First I want to thank all those who helped me celebrate yet another year of doing what I do on planet earth. There’s an age at which the anticipation of birthdays brings excitement, sugar fixes, and partying until nap time, and another age at which you simply fasten your seat belt and hang on, hoping the vagaries of life don’t push you beneath the sod.
There was once a time when I spontaneously dashed out the door, eager to race a pal to the end of the block, or some other form of exercise. Now there’s the creaking and groaning of protesting body parts in even considering such a thing. I played basketball for almost twenty years, finally giving up on it in my thirties. I’m still a fan, though – I sat rapt through game after game of the latest NCAA Men’s Tournament, aka March Madness, watching these gifted, much taller than I athletes do a form of what I used to do. Occasionally, my thoughts gave me this: “I can still do that!” But then my body had a different opinion: “You can try, but it’s gonna hurt.”
All this to say that aging is an art that few understand. Ever notice those seventy-year old rockers plod out on stage to sing slightly off-key, their playing a bit clumsy now? Do you sigh sadly at the golfer, the baseball player, the rickety quarterback, trying to put together one more day in the sun? It can be pathetic.
Once there were certain stages to life that perhaps we should honor again – in an age in which we keep pretending we’re still thirty-five, fit as a fiddle, and able to party all night:
- Some Native American tribes placed children under the guidance of their mothers until about age five, at which time the fathers took up the boys’ guidance and the mothers relationship to the girls changed from infancy-at-play to a stage of preparation for adulthood.
- Then there are the rites of passage to adulthood, their conclusion celebrated in many different ways, by endurance feats, tattooing, of ceremonies such as Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.
- Adulthood, with the advent of an emerging middle class became split into three rough categories:
- Apprentice, in which a young person went to work for someone in a certain trade, simply running errands, doing the dog-work, and getting the feel and the language of the craft.
- Journeyman, in which a young person operates within the craft or trade, but still under the guidance of an elder.
- Master, then, is the peak of this training, a person responsible for training others while establishing his/her mark as a superior craftsman or trade person.
We still tend in western society to be roughly guided by these stages of life, albeit not as closely as in the past. But where we fall flat, I think, is in our older adulthood, or as we call it in modern times, retirement.
As we age, we’re no longer the able warriors, our bodies’ strength waning, nor the gifted weavers, our hands gnarled and arthritic. But we still have our minds. This is the stage of life in which, with less responsibilities, elders have often retired to monasteries or to the deep woods or caves to ponder the meaning of life. The age at which we try to patch together the disparate craziness of life into a provisional whole that makes sense.
Look at the lost expression on the faces of bankers and businessmen when asked to confront income inequality or climate change. Listen to the whining of politicians whose only interest is stasis in the face of compelling social evolution. Watch the average Joe grow angry because the world around him has changed and he has no clue why.
This should be the territory of the aged folk, who return from the monastery or woods or cave with some sense of social purpose, of an inkling of a way forward for one’s people. This, I’m positive, is the key to a world of change: not only to have one’s thumb on the pulse of what used to be, but a sense of vision for the younger folk, scrabbling to make their way in a chaotic world.