I was quite athletic in my youth. Basketball was my primary sport—the only sport I played on an organized team—but when the opportunity arose, I didn’t hesitate to play softball or volleyball or any other sport that came along. So a couple of years ago, I naturally got on board when my young comrades organized a softball game during a fun Spring event in one of the local parks. When I was up to bat, I warmed up with a couple of swings and assumed the batter’s stance. I restrained myself as a couple of balls floated out of my reach, but when one came within the strike zone, I swung, connected, dropped the bat and ran with all my might to first base. I repeat…with all my might. My reflexive response after hitting the ball was to go for it!
This, my friends, is what “older” people are talking about when they say, “I feel as young as I did when I was in my 20s [or 30s, or 40s, etc.].” As I was standing at home plate, hunched over like an experienced ball player, I felt no different—no different—than I did when I played softball as a teenager. I knew the object of game, I knew where the ball had to go for me to strike at it, I knew how to follow through and I knew I needed to beat that ball to first base in order to be “safe.” But I forgot that I hadn’t run like that—”with all my might”—in decades! I was halfway to first base before I remembered!
What a rude awakening!
This is my birthday month, and so it only makes sense that I am thinking a little about what it means to grow old. I’ve often heard the phrase, “growing old gracefully,” but I’ve never given much thought to what it really means. However, as nature takes its course, I find myself thinking about it more thoroughly.
When trying to decipher some nebulous meaning, one of the first places I go is to the dictionary. The word graceful is defined “characterized by beauty of movement, style, form, or execution; suggesting taste, ease, and wealth.”
Taking that definition into account along with some observations I have made, here are some of my thoughts on what it means to grow old gracefully.
First of all, “growing old gracefully” is an ART. Kind of like a true artist can make his craft look easy, a person growing old with grace is one who does so with ease (did you see that in the definition?)—or so it appears. In actuality, it may look easy, but there is a lot of work going on behind the scenes (remember the iceberg icon?), just as with any artistic endeavor.
In the context of growing older, the phrase, “beauty of movement” speaks to me of smooth transition. No herky jerky movements. It’s simple enough to understand what this looks like in a dance, but how would this be played out when moving from one stage of life to another?
Every stage of life has its upside and its downside. Ease of transition might be considered the ability to move from one stage to the next with the right emphasis and focus—glancing back fondly on the good memories of the stage you are departing, looking forward with anticipation towards the new stage you are entering.
Learning From Past Transitions
When my oldest two sons were about to graduate from high school (they graduated the same year), that period was a serious transition point for me. My adult life up to that point had been focused on motherhood and family. I was very serious about my role as a mother and about creating an environment where my children could “bloom.” Months before the boys’ graduation took place, I began to feel despondent at the prospect of them leaving home. For me, their graduation was not just a ceremony, it was a propulsion into a new era—for them and for me. No longer would my entire little brood be under one roof. No longer would I be in charge of their environment. No longer would the six of us always be together at family meals. I felt like a part of me was dying. In a way, it was. But more accurately, I was being re-defined. I was transitioning. (Many people, mostly women, go through this emotional transition. It even has a term: empty nest syndrome.)
I still had two children yet at home, but that was not the point. The point was, my life was changing. My role was changing. My environment was changing. An era was ending. Now, what was I going to do about it?
Providentially, I came across a book during that season with the title “The Best Half of Life.” The funny thing is, I don’t remember anything the book had to say, but the title alone shifted my thinking. Instead of fixating on the fact that my primary purpose up to that time in my life was coming to an end, I started thinking about the plusses of that same fact. I no longer had to find babysitters every time I wanted to go out; my husband and I could go out to eat or to the movies for a fraction of the cost; the two of us could make some plans for some unique adventures that we had never considered with the whole family (mainly because of the cost). As I contemplated the upside of the new phase of life I was entering, it changed everything. I was looking forward to what lay ahead. I was excited about developing new areas of interest. I was eager for a little independence. I was so successful at changing my position, my oldest son, Jeff—who knew me as a bona fide family-woman—commented with mixed distress and confusion, “Mom, I thought you would be sadder when we left home.”
Herky Jerky Transitions
Lots of times, the way I identify what I want to be like is to first identify what I don’t want to be like. This is a back-door approach, but it works for me. So, to figure out what it means to grow old gracefully, I identify people—whether close to me or observed from afar—that embody the traits that don’t represent grace and ease of transition. When I do that, I immediately come up with a short list of descriptors that are the opposite of graceful and gracious: denial, living in the past, and negativity.
Denial is the most visibly obvious way we see people resist getting older (which is kind of funny when you think about; their denial makes the truth all the more obvious). The rich and famous often express their resistance by indulging in plastic surgeries, but those with less money have to rely on cheaper ways to deny their true age. They may dress like teenagers (ugh!), but even worse is when they act like teenagers. Those who behave like this treat with contempt the rich experience and history their years have acquired for them and reach back instead to an era that was probably not all that great the first time around! The sad fact is, rather than impressing anyone with how “cool” they are, they actually demean themselves.
Living in the Past
We’ve all observed those adults who can’t seem to progress past their ‘glory days.’ Their conversations always seem to lead back to “when…” Because of their obsession with the good ol’ days, there is no appreciation for the present and no vision for the future. What a waste!
- “Getting old is a bitch.”
- “I can’t do that; I’m an old man (old lady).” (always in the context of not being able to do something or not being willing to learn something new)
- “That’s what happens when you get old.” (offered as an excuse when not able to perform at the same physical or mental standards of their youth)
- “Getting old is not for the faint of heart.”
While there are times that I could certainly relate to statements like these, I try to restrain myself from saying such things. Why? Because they do not represent my idea of what it means to grow old gracefully. Like I said earlier, growing old gracefully is an art. Those who do it successfully exude an aura of beauty and class and dignity—not on the outside, but from within, from the hidden 90%that they have produced in the ‘secret place.’ Offering up excuses and complaints and resentment is not my idea of grace.
Now let me be clear; if I had my druthers, I’d like to have the wisdom and life experience and the opportunities that I have right now but with a twenty-something or thirty-something body. But since that’s not the way it works, I choose to optimize what I have rather than complain about what I don’t have.
The Bottom Line
Finally, it’s important to acknowledge that growing old was not in God’s original design—nor in His future design! We were created for immortality, so there’s no wonder that we resist the aging process. However, as long as we are still confined by mortality, let’s put the emphasis where the emphasis should be—on the part of us that does NOT get old. “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Cor 4:16-18).
So it really is true: we’re not getting older, we’re getting better—IF we focus on the inward instead of the outward.
Do you have any thoughts on growing old gracefully? Do you think I am in denial for wanting to try? Leave a comment!