On Aging

From the time I was sixteen until the time I was fifty my inner sense of myself remained unchanged.  I never felt like an “adult” inside, whatever that was supposed to feel like.  Although I’d worked as a professional for two decades and had grown children of my own, I still felt like an adolescent.   It wasn’t until I reached fifty that I truly felt like an adult.  And I wasn’t sure I liked it.  Would my life become static and stolid; would I become staid?  I needn’t have worried.  It didn’t, I didn’t.

At fifty-five I started accumulating medical diagnoses: the relatively benign (BPH, GERD) the relatively ominous (diabetes) and the potentially catastrophic (liposarcoma).  My list of prescribed medications grew long enough that I needed to write them down to remember when I visited my doctors.  I became aware of how dependent I had become on them.  What if there was some kind of global catastrophe and I couldn’t get my insulin any longer?  Interesting — worrying more about getting my insulin than about any possible global catastrophe (nuclear war? bioterrorism?) itself.  I had become an insulin junkie!

My external body changed as well: a balding head, a graying beard, occasionally swelling knees, unsightly keratoses.  Impermanence with a vengeance!  Vanity has not liked any of it one bit.  I began to feel, if not exactly ancient, then on the road to  antiquity.  How my mind resists it!  I want to hold on to my youth, appearance, and good health as long as possible. Who wouldn’t?  Wouldn’t you?

The trees in my neighborhood are now bare of leaves.  Last Friday I helped my family bury another family member, the fourth this year.  The days have shortened, the weather outside is colder.

Does this sound grim?  Do I sound unhappy?  It only causes unhappiness if I make it into a story: My Saga of Decline and Decay starring Me.  Or I project into the future:  “If this is how things are now, how will they be when I’m 90?”  “If I’m a bit forgetful right now, is that the onset of Alzheimer’s?

But actually, in any given moment, I’m okay.  Right now is just fine. I’m in good shape for the shape I’m in.  My heart beats, my lungs breathe, my legs carry me where I need to go, my eyes see.  All systems are go.  Beautiful moment, perfect moment.  And if vanity doesn’t necessarily like what it sees in the mirror, I remember that all the people who love me love me still, despite my mirror narrative.

And that’s the way it is for all of us, really. If we count up all the minutes we’ve lived and put them in the denominator, then count up all the minutes we’ve endured genuine agony (not mental agony due to projected fear about some future moment, but boiling-alive-in-oil-this-very-moment agony) and put them in the numerator, what is our suffering ratio?  As bad as they’ve been, the truly awful moments have been few and far between, and most moments have been okay in and of themselves.

Imagine being pushed out of an airplane without a parachute.  It might take several minutes to hit the ground.  The only moment of true physical pain is the last, and it is over in the blink of an eye.  All the rest of the journey is free fall.  You can spend the entire trip worrying about how much that last moment will hurt, screaming as you go.  Or, if your Buddhist practice is very good, you can enjoy the feeling of the wind through your hair.  How do you want to go?

Aging is like that.  What is there to be afraid of?  It’s a natural process, the way things are.  You can resist it if you like, but what’s the benefit in that?  Or you can let go and experience life fully the way it is, without the story.

As the cold weather sets in we put our garden to bed.  Today I cut back the rosa rugosa, already bereft of leaves, only a few bright red rose hips reflecting the sun’s light.  We rake up the sweet smelling salt hay we only last month laid down to protect the newly spouting grass.  No sign of the thousand flowers that bloomed this spring and summer.  The bulbs are all asleep, awaiting the return of spring.

We, the garden, the world, all one ongoing process of change.  Coming and going.

Be present.  Breathe.  Drop the story line.  Beautiful moment, perfect moment.  Just as it is.

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