The older I grow, the more I distrust the familiar doctrine that age brings wisdom.
Maybe age does bring wisdom, but not just. Maybe age also brings so many other strong tugs that the wisdom gets distorted.
I’m old, but not really old just yet. I just turned 58. Since my 30’s I’ve kept an eye out for aging role models, seniors I’d like to emulate, and seniors I’d like to avoid becoming. I try to figure out what, besides good genes and good fortune, makes the difference between old folks who are good and bad company. Here, I’ll list my take-aways, the lessons I’m trying to live by to avoid becoming the wrong kind of senior.
I’m no authority, but then neither are seniors necessarily. In all walks of life, the successful are rarely experts on what makes them successful, and plenty think they’re successful when they aren’t. The following 10 rules are just one aspiring senior’s best guesses at how to offset the natural accumulation of tugs that pull seniors away from wisdom.
- Don’t live for how you’ll look back on your life: We intuit that the good life is one you’ll look back on proudly and the bad life is the one you’ll look back on regretfully. We live for a glorious death bed scene and a well-attended, heartfelt funeral. Living for how you’ll look back on life is like working like a dog all your healthy years so you can enjoy yourself when you're too decrepit to have a good time. Don’t worry about the end game. Most of them are messy. Besides, the old are notoriously bad at remembering accurately, which means that if you’re a cheerful senior, you’ll be able to make up a positive fictional autobiography and if you’re a cranky senior, you’ll be able to make up a fictional autobiography about a miserable past. Live instead to land cheerfully in old age. Your fictionally heroic autobiography will flow naturally from your cheerful, appreciative state of mind.
- Anticipate shrinking expectations: Somehow between now and 90 you’re going to have to shrink your expectations to where having a good poop is a productive day. By all means, aspire, reach, hold high your expectations. Count your blessings, the glass half full, and stretch for more, your glass half empty, but know that in the end everyone has to get a shorter glass, one that feels brimming with less in it. Savor your day in the sun, and don’t expect to be maintained in the manner to which you’re accustomed.
- You will over- and under-estimate how fast you’re aging: Somewhere between eight and 30 most of us become adults. During that growth phase we’re moving targets and as such are hard to read accurately. Adults will over- and under-estimate young people’s maturity, expecting them do things they’re not ready to do, and keeping them from doing things they’re more than ready to do. It drives the kids crazy, but that’s what they get for changing so dramatically. Likewise, somewhere between 45 and 90 most of us become children again. During that shrinking phase, we’re moving targets again and will tend to over-, and under-estimate how fast we’re aging. It will drive us crazy but that’s what we get for changing so dramatically.
- Remember mid-life crisis? It’ll come back with a vengeance: We talk of a woman’s biological clock. Well, by now there’s a sociological clock too and it ticks for all of us, the sense that we better make our mark before it’s too late. Somewhere mid-life many of us recognize how little mark we’ve made. Midlife crisis brings on some expectation readjustment, but if you’re lucky enough to have many more healthy years, you don’t really hear the bell toll. You just anticipate it abstractly. By 70, the bell becomes real. Expect it. Expect to be unsatisfied with your accomplishments. Especially now, given the particular era we’re living through. The world has never had more people more free to express themselves, anticipating acclaim, success, and recognition. Percentage-wise the number of us who make a lasting mark is down in the decimal dust. The tide of culture will wash almost all of us away. Our names forgotten in no time. Our accomplishments swept up in days. Meditate on the moment in the parking lot after your funeral, most people saying, “Nice service. Now where should we go for dinner?” Practice trying hard but also letting go.
- Wisdom is not like AARP membership: At 50 they send you an AARP card, official membership in the American Association of Retired People. But they don’t send you a wisdom card. You’re not wise just because you’re old, so be careful not to fall for your own clever disguise: the beard, the gray hair, the craggy features. You’ll want to be interviewed, but more often the questions you’ll get are charity not curiosity. Which is not to say give up on seeking wisdom. Seek it. Seek a definition of it. Devote yourself to becoming a connoisseur of it. Becoming wise not by declaring yourself wise but by studying and self-undermining the easy postures of wisdom. There’s no better use of seniority than pursuit of wisdom; no worse abuse of seniority than easy claims to have found it.
- A shorter future means a lower payoff from changing. Don’t mistake your lack of motivation for a principled commitment to the right way to live: You can teach an old dog new tricks, but why bother? After all, how many years do they have left to show them off? While the best and brightest old folks cultivate new skills as long as they can, there will be a tendency toward hardening of the smarteries, seniors set in their ways because changing them is simply not worth the time and effort given how little time they have left to sport the changes they’ve made. That’s OK. The young accommodate stubborn old folks, because they intuit that it’s not worth encouraging them to change. Still, we do the young a kindness by not pretending our intransigence is a principled stance. Admit that the payoff isn’t worth it, rather than insisting that you won’t change because you’re already right.
- Young people won’t find your hot new insights as hot and new as you did. You were on the cutting edge of an important movement back in the middle of the last century. But what was then dramatically new is by now old hat. Just when you discovered the true meaning of life they change it. Yesterday’s news is today’s cliché. Don’t be Cliché Guevara. Don’t trot out what have become clichés as though they’re still revolutionary. Accept that the world keeps turning. There’s wisdom in that, neither complaining sentimentally about the loss of old values or pretending your break from still older values was the very last break the world had in store.
- You deserve less pity than those who died young. And with the way things are going, the young: Arthritis is hard, but dying in your prime is harder. Pity them more than you pity yourself. And the young will sympathize with you, but don’t forget to sympathize with them. For all you know, they’ll die before you, or at least have fewer years than you’ll have had. And anyway, if anyone living deserves pity, it’s probably today’s youth. They showed up in time for the big party, the spectacular bonfire, us burning off millions of years of accumulated fossil fuels and racking up the national debt. They’re here for the party but just the tail end. We older folks will bow out early, leaving the clean up and consequences to them. If you lived through much of the last century, you got human culture in is prime. Very lucky. Minimize self-pity.
- You are not exempt. What old folks do, you’ll do too: As long as we can, we pretend we’re exempt from aging, for example claiming we look younger than our years, longer often than we do. That’s a good strategy. It will keep us young and ambitious as long as we can pull it off. But ultimately we can’t. We are not exempt. What the old folks do, we will do if we’re lucky enough to live that long. If you loved the sound of your own voice when you were young, chances are very good that like most old folks, you’ll really love it when you’re old, grasping at signs that you can still shine. You will talk too much and say too little. Work to offset that tendency.
- Hairsheimers: You may or may not end up with Alzheimer’s, but your hairs are certain to forget where to grow. Get a nose hair trimmer. You’ll breathe easier. And be easier on the eyes.