Feeling Old Before We’re Old

“We’re getting pretty old, aren’t we?” When I was 25, a woman I was dating said this to me. It was the first time I had ever considered growing old, outside of abstract thoughts and stoned existential crises.

I found it to be a strange comment. Old? I still barely knew my drinking limits – I was still predisposed to embarrassing myself at the end of a long night out and waking up frightened to look at my text messages. I still played video games, watched cartoons, and smoked weed err’day. How old could I be?

Besides, I’ve seen old. My grandfather went to roller rinks until he was in his 70s and lived until he was 91. Those ages are old, perhaps; 25 was not old, definitely. I still had a couple of lifetimes to go before I felt old, and even then I could still trick myself into believing I was young like grandpa did, spinning some young lady around on roller skates between naps stolen from a work room chair.

But I have no say in how others see age, their’s or my own. At 31, the question of age has morphed into a statement: “We’re old.” I’m forced to either nod along or risk being the cantankerous old guy, too feeble to realize his own mortality.

While I don’t feel old, there are glances in the mirror where I understand the confusion. Grey whiskers filigree my beard, my hairline retreats as if being attacked by a phalanx of enemy soldiers, and questions of marriage and children are no longer asked with a wry smile, nor are they given with a nudge and a look that says, “Ehh, the laddiesssss, right?” Instead, the questions carry a concerned look that says, “Jeeze Hal, aren’t you worried about being alone forever?”

None of this makes me feel old, but I’d be a fool if I didn’t admit that I feel older. Two examples:

  • My nights staying in now feel as good as my nights going out.
  • My penis has never once made an appearance on an app that professes to instantly delete said dick pic, thank you very much.

All of this being said, I don’t want to cling to youth or avoid being old. Both are losing battles. The advanced adults I see clinging to youth – the 50 year olds who date 19 year olds, the fellas who opt for hair plugs, the women who wear dresses about 3 inches too short and 30 years too young for them – are as off-putting as they are hilarious. Then there are those who avoid age by having their whole face reconstructed and inserting hillocks of silicone into their body, making a spectacle of themselves by metaphorically waving their arms and yelling, “HEY! I still exist! ME! LOOK!”

Although I do understand the desire to avoid gravity’s downward pull, I don’t need nor want to fear aging, to look at creeping death as the enemy. During my childhood, I watched my mom’s parents move into age with the grace of two swans. My aforementioned roller-blading grandpa worked in his cluttered garage every day and took his dogs out for an enviable number of walks. My grandma baked and cooked and drove everywhere and shouted for joy when she won games. Years later, as life has tried to slow her, she has survived slips, falls, and holes being drilled into her head, all the while asking questions like, “Why don’t Jesus want me??”

Watching my grandparents age has helped me realize that the mind can enjoy life even as the body crumbles. Studies by Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer show that people who had grandparents who remained active rather than giving into old age and sickness are less likely to see themselves as old as they themselves grow older. I consider myself lucky to have grandparents who chose to live even when dying was the easiest option.

Many of Langer’s age studies have given me hope for remaining young even as time works my liver and kidneys over like a body puncher. The first time I found Langer’s work, I realized that much of the “old” feelings I had were created by taking life for granted, by seeing the familiar as something to be expected. I’d take the same train ride to work, see the same people, and do the same things. Life by rote became old and so did I.

An interview with Langer on the On Being podcast changed how I looked at life. She asked listeners to notice five new things about people they knew well during their next interaction. Did their hair look different? Did the way they thought about an issue change, even if slightly? Do they have a habit you didn’t previously notice?

Life and the people within it came alive once I started noticing how different it was and they were from moment to moment. Every day isn’t the same just as people aren’t single-minded automatons. Opinions shift, some cells die and others come to life, hair sticks up in funny ways. We’re in flux.

Once I began putting what’s new in the foreground and what’s old in the background, conversations blossomed and my pupils grew hungry to chew the scenery. People and things weren’t old or mundane, they had history; a story to tell. Boring topics became exciting, old stone buildings became interesting. By turning the familiar into the new, I seemed to unlock a fountain of youth.

Perhaps aging is ceasing to see what’s new. We get old: life grays, progress stagnates, skin shrivels, and that’s that. The great taking-for-granted of life. When nothing is new, everything is old. When there are new things, the mind can stay new.

You may not have to work hard to imagine this side of aging. Despite all of our blinking, flashing, buzzing devices, boredom and lack of meaning haunt our society. But here’s my request for anyone reading this who feels old: Look for what’s new, what’s different, what seems out of place. What’s the history of the boring, the essence of why it exists? Its present state? Its oddest quirk? How is your old friend different today? What about yourself?

Find what’s different about people around you. Feel what’s different about yourself. We’re all growing old, but with each day comes more depth and richness.

To lose interest is to give in to age; it’s to answer “Yes” to “We’re getting pretty old, huh?”

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