What Is Old? (A Perspective) - 1440 Multiversity Blog

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What Is Old? (A Perspective)

What Is Old? (A Perspective)

I recently ran across a video on Huffington Post called “What is Old?” In it, twentysomethings were asked the question “What is old?” One young fellow said 40; the rest said 40s, 50s, and early 60s.

Then these young people were each introduced to an “old” person and instructed to take two minutes together and teach one another something they were each good at—a dance move, a yoga posture, a martial arts move. Then they reinterviewed the young people and asked them once again “What is old?” This time they said 80s and 90s; one young lady said 100.

The video ends with one of the older men saying, “When people start stopping, that’s when they start getting old.”

And that can happen at any age. I do a lot of presenting at universities, and used to teach at a university, and I’ve seen “old” people of 20. People who seem to have passed through the membrane from youth to adulthood with very little of their joie de vivre intact. They’ve lost their spark, their initiative, stopped demanding great things of themselves, or even interesting things, and in the process they’ve become prematurely arthritic in their outlook on life.

I believe that an affirmative approach to not just getting older but growing older takes into account that new parts of us are always clamoring for airtime, and the soul and spirit don’t “retire” even if your career does.

These parts of us could be passions and creative leaps, service projects and leadership roles in the community, or simply rediscovering the sense of wonder and the love of learning.

Or maybe it’s a whole new way you want to live and relate to life—not so much a place you want to get to as a place you want to come from. When Bill Gates quit Microsoft for a life of philanthropy, he said, “It’s not a retirement. It’s a reordering of my priorities.”

Either way, these parts of us ask us to continually reinvent ourselves throughout life, and stay close to our deepest sense of passion and purpose, to the place where, as theologian Frederick Buechner put it, “your deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger.” And to remember that we each have a use-by date. Intuitively we know this: the older we get, the more the sense of urgency is turned up, and the less and less viable postponement of our passions and contributions becomes. I saw a bumper sticker recently that said, “Warning: Dates in Calendar Are Closer Than They Appear.”

Granted, the energy it takes to fuel our passions may not be in the batteries to the same degree it was when we were younger, and we can’t just slap in a new pair of batteries—but even if there’s a certain amount of slowing down that does occur, a tempering of the drive and the fight in us, I think losing interest in the world is purely optional and detrimental.

Passion, in my opinion, is a survival issue because our attachment to life depends on our interest in it—our sense of enthusiasm, gratitude, curiosity, wonder, reverence, participation.

It’s the commitment to lifelong learning and growing, to not just investing ourselves in life, but investing in ourselves, lest passion turn into dispassion, resignation, boredom, and time being torn off the calendar unused. Lifelong vitality requires that we refuse to “start stopping.”

It also requires that we continually cultivate a sense of purpose, a reason to get up in the morning, a reason why we should be around tomorrow. For example, the goal of what’s referred to as “encore careers”—the ones you have after the supposedly primary one you’ve had up until now—is less about continuing to climb the ladder and build your resume, and more about meaning and purpose, making a difference, doing work you love, doing what you love, and doing it in a socially-useful way.

One of the primary dramas in people’s relationship to their vitality is the tug-of-war between passion and security, and one of the arenas in which that struggle heightens is the arena of aging. Midlife specializes in it. The Third Age (50-to-60 and up) specializes in it. Because they ask us to reconsider, if not relinquish, some very deep familiarities, lifelong patterns, and mind-sets. Letting go of who we are or who we’ve been for who we need to become.

I read a story recently about a couple who retired, sold their house and most of their possessions, bought an RV, and took to the road to enjoy their golden years. After two months of this, however, they apparently got bored to the point of a near-death experience, so they hooked up their traveling with what’s called “habitating”—a subculture of RVers called Care-A-Vanners who travel around the country helping Habitat for Humanity build people houses. So their leisure became connected to service and thus infused with purpose and a renewed sense of, you’ll pardon the pun, drive.

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