Why We Should Stop Imagining Aging as a Loss of Youth

Source: Getty Images

Source: Getty Images

Originally published on The Good Men Project and cross-posted here with their permission.

I just finished a bike ride down Ninth Avenue from through midtown Manhattan.

Barreling down the long slope from W. 57th, southbound on Ninth Avenue, is to be part of a sun-glare avalanche of surging yellow cabs and pothole banging delivery trucks jostling through bottlenecked mobs of aimless texting pedestrians.

It’s pure chaos. It’s funny and dangerous, and I love it.

There are moments when I am tracking so many visual variables that the ride becomes a peripheral vision fever dream.

You shoot past cabs, people’s startled faces visible for the briefest of moments in the passenger window. Who are they? What is their life like? Are they happy?

Ninth Avenue is a symphony of variables, all in motion.

Some drivers notice you, some are oblivious. You have to know which are which. You see the whites of their eyes as they glance at you in the side view mirrors. Each person texting on each passing corner could be the one.

Lady. Pink blouse. Man, black backpack. Kid, smoking. Women, two kids. Baby stroller, no, two baby strollers. Looking. Not looking.

Any one of them could be the one that steps off, absentmindedly, just as you are shooting the gap.

I’m 53 years old.

I’m going to miss riding like this.

Sometime in the next few years, I’ll wake up one day and that will be that.

I will still ride my bike, but biking Ninth Ave will recede into yesterday. For me, that part of my life will be finished.

It’s so tempting to boil aging down into some bleak list of things you can’t do any more. It creeps up on you in your forties. Your eyes go. Then your joints. It’s weird how quickly we adjust to and accept this daily paring away of our physical prowess.

I feel like I’m bidding a long farewell to my younger self. A friend who’s gathering his coat and cap to leave. He is lingering at the door now. Reluctant to go. But he’s got a train to catch. He’ll go.

That youthful self is still vibrant within me.

And I’m working to bring the essence of him forward in some form, spiritual or otherwise, into tomorrow, a gift to the old man I’ll become in fifteen years or so.

But who are our younger selves? And how do these energetic, vibrant hungry beings inform us as we age? Can our older selves find connection and continuity with the remnants of youth in us?

I can tell you this much, those two selves, young and old, will either be adversaries or partners. I feel my job is to teach them to be friends, before it’s too late.

Take drinking, for instance.

I used to drink a lot. I don’t any more. My body simply can’t take it. I guess I’m lucky that way. It hurts too much the next day. So two glasses of wine, and I’m done.

But I know guys my age who still sit up all night drinking beer. Ten or twelve beers, one after another, till 2 AM. And I’m left wondering, is the young in them punishing the old? Did the old do something wrong? Are the ways they lived when they were younger, the solutions that gave them joy, reluctant to step aside for something new?

Just as my youth goes, the old man I will be is coming.

As much as I’d like to bar the door, he’s out there, just raising his hand to knock. I know that knock is coming. I can feel it in my right shoulder. In my knees when I push myself too hard. I feel it when a drowsiness creeps over me during a long day. Old age wakes me in the dead of night, worrisome thing that it is.

I used to sleep like a baby. But now I wake sometimes. I lay there and take stock. Over and over. Like a grocer who can’t believe his inventory. Did I order that? Where are my customers?

I turn decades-old events and relationships over in my mind. Examining the emotions they give rise to. Regrets wheedle in. Money gone wrong. Some empty aimless relationship I wasted precious years on, or the woman I should have stayed with. People who have already died. People who got famous while I didn’t.

What you are in the world can seem vague and uncertain as you age. The long night of the soul they call it. As you age all the pat ideas about success and failure creep up on you.  You played your cards wrong somehow.

You can do this 2 AM exercise endlessly if you are not careful.

You can obsess on a cycle of questions that have no end, because they are the past and the past cannot be undone. The past can be a carnival wheel of garish emotions and old tapes you spin again and again.

Eventually, if you’re smart, you say “don’t do that anymore,” and you’ll let it rest.

Because even as age exacts its price, it brings great gifts. If you shift your focus, you’ll realize that something remarkable is happening.

With age, over the last few years, I’ve found that my mind is synthesizing information in startling and deeply satisfying ways. It’s as if all the cramming of experience into my head and heart has finally resulted in a reliable sense of  self.

It manifests as a higher awareness, very much spiritual in its nature. It manifests as a capacity for calming and ordering one’s reactions to the world. It has made me smarter and sweeter and more self assured.

And the source is hard for me to pen down. But I believe it will come to any of us who are actively engaged in life.

It’s as if the divine says, “You’ve done enough struggling to understand. Here, have a glimpse of peace.”

I do credit the birth of my son and the years of service I have given him as part of what got me here. My connection to him has made me a more patient, thoughtful, and self-assured person.

My wife is a huge part of it. Her path has made mine so much more meaningful.

The people I have known in my life, the places I have seen, they all play a part. But it’s more than any person’s influence, or even the map of our choices

I think, perhaps, we’re designed to evolve in our fifties.

There is clearly a refining of skills that takes place. If you spend a lifetime writing or designing or dancing or building, the pursuit of your craft as a practice of order and structure falls away and intuition takes over.

It’s a synthesis of years of work, resulting in flow. What you have sought to master, thought about, processed for decades becomes transcendent. You hit your best years. You get the pay off.

This is what happens in living, too.

If you can turn your attention from what is past, towards the miraculous things that are coming, you will see the patterns of divinity that younger eyes often cannot spot. The trappings, appetites, desires, and demands of youth are driven by the need to experience life and validate ourselves.

Once we are validated, it’s time to set aside appetite and seek something higher. If you look for it, it is right there, waiting.

I can’t say for sure where life will go. What is emerging may work out or it may not.

But I can tell you this. Life seems like a huge adventure now.

What once was a struggle to create sense of the world, now feels like a single long clear note of something peaceful and full of love. I only catch a glimpse of it, this note of peace, this sense that things fit together, are beautiful, can be loved, but it’s there.

I’ve seen it right there on Ninth Avenue, in the sun washed faces rushing by.

So if you’re young, be young. Try not to do any damage if you can help it. But be young. It’s your job to take it all in.

But if you’re wondering about getting older, trust me, there’s some amazing stuff coming. For real.

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GMP Associate Editor Mark Greene is an Emmy Award winning animator and designer. He blogs and speaks on Men’s Issues at the intersection of society, politics, relationships and parenting for the Good Men Project, Talking Cranes, The Huffington Post, Mamamia, and Role/Reboot. You can follow him on Twitter @megaSAHD and Google.