We live in a culture that idealises youth and marginalises the old. And, as the psychologist James Hillman says, the old don’t let go easily either of the throne or the drive that took them there. I know; I’m ageing.
For most of my life, I’ve been able to think of myself as young. Because I was born late in the year, October, I was [due to the Canadian system] always younger than most of my classmates. I graduated from high school at 17, entered the seminary at that tender age and was ordained to the priesthood at 25. I did an advanced degree within the next year, and was teaching graduate theology at 26, the youngest member on the faculty.
I was proud of that, achieving those things so early. And so I always thought of myself as young, even as the years piled up and
my body began to betray my conception of myself as young.
Moreover, for most of those years, I tried to stay young in soul, staying on top of what was shaping youth culture, its movies, its popular songs, its lingo. During my years in seminary, and for a good number of years after ordination, I was involved in youth ministry, helping give retreats in various high schools and colleges. At that time, I could name all the popular songs, movies and trends, speak youth’s language and pride myself in being young.
But nature offers no exemptions. Nobody stays young forever. Moreover, ageing doesn’t normally announce its arrival. You’re mostly blind to it until one day you look at yourself in a mirror, see a recent photo of yourself or get a diagnosis from your doctor, and suddenly you’re hit on the head with the unwelcome realisation that you’re no longer a young person. That usually comes as a surprise. Ageing generally makes itself known in ways that have you denying it, fighting it and accepting it only piecemeal, and with some bitterness.
But the day comes round for everyone when you’re stunned that what you are seeing in the mirror is so different from how you have been imagining yourself.
You ask yourself: “Is this really me? Am I this old person? Is this what I look like?”
Moreover, you begin to notice that young people are forming their circles away from you, that they’re more interested in their
own kind, which doesn’t include you, and you look silly and out of place when you try to dress, act and speak as they do. There comes a day when you have accept that you are no longer young in the world’s eyes – nor in your own.
Gravity doesn’t just affect your body, pulling things downward, but also the soul. It’s pulled downward along with the body, though ageing means something very different here. The soul doesn’t age; it matures. You can stay young in soul long after the body betrays you. Indeed, we’re meant to be always young in spirit.
Souls carry life differently from bodies because bodies are built to eventually die. Inside every living body the life principle has an exit strategy. It has no such strategy inside a soul, only a strategy to deepen, grow richer and more textured.
Ageing forces us, mostly against our will, to listen to our soul more deeply and more honestly so as to draw from its deeper wells and begin to make peace with its complexity, its shadows and its deepest proclivities – and the ageing of the body plays a key role in this.
To employ a metaphor from James Hillman: the best wines have to be aged in cracked old barrels. So too for the soul: the ageing process is designed by God and nature to force the soul, whether it wants to or not, to delve ever deeper into the mystery of life, of community, of God and of itself.
Our souls don’t age like a wine, they mature, and so we can always be young in spirit. Our zest, our fire, our eagerness, our wit, our brightness and our humour are not meant to dim with age. Indeed, they’re meant to be the very colour of a mature soul.
So, in the end, ageing is a gift, even if unwanted. Ageing takes us to a deeper place, whether we want to go or not.
Like almost everyone else, I still haven’t made my full peace with this and would still like to think of myself as young. However, I was particularly happy to celebrate my 70th birthday two years ago. Not because I was happy to be that age, but because, after two serious bouts with cancer in recent years, I was very happy just to be alive and wise enough now to be a little grateful for what ageing and a cancer diagnosis had taught me.
There are certain secrets hidden from health, writes the novelist John Updike. True. And ageing uncovers a lot of them because, as a Swedish proverb puts it, “the afternoon knows what the morning never suspected”.