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Age Is Meaningless if You're Seeking Meaning in Life

Why does “quantity” hold greater significance than “quality”?

Age is a funny thing. When we are young, we are all eager to start climbing up the number line in terms of age. Five-year-olds want to be six, fifteen-year-olds are pushing hard and fast to turn sixteen. In our culture, we emphasize age as a number from the earliest days in a child’s life. Often, two of the first questions that we lean down to ask a little child whose acquaintance we are newly making are “What is your name?” followed rapidly by, “And how old are you?” In effect, we are communicating to society’s very youngest members that their age is about as important a marker of their identities as their names are. Funny, too, is that our ages are always shifting, but names seldom do.

A couple of weeks ago, I was waiting impatiently in a line to check out of a small and crowded shop. Two men were standing behind the counter, but only one of the men seemed to be ringing up sales and moving the line along. I was a little annoyed at first as I watched the older gentleman engage in conversations with the customers as his younger co-worker busied himself with the business of sales.

As I reached the front of the line, I caught the tail end of a remark the “bystanding sales guy” had made. “In my country, time is measured differently than here in America. Age, too, is considered differently. It is not reduced to merely a number the way it is here.”

Because I was purchasing a couple of “anti-aging” products that promised to turn back time, I smiled and asked the gentleman how age was measured in his country. He explained that many people in his native country did not even think very much about their age or worry about each advancing year or birthday.

In his country, a life was not split into single, discrete units of time. Life, instead, was made up of a continuous cycle of movement through time. “You are a child. You are a student. You are a young man. You are a new husband. You are a new father. Your children are grown. You are a grandfather. You work less.” That was how he believed that everyone should measure a life. “What do the numbers mean? Did I turn fifty and suddenly I was someone else? No! I had children, I watched them grow. Ah. Now that experience makes me someone different than who I was before I was a father.

It is ironic that the more of most things that we accumulate, such as money, possessions, or our own personal versions of treasure, the better off we think we are in life, “I have more, so I’m better than my neighbor.” When it comes to age and life experience, we run into a curious dichotomy. You cannot gain valued experience without advancing years, but to advance in years is an anathema to much too many of us. We want to have our cake and eat it, too, but without any calories, either.

What if you took a moment and looked at where you were in life – what have you accomplished, what else do you have left on your list of dreams and aspirations? Are you a student? A worker? A husband? A wife? A father? A mother? A grandparent? A retiree? A caring neighbor? A loving friend? How valuable are these roles in one’s life compared to the number of years that have passed or the fear about the shrinking number of years left to cross? When we get caught up into the numbers game, we lose sight of the present space in which the spark of life and all of its potential is catching flame.

Keeping count of the years is as purposeful a pastime as trying to hold back the ocean tide. What’s the point of attempting to do something that logic defies and serves no real purpose? Instead of trying to keep the tide from rolling in or rolling back out -- or keep age at bay -- why not just walk into the oceans of time, learn to surf, and catch yourself a gnarly wave. The tide is going to roll in, no matter how hard a person tries to stop it, so you might as well jump into the deep end and hang ten as long as you are able!