One wonders, as one ages, if there are any advantages to this process, particularly since we have a brain that allows us to understand that each day, after a certain age, one is potentially slower, weaker, less able. Each morning, in the year of 30th anniversary from high school, begins with an inventory of morning aches and pains. I awake, I run a mental checklist of the parts of my body that creak and groan and work less well, before gingerly making my way through the day.
I recognize that it takes more time to recover from injuries and colds, and I lament that I cannot run as quickly as I once did, throw as hard as I once did, or carouse as late as I once did. Music is often too loud, and I judge it as being too silly these days—until I remember the lyrics of Van Halen’s “Jump,” or Ratt’s “Round and Round.” My temper seems hotter, my patience seems shorter, and my endurance seems less. I feel as if Jaques, from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, best describes my feelings:
“And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice, 160
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound” (II.vii.152-162).
Not quite yet have I slipped the spectacles on my nose—but I feel as if reading glasses are not too far off—but the pouch on the side continues to grow at an alarming rate, and my manly voice, which began to break up as I read at church this afternoon, may be turning again toward childish treble. Ah, growing old has its challenges.
But while attending my 30th high school reunion with friends, I learned that there are advantages to growing older. Almost a quarter of our living class—we have already lost three classmates—returned, and how different from previous reunions that the evening progressed inspired these musings. In high school, not unlike other schools, I suspect, we all moved in cliques: the jocks, the musicians, the nerds, the cool kids, the artists, the stoners, and all the usual clichéd descriptions of high school kids. We spent a great deal of energy and time jockeying for position for the perceived race ahead. And when we returned for the fifth and the tenth year reunions, the cliques seemed to be in place still , separating out a class that is small, fewer than 50 graduating seniors, even more. Add to the cliques of the fifth and tenth reunions, our desire (or is it need?) to share successes with money, with jobs, with partners, and with any other means of measuring success, and the race that began in high school only seemed to be even more intense. The evenings of the fifth and tenth reunions seemed like preening contests, as each peacock fought to let everyone else know who’s done what—who’s been running the race the quickest and most agilely. There was a great deal of talking and not much listening, as the loudest voice and largest wallet predominated. The barbs and jokes were tinged with stinging cruelty, as measuring one another also meant demeaning one another: success came in many forms, and one way to attain it is to stand on the backs of other persons. The questions sought to gauge how successful you were. The apocryphal and morally bankrupt quotation that is often ascribed to Malcolm Forbes, “He who dies with the most toys wins,” seemed to set the stage for the evenings. In short, what you did mattered more than who you are
The beauty of aging, sharing time at our 30th reunion, however, is that we had all moved away from that quotation and spent our time trying to hold deep, meaningful conversations that probed to learn one thing: how are you? The joy each one of us felt for one another was palpable, and we all wanted to hear about one another—not what each other was making, or doing, or conquering; no, what makes you happy, what are you doing to serve others, what are you creating? Of course, there was a tremendous amount of teasing and spurious stories shared about my seraphim existence in high school—truly, I was an angel visiting here on earth then—but the belly laughs were deeper and longer, the smiles were more honest and more genuine, the handshakes were firmer and longer lasting, and the hugs were more fraternal and more compassionate. The teasing was borne from shared experiences and shared joy. Each one of us, dare I say, was authentically interested in one other’s lives.
And the walls that separated us as children crumbled as thoroughly as the trumpet-blared walls of Jericho. We mingled joyfully, eager to listen to one another, eager to hear and to learn who each person is. It seems, then, with age comes a wisdom that is hard earned, but worthwhile. As much as I envy my younger, more pliable self, I am grateful for the aging process, which has enabled me—and my friends—to be more tolerant, more forgiving, more compassionate.
A former colleague used to say, “There’s no humility without humiliation,” and I believe that anyone who has reached his or her late 40’s without having eaten some humble pie is either marvelously lucky or seriously delusional. Humbling moments teach us empathy, and it was good to see so many friends who are interested in listening and learning and humbling accepting one another as each one truly is. Aging has its advantages, it seems: my temper may be hotter, my patience may be shorter, and my endurance is definitely lessened, but my ability to tolerate, to forgive, and to express compassion replace those other skills, making me—and my classmates—honest travelers along the road of life.