I hated everything about turning sixty, and I certainly had never expected to find that with aging come opportunities.
My skin sagged, wrinkled, and began to resemble bread mold. I’d gained weight, and after falling asleep while driving, I was diagnosed with sleep apnea. I needed a knee and a shoulder replacement, and when I finished urinating and put my junk away, the last few drops of urine always ran down my pant leg. I had visions of smelling like a bad nursing home.
My parents had died as well as my brother, and some of my friends were dying, too. My career had plateaued a few years before. Opportunities come with aging? I don’t think so … or at least I didn’t think so.
I told my family and friends that I just wanted my sixtieth birthday to slip by, unnoticed, but when it did go by unnoticed, I was pissed.
I returned to my writing and published Finally Out: Letting Go of Living Straight, a Psychiatrist’s Own Story. While on my book tour and speaking in Houston, “Don” raised his hands in the air and said, “I’m 82 and this is the best time in my life!” I began to think, What does he know that I should know? It changed my life.
I then heard the saying that has sometimes been attributed to Buddha, “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.” Pains are the things that happen to us: turning sixty, losing our parents, prostate or breast cancer, dealing with physical changes, and in my case, accepting that I am gay. Suffering is how we choose to deal with our pain. Or not. At sixty, I was suffering ... needlessly.
I’m 73 now, and from time to time someone will say, “You look good … for 73.” At first it felt good. I felt like I had defied the odds, but then it began to sound to me as if they’re saying, “You don’t sweat much … for a fat person.” Now, I just want to respond, “What the hell were you expecting me to look like at 73?” But the truth is that both the person who says it and I were responding to an internalized stereotype of a deteriorating old man.
When I was born in 1943, life expectancy for men was 64 years and for women was 68 years. In my youth, not many men were 73 years old, and those who were seemed pretty old. In fact, I have beaten the odds I was given at birth; I have been given a gift of nine additional years (more or less) beyond what my life expectancy was when I was born. Today, because I’m considered a “survivor,” I now have a life expectancy of 86 years. I want to be able when I am 82 to say what Don said, “I’m 82 and this is the best time in my life?”
Another response I get when I tell my age is, “Age is only a number,” which sounds to me a lot like, "Wow! Seventy-three?" and then under their breath, "Seventy-three is a very big number." But age isn't just a number, a chronological definition of our age. We have our chronological age for sure, but we also have a physical age, a psychological age and a sexual age. If I respond, “I don’t feel like 73,” it is just another expression of my own ageism. What I should say is, “I don’t feel like I expected to feel at 73.”
When I came out as gay at age forty, in order to rid myself of the shame and guilt I felt, I first had to shed the internalized stereotypes of what it means to be gay. Now I must shed those stereotypes of being 73 that I acquired as a child. Now I must come out again as a proud old man.
Some people suffer because they want their old lives back. Not me. My past is history; I want to let it go. My future is uncertain; it will unfold as it will. I just want to live this moment being mindful of every day.
So I promised you that I would speak about the opportunities that come with ageing, and I do believe that old people have opportunities that we’ve never had before and will never have again.
Hugh Grant, in his role as St. Clair Bayfield in the movie “Florence Foster Jenkins,” said as he recognized that his acting career had been only modestly successful and had little prospect of being anything more, “I was freed from the tyranny of ambition.” I began to come to that same conclusion as my own career plateaued. Until that point my profession had scripted my life; each step up the career ladder had been dictated to me.
We can either measure time or we can experience time. For me, time still carries a sense of urgency, but the urgency of time has been transformed from a seemingly endless series of appointments and moving from one goal to the next to an urgency for experiencing every moment and not wasting the time that remains. I decided to stop wearing neck ties. I promised never to sit through a boring meeting or lecture. I stopped going to cocktail parties to “network” with people I didn’t really like but who might do something for me. I moved things from my bucket list to my un-bucket list and began to get rid of things I once treasured but increasingly felt like just some burdensome “stuff.”
I stopped doing what I thought I should do to meet someone else’s expectations of me. I deconstructed my old value system and reconstructed one of my own. I realized that good relationships are always U-shaped, and to hang on to them sometimes requires a lot of work to get to a richer place.
I stopped seeking relationships based on what the other person could do for me. I discovered that whom I dined with was more important than what is on the menu. I began to shed myself of stuff that had lost its meaning. I have learned to appreciate my experiences and the wisdom that has come from my successes but also from the mistakes I’ve made.
Here is my list of things to do to enjoy the opportunities of aging:
Life is a series of painful events, but we don't have to suffer. We have choices. We can make changes. We are response-able. As Carlos Castaneda said, “We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves strong. The amount of work is the same.”
I don't know how much time I have left. What I do know is that I intend to experience it rather than measure it.