“One day Samuel strained his back, lifting a bale of hay, and it hurt his feelings more than his back, for he could not imagine a life in which Sam Hamilton was not privileged to lift a bale of hay.” -John Steinbeck: East Of Eden.
For the past two weeks I’ve been writing about money, and how it relates to psychotherapy. I’m not finished with the subject, but I want to make a slight digression, this week, to talk about a few aspects of aging, as I’m experiencing it. I hope you will indulge me.
Last summer I began my seventy fifth year on this planet. Had a great party; good friends, good beer, lots (and lots) of laughs, but I confess throughout the festivities I felt just a little bit like a fraud.
You see, seventy five is OLD, and I’m…. well, I don’t seem to be. I don’t think my mother lied to me about my birthdate. I’ve got a copy of my birth certificate and it says (in antique, florid longhand) “1936”, but there seems to be some mistake, nevertheless. “Old people” hobble around on canes and… well, you know: they’re finished. They sit and watch daytime soap operas. All that.
So, we seem to have here an example of “cognitive dissonance”. I’m walking around with an idea of what a seventy five year old person is that does not conform to my actual experience. Tilt. Reset.
My reality is that I just don’t think about my age, very much. I just do what I do, as much as I can do it, just like I’ve always done. I don’t seem to have slowed down- quite the contrary, I don’t know when I’ve been busier, with my practice and with the rest of my life. Age just doesn’t seem to be a factor, at least not yet.
Don’t misunderstand; I know how fortunate I am (and I can hear my Celtic ancestor’s Gods chuckling away at my foolishness, tempting their malicious response to such a statement). It’s true, I work hard at staying strong and flexible, going to the gym three times a week and riding my bicycle whenever I can, and I watch what I eat (that is, I watch as I eat it). Too, I have, evidently, been given good genes to begin with, by my Irish and Scot forebears who seem to have been a hardy crew. This combination of good fortune and hard work has given me the opportunity to, well, ignore my age, and that’s pretty much what I do- until I’m reminded by something.
You see, my culture and society and even my good friends, Goddess Bless ’em, also have their ideas of how a seventy five year old man is supposed to be, and these expectations come together to create a sort of field effect, impossible to avoid. My friends (who will be shocked to read this), contribute to the dissonance by expressing amazement at how I don’t “look my age”. As well meaning as these compliments are, they also remind me that I am, in fact, five and seventy years old, which usually comes a a shock: “My God, they’re talking about ME. Oh, that’s right. I’m not supposed to look like this, or be able to do something like this. I forgot”.
The larger society? Well, it expects me to have “slowed down”, by this time- if I’m still alive, that is. It’s not just the “retirement age”, which has become a kind of bittersweet anachronism for many of us. It’s all the news articles about Baby Boomers, beginning to crowd retirement homes, and my monthly AARP magazine and my Senior BART pass and the nice, pretty young girl on BART, getting up and saying “Would you like to sit down, sir?” How the hell do you deal with THAT?
Understand, I’m not taking offense. These reminders are, for the most part, well meant and actually welcome. It’s just that they tend to interfere with what you might choose to call my denial. I don’t think of it that way. I know I’m going to die and, while I’m in no hurry, I’m coming to terms with the fact. I’m not consciously hanging on to my youth. Yeah, I wear the same outfit- T-shirt and jeans- that I wore fifty years ago, but who doesn’t? I don’t color my hair, or fret about my waistline (much) or consider a little tuck, here and there, just to get rid of the wrinkles. I just don’t think about it much, and that’s my point.
I know that someday, maybe sometime soon, something inescapable (Like Samuel Hamilton’s strained back) will overtake me, and THEN, if I have time, I’ll “feel my age”. Until then, pardon me if I look a little confused, when “the Elderly” are mentioned in my presence. You’re watching me remember that that’s me. For as long as it lasts, I’ll take that, and be grateful.
See you next week, and Happy Trails to you.