The clock is ticking, but with it comes opportunities.
“Dr. Olson, The plastic surgeon I work for could fix the hooding over your eyes so you could see better,” said my patient, a young nurse who worked for a plastic surgeon.”
“Hooding! I didn’t know I had hooding!” Although I was struggling with turning sixty at the time, I apparently had over-looked this on my growing list of physical defects. It moved quickly to the top of my list of things I hated about my aging body, and then all I could see was hooding.
This was shortly before I experienced an atypical sexual dysfunction: I blew out my knee having sex. I know… Whenever I tell this story the immediate response reflected on the faces is “Wow, I want sex like that!” Their expressions change when I explain that it was routine sex, the kind you have with someone you’ve been together with for many years. Good sex, but Monday night after-the-news sex. You want to but you also want to do it quickly because you have to get to work the next morning. For me, my knee reminded me once again that my body was getting fragile.
On my book tour after publishing Finally Out: Letting Go of Living Straight, a Psychiatrist’s Own Story, I was speaking to a group of mature, gay men in Houston. After I finished, one of them threw his hands in the air and said, “I’m 82 and this is the best time in my life.” I learned a lot from him that night; here was a man on far side of life rejoicing in living each day.
From him, I learned about time. We can either measure time or experience time. We measure time when we say, “I’ll meet you for a drink at 7ish,” or “How will I get all this done by 5:00?” This older man — with limited and diminishing time — focused on experiencing time. I had finally discovered that life is about savoring slow time, and I look forward to opportunities to experience time with people from whom I want nothing and who expect nothing from me.
I have an old White Mountain, hand-cranked ice cream freezer that I bring out when we have guests. The rule is you don’t eat the ice cream if you don’t turn the crank. Invariably I hear, “They make those electric now,” or “Bryer’s makes very good ice cream.” Then the guests collect around the freezer, joining in both cranking the handle and (sometimes cranky) conversation. Making ice cream is about spending slow time with people you care about, creating new memories of shared experiences.
We are surrounded by a culture of ambition and forever young. We replace each completed goal with a new one. A marathon becomes a triathlon. We go to cocktail parties where we know we won’t like anyone to network with people who will pull us one step higher on the career ladder. I have a cupboard full of stoneware bowls I’ve collected. I could break one a week and the collection would out-live me. I have a junk drawer full of brass rings I thought I had to collect on the way up.
Oprah recently collected considerable criticism for accusing a Swiss store clerk of being a “racist” for refusing to show her her a $38,000 handbag. The movie, “The Bling Ring,” captured the bizarre nature of the emptiness of striving that dominates our culture. We have come to believe that our value as a humans and the proof of our success depends upon the handbag we carry or the number of square feet in our houses rather than seeing those things as the temporary fulfillment of ultimate materialism.
Philosopher Epicurus wrote: “It is not the young man who should be considered fortunate but the old man who has lived well, because the young man in his prime wanders much by chance, vacillating in his beliefs, while the old man has docked in the harbor, having safeguarded his true happiness.” In the WSJ Daniel Klein writes: “I have deep-seated qualms about going from a protracted prime of life directly to old old age—the now-attenuated period of senility and extreme infirmity that precedes death. “
The words “aging” and “opportunity” rarely occur in the same sentence, but the ancients had it right: Reflection and friendship are the bounties of old age. As we grow older we have extraordinary opportunities we’ve never had before and will never have again, but only if we learn to understand the value of experiencing time rather than being frightened by the amount of time.
Here’s my list of the opportunities of aging:
- Ageing tames the wild horse in our brain’s limbic system, and we are free to think more rationally.
- We can think from a perspective that is substantially different than we did when we were young, and we can re-examine our value system and make it our own.
- We have gained wisdom from the experience of making good/ bad choices.
- We can enjoy people for who they are, not what they can do for us.
- We can stop living for the approval from others and value the gifts we have instead of envying the gifts others have.
- We can enjoy life in slow time, we can play, we can take a leap into the world of imagination
You don’t get the butt you want by sitting on the butt you have. Some things must be done. You must take time to nurture important relationships. Spend more time choosing your dinner companions than the restaurant where you will eat.
Epicurus wrote: “Of all the things that wisdom provides to help one live one’s entire life in happiness, the greatest by far is the possession of friendship.” Make yourself vulnerable, let others know you and know you deeply. Be the first to say “I love you.”
Develop authenticity by aligning who you are with who you want to be. Be honest about how much time you have left. Savor each experience as if it were your last. Let your past become your history and let your future be a surprise.
Like a child I find now that when asked about my age, I round up, “I’m 70, almost 71.” Their response is often “But age is only a number” — while under their breath they’re thinking “Yeah, but a really BIG number.” Or they say, “You look good…for seventy,” which I hear as “You don’t sweat much for a fat person.” They are pushing me to prolong my “youth.”
The clock is ticking and as I inventory my bucket list I’m checking some things off knowing I will never do them. What continues to rise to the top of that list is sharing deliciously long afternoons sitting with friends I love and sharing the stories of our lives.
When I get ready to move to that assisted living place in my future, the stone ware bowls will go in the tag sale, but that hand cranked ice cream freezer is coming with me.
“Age is just a number”……. a REALLY BIG number”
“Look great…….for 70”
Don’t sweat much….
70, going on 71, and I’m very proud of it