“If you don’t want to get old you have to die young.” This aphorism caught my attention immediately when I read it many years ago and I have since then often remembered it and sometimes quoted it when the moment seemed right. Having lost quite a few friends to illnesses and accidents when we were all still young, I felt that complaining about the aging process was indeed a luxury only people who survived life long enough to enter this process were afforded. I am now at the strange place in life where I’m neither young nor old and my friends range in ages from the very young to octogenarians. Another aphorism pops into my mind more often now, i.e. “In every old person is a young one utterly surprised.” My friends who are older in age have confirmed that they can very much empathize with this statement and the age old question what significance chronological age has for a person’s identity is something I wonder about often. Do you feel different today from when you were 4 years old? 10 years old? 14 years old? You would probably say yes. But what about when you were 20 years old? Or, if you’re older than 25, how about 30 years old? If I’m honest with myself, I’m not so sure that deep inside my self has changed much from when I was 4 or 10. Of course I know more today, I feel more self sufficient, my very existence is not dependent on my parents anymore. But I remember being a quite gregarious yet shy, hot tempered but justice seeking child. Not that different from how I feel today. Yes, my body aches in different places now that I have hit 50, but I also remember being aware of our physical fragility as humans when I was a kid. That did not keep me from taking greater physical risks then than now, so maybe something did change there. I did feel that death was something far away when I was younger, but this was always of course only statistically true.
My grandmother died at age 99 and for her last twenty years her main topic in life was how she had made it to be so old. Of course she was clearly of high age when she was 99 and for maybe five years before this I wondered how she must feel knowing with ever greater certainty that she probably did not have another 15 years to live. But then I also wondered how she had been able to bear this hard focus on moving toward death for over 20 years.
About two years ago I received a diagnosis of early breast cancer. Something so many women experience. While I was going through the treatments, a friend of mine who had been struggling with stage 4 breast cancer for 5 years–ever since I had known her– passed away from it. She was one year older than me and had first been diagnosed with the disease 10 years before. 5 years later it had come back. I never told her about my own diagnosis—she was already in hospice and I did not want to put this load on her. I currently do not have any sign or symptoms of cancer and am very hopeful it will not come back, but this experience has again supercharged my musings about aging and death. Any one of us may be closer to death right now than my grandmother was at age 80 when she was still traveling around the world and still had almost 20 years to live.
There are many people who are much younger than me–much much younger than one of my best friends who is now 71 and speaks of aging often–but who are much more physically impaired than he and I. Some of them may be much closer to death, some are much further away from death than we are. So apart from pure chronological age what determines youth and old age?
I have always liked Erik Erikson’s concept of the stages of psychosocial development, such as e.g. the conflicting tendencies of intimacy versus isolation. This is a topic that we are often confronted with in early adulthood but it can become a theme at any age. Erikson explained that his stages describe certain “conflicts” or “life crises” or as I would like to call them “life challenges” or “life questions.” We are all at one point confronted with these challenges and the main question is if we are open for experiencing them with our whole being and if we grow through them or if we avoid the anxiety and other intense emotions they can come with. And if we are open to throwing ourselves wholeheartedly into this adventure of living as a human being, does that make us feel younger or older? The more I write about these terms the more elusive they feel. Apart from describing chronological age and perhaps some physical features they tend to lose meaning the longer I think about them. If being “old” means being closer to death none of us really knows how old we are. And if I look at the people I know who are higher in chronological age and display great appetite for life while cherishing the life they have already lived like a treasure and are energetically embracing the here and now, I get the sense that our concepts of old and young, youth and old age, are even more of an artificial construct that does not serve us all that well in describing human life.