Emotional Health

Aging Can Teach Us To Leave Negativity Behind

About twenty years ago, I was visiting a friend at her lovely country home. It was a pleasant July summer morning. Sitting in the garden, I observed her ten-year-old son, J.T. and his friend emerge from the house. He was warm and outgoing like his benevolent parents. He and his buddy had just finished a breakfast of pancakes and were free to explore and play for the rest of the day. I recall a pang of envy: who could be freer than a ten-year-old boy in midsummer? No school, no camp, no chores of significance. The day was theirs to spend as they choose. But how did they differ from me, I wondered? I too was on vacation. It seemed to me that they had three big advantages:

  1. They were entirely unselfconscious.
  2. They had no responsibilities.
  3. They were not burdened by past regrets or future worries.

Life was as beautiful as they wanted to make it, one moment at a time.

While most older people in the United States are not exactly living on Easy Street, in many ways aging has its benefits. And in a society that makes us feel irrelevant, if not invisible, it behooves us to count our blessings. Maybe there are benefits to being invisible? Perhaps some of our benefits have to do with rediscovering the freedoms of childhood.

Once I saw a painting at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., which depicted the three ages of man on a triptych. It left a lasting impression. To the left was childhood—a pleasant garden of delights. To the right was old age—similarly bucolic. The middle panel, adulthood—showed a figure pelleted by rain and hail on a steep and dangerous slope. I think wild animals were involved too, but I’m too old to remember.

While our responsibilities don’t disappear as we age, for many of us they diminish. Our children, if we are lucky, are emancipated and self-sufficient. Again, if we are lucky and/or have been careful, the burdens of earning a living are behind us. Best of all, however, we have wisdom. Experience matters, and if we are wise enough to pay attention to it, it helps us all the time, whether or not we acknowledge it.

In no particular order, here’s what I know now that I didn’t when I was younger. One thing I have learned is that someone who is difficult to deal with early on in a transaction is not likely to improve. Despite what you might want, sometimes it is best to cut your losses with such people. Recently, I was dining at an outdoor restaurant where the tables where very close together. The woman at the next table was complaining loudly that she had been “cheated” because the serving she got was much smaller than the one pictured on the website. She confronted the waiter, who patiently explained that the photo had been of the large portion they make for groups. After he left, she continued to grumble to her dinner companion, and I said to my husband I wanted to change tables. He thought I was being hasty, but after we moved, I observed the woman continued to argue with the staff for several minutes and then left in a huff without paying the bill. Recognizing “bad vibes” and avoiding them early, if possible, is also helpful both in business and romance.

Another thing we all usually learn, a corollary, is to cut our losses. Whether in a relationship or otherwise, as we age we are more likely to recognize the signs of a lost cause and move on.

Related to this is the skill we develop in letting things go. By sheer virtue of a long history, many older people develop an intuitive sense of the relative value of certain problems. We learn that a hysterical phone call from a teenage child may not carry the import of one from a married 35-year-old. We learn that today’s flat tire will actually get fixed and by tomorrow will be a faint memory, or even better, a funny story.

One of the best benefits of aging has to do with one’s self-image. The potential for “perfection” is long past, and we have realized that everyone else has faults too. We accept them more easily in others and in ourselves. This extends to our physical selves, as well. We gradually learn to accept that our bodies are more fragile, and that we must work harder to look and feel well. On the other hand, for some women it is almost a relief to know that their looks are not constantly being evaluated and judged.

“Why did I ever care if strangers thought I was pretty? Worse, why didn’t think I was pretty at an age when everyone is pretty?” Says Margaret Renkl in an essay in The New York Times titled “The Gift of Menopause.”

Many women also feel a sense of relief that they are less burdened by sexual desires than when they are younger. In particular, mature women have abandoned the fantasy that a partner or spouse will come to the rescue and make life a fairy tale.

Start the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.