A pernicious common belief in the US is that getting old is an awful occurrence and that old people are inferior to the young in various ways. In contrast, in many more traditional cultures, the aged are revered and believed to have achieved wisdom to be shared with young people. As I have reached the age that most people would define as old, I certainly have an axe to grind! (I wonder if my use of that expression is, in itself, a mark of aging!) I don’t feel that age itself warrants respect from younger people, but the latter can gain much by listening to the wise elderly. I would (modestly) put myself into that category.
I am also not denying that being old certainly has its downsides. I look with wonder at children and young people who run up and down steps, are very agile in many other ways, seem to have unlimited energy. I remember when I was like them. I also envy their ability to handle the increasingly more complex technology with much greater ease than I.
I also must admit that I am annoyed by some of the physical and intellectual changes that have happened to me. It’s frustrating when I can’t remember, for example, the name of that thing in my sink that grinds up food. Or the name of my best friend’s wife. Or confuse alzheimers with asberergers. And yes, I do worry at times that my forgetting certain things means that I’m developing the former!
But I’ve also realized that there are certain changes I’ve had to make that have enriched my life as I become older.
One great benefit for me is that, as I’ve had to slow down how hurriedly I act, I’m enjoying my present moments more than I usually did in the past. I used to always rush when walking, eating, reading, cooking. driving, etc. But I have found that, for example, if I now walk too fast, I am in danger of falling, which can be devastating for an elderly person. So I walk more slowly, particularly when I go down steps. And that results in my being able to enjoy the very process of descending steps. I feel myself rising on the ball of one foot while simultaneously letting the other foot drop down to the next step. I notice that, for a split second, I am balanced on the toe of the step from which I am descending while falling onto the other foot. I have to trust that the balancing and simultaneous falling I’m doing is okay, that I will safely integrate all these movements and visual inputs. That’s an amazing feat, when I think about it, requiring the integration of visual, kinesthetic and balancing cues that we human beings can do automatically without even thinking about them. I also notice all of the visual, kinesthetic and motoric cues I integrate when I am driving my manual shift car. I will realize sometimes that I have driven many minutes without actually noticing consciously the mileage I’ve put on.
I have noticed that, as I became less dexterous, I would frequently drop things because I wasn’t looking at my hands as I did even simple things like picking up my toothbrush or a dish in my kitchen. My not noticing in the past and appreciating the complexity of these actions now seems absurd to me. How complicated a seemingly simple act is like typing on a computer and we humans are the only animals that can do things like that. I am also aware that I need to slow down my typing to avoid making mistakes.
But, while I used to be a very good speller I now tend to misspell many words. I realize that I never really noticed how complex and difficult the English language is. For example, the word “embarrass” has two r’s and two s’s. I spelled it correctly in the past but didn’t really notice how difficult that word is. I now have an appreciation of the difficulties people from other countries face in learning English.
I now have to eat more slowly for, If I eat too quickly, I occasionally bite my cheek and get indigestion. I realized that in the past I wasn’t letting my taste buds guide me in what I was eating, so I frequently ate foods that, when I stopped to notice the feeling of them in my mouth, weren’t very tasty. So now that I have to eat more slowly, I choose what I eat more consciously, and am able to enjoy what I eat more fully. I also don’t get indigestion.
One of the chief pleasures I now get is taking a shower. I took thousands of showers in the past but, because I viewed that activity as a chore to be gotten over with as quickly as possible, I didn’t really enjoy it. But now I notice the exquisite feeling of the hot water on my head. I even observe that as I dry myself, the feel of the towel on my body is wonderful. The feeling of the water, still on my body, which has gotten cold, is a delightful mixture of slight pain and pleasure.
And finally, I am attending to the many phrases I have always use without examining their meaning. Earlier, I used “axe to grind.” I actually have never ground an axe in my life! But now I am curious where that axiom and others I use came from, and will look them up on my web browser. Learning the genesis of phrases like that has increased my appreciation of the past. I picture an itinerant knife sharpener traveling from farm to farm, sharpening knives and axes. In an interesting way, this helps me feel connected to the past and grounded in the present.
In conclusion, I invite the elderly readers of this blog to become more aware of the richness of their lives by slowing down and noticing in detail the small, habitual things they do but take for granted. I even invite those who are young to do the same!