comes from oneís own phase.) Is it possible to approach growing older with the wisdom conveyed in Robert Browningís poem, "Rabbi Ben Ezra"?
"Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:
Our times are in His hand
Who saith, ĎA whole I planned,
Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be
Who knows? I would only like to say to the young: be kind to those who are growing older, and to those who you deem old - they have lost a lot, more than you know; nor ever look down on them, for you will travel on that same path one day. And each generation will be "old-fashioned" to the next. And to those who are growing older, I say, do not hide from what is happening, for that way you will only lose its gift. Do not fly against the wind of life, but as the birds who know the wind, use it to carry you on one last flight across the earth, the most beautiful one you will ever take, for, if you let yourself, you will see and feel more on that journey than on any other. Losing the illusion of forever, every moment will become sacred. And every bare wall will become a masterpiece.
God bless the young and God bless the old: God bless the human being in all phases of his journey.
Growing older - just some thoughts.
REFERENCES: The Collected Poems of William Butler Yeats (Macmillan, p. 121).
Cyrano de Bergerac, Edmond Rostand, translated by Brian Hooker (Modern Library, p. 282-282).
"Rabbi Ben Ezra", Robert Browning.
Weapons of Depth Contents