The REAL reason to enjoy growing older - whether you're 25, 55, or 85
Do you prefer quiet ud, depth to superficiality, sensitivity to cool? Welcome to the Quiet Life — for kindred spirits drawn to quiet, depth, and beauty.
Today, let’s talk about getting older – its losses, and its surprising glories – whether you’re 25, 55, or 85.
On our last holiday, my husband Ken and I went for a drink with another, younger couple. I mentioned that recently I turned 55, and my friend kindly exclaimed that I don’t look 55. I appreciated her gesture, but said I know that I do and it’s OK, it doesn’t really bother me and in fact so far I’ve enjoyed growing older.
She looked at me in amazement. You should write about THAT, she said. Hence today’s Kindred Letter (Hi, Marina!).
So now I’m trying to figure out what I actually meant. Because of course I don’t like the extra wrinkles and pounds that come with time, any more than the next person. I’ve never enjoyed being photographed, and these days I REALLY don’t like it. I avoid mirrors sometimes.
And of course, I’m not looking forward to the loss of health that age eventually brings. So far, I’ve been lucky. I can still do all my favorite things, like hiking and tennis and yoga, pretty much the way I always did them. So, easy for me to be sanguine about aging. Still: I’ve watched my mother suffer with Alzheimer’s. I know what it means.
And then there’s the loneliness of those who outlive their friends. Just yesterday, I walked our dog Sophie, and met a neighbor of ours, a very old man hobbling along on his cane: all watery eyes, trembling hands, hungry for a chat. He was valiantly cheerful in the late December of his life. But he looked cold.
I don’t look forward to any of this.
So what does it mean to enjoy growing older?
Partly it seems that, so far, aging is a matter of moving from one interesting state of being to another. I remember a particular moment in my 30s, walking down a street in New York City and feeling like I was crackling with electricity. That was fun. I don’t crackle quite as much now. But I don’t miss it, because now I’m having other experiences. 25 was a roller coaster, 55 a walk in the woods.
Maybe it’s also that temperamentally I’m better suited to midlife than I was to youth. I feel more permission, now, to think about supposedly somber things like life and death and what on earth we’re doing here. These topics seem more fitting at 55 than 25. I could never convince anyone, back then, that such questions were fascinating, not depressing.
But I think what I really mean when I say I like getting older is that suddenly I understand what the poets have been talking about all this time. At 25, I had no idea what Keats meant when he said that truth was beauty and beauty was truth. I didn’t understand that truth meant “the truth of being” as opposed to “the truth of not telling a lie”, and if I had, I wouldn’t have grasped what beauty possibly had to do with it.
I had no idea what William Blake was talking about when he said that you could
“…see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.” (h/t Douglas Murray)
I would never have nodded my head at Kahlil Gibran’s observation that his youthful “sadness has turned into awe” and that, in the autumn of his life he stood finally “in the presence of life and life’s daily miracles.” (h/t Maria Popova’s marvelous Marginalian newsletter)
Partly these revelations come with age because we know that our days of earthly miracles are numbered. “He was reaching that age,” as the author James Salter put it in this gorgeous passage, “he was at the edge of it, when the world becomes suddenly more beautiful, when it reveals itself in a special way, in every detail, roof and wall, in the leaves of trees fluttering faintly before the rain. The world was opening itself, as if to allow, now that life was shortening, one long, passionate look, and all that had been withheld would finally be given.”
I reached this age – this state -- about five years ago.
But I don’t think it’s only about lengthening shadows. That is: even if we lived forever, there are certain insights that just come with time. As I wrote in Bittersweet, the famous creativity researcher Dean Keith Simonton found that creativity tends to move in a spiritual direction during midlife and beyond. Simonton studied 81 Shakespearan and Athenian plays and concluded that their themes grew more religious, spiritual, and mystical as the playwrights aged. He also studied classical composers, and found that musicologists rated their later works as “more profound.”
There’s a reason you’re not supposed to study Kabbalah (the Jewish version of mysticism) ‘til you’re 40. I remember hearing this when I was a teenager, and feeling frustrated – I wanted to know the secrets, right then and there. I’m still not sure I agree with the prohibition. But now I understand where the age limit came from.
So that’s why I’m perfectly happy to turn 55.
And it’s why I wish you a very happy next birthday, whatever stage of life you’re in right now.
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