Wednesday

Aging Grace

None are so old as those who have outlived enthusiasm.
Henry David Thoreau


I've been looking at some shocking photos for the last couple of days.

I'm one year away from my twentieth high school reunion at the school my husband and I call Hogwarts. It's a public boarding school for the gifted and talented; students there form strong bonds with each other and with faculty.

The class that preceded mine just held their twentieth reunion at the school. Many of them posted pictures on Facebook.

Whoa. I mean, whoa.

How did we travel in the blink of an eye from blooming youth to a slightly-crumpled look that says middle age is just around the corner, if it hasn't already arrived?

I remember those in the class of '89 with plump cheeks, sparkling eyes, shiny hair. Like me, they've changed since then. But the changes in my face have crept up so slowly that I've had time to adjust. I haven't seen most of these classmates, however, for at least ten years, and in some cases fifteen or twenty. Thus the shock.

Their faces are the same. Mentally, I strip off the years. Encroaching threads of gray, eyes that droop a little, and laugh lines appear to me like dust on an old framed photo in my attic. If I just lifted my thumb and wiped at it, I think, the faces would come back as I remember them.

When I see them all gathered together, dusted by age, I can't escape the knowledge that we're no longer young adults. We're halfway through. But I don't feel that statement as a loss. I feel tenderness for them, and from the emotion in the photos, they plainly feel it for one another. We're no longer invincible. We understand one another, like aging wartime buddies.

The prospect of aging does not have to threaten gloom. I know a Very Old Man at our church. When I told a female friend that I found him fascinating, she asked why.

"Because his eyes are still alive." I said. "He's truly interested in other people, and in the world around him. His mind is young."

Which brings me to the Thoreau quotation at the top of this post.

I believe that enthusiasm keeps our minds and souls young. Most of us know fairly young people who become old before their time: they spend most of their free time watching fluff television, eating, and serving their own needs. Life becomes an exercise in making as little effort as possible and distracting oneself with passive entertainments. But most of us also know men like my Very Old Man at church.

Aging won't be fun if we spend our time lamenting the things we didn't do, and the bad choices we made. That inward, backward focus characterizes many older people. But if instead we can keep our focus outward and ahead, like my Very Old Man, then we will age with grace.