Last week I turned 66. That’s the first year of collecting social security. According to some researchers it falls within the youth of old age. It’s a time when friends and relatives seem to be dying at a faster and faster rate. Still, I don’t feel old. On my birthday I found myself doing a curious mix of looking back and looking forward.
Looking back, I was caught up in a stream of gratitude both wide and deep for all the people who’ve given me life and shaped me. It stretched back as far as my grandparents and ran forward through parents, siblings, the best husband I could ever have, our kids, grandkids and friends and mentors. It ran all the way forward to Aobo, one of the newer residents of our house who made me a special birthday lunch. Even the really hard times looked different as I reflected on them. They were just part of the journey, parts that have taught me things that have now worked for my good and sometimes the good of other people.
Looking forward I felt apprehension. This fall we attended the funeral of a good friend and a great journalist, Billy Bowles. As part of a reflection at the memorial service, someone read the lyrics to The Circle of Life from the Lion King. Two lines have stuck with me and continue to rattle around in my head: “There’s more to see than can ever be seen, more to do than can ever be done.”
Most of my life I have been like a little kid in a candy store. When I was young I hoped to read a significant portion of the books in the world. It came as a huge disappointment when I realized I’d never make it through even a tiny percentage. Now, a great many years later I realize how many other things I probably won’t be able to fit in. While we’ve traveled extensively, I have to admit there are many places I’d still love to see that we probably won’t make it to. Likewise, there are so many interesting people I already know that I can’t manage to stay in touch with, let alone all the interesting people out there I still could meet. Realistically, I probably won’t get fluent in another language at this point. Neither will I contribute everything to the world I hoped to contribute.
And yet, the fact that there is more to do than can ever be done is simultaneously comforting and exciting. I don’t have to do it all. And, there will always be something new. Age 66 is not the same as it was for our parents’ generation. Vast numbers of us are very healthy. We may have retired from jobs, but we still have much to contribute. We may have less energy than we had at 30, but we have way more experience and, hopefully, wisdom. We need that wisdom to help us discern which of all those many things to be done has our name on it – and just as importantly, which don’t.
I feel apprehensive, and sometimes downright anxious, because I’m not there yet. It could be adolescence all over again. Maybe that’s what the phrase “youth of old age” is getting at. Passing into this new stage makes me wonder yet another time who I am and what I’m going to be when I grow up.