I’ve been looking at old photographs and have been quite moved by the fact that everyone looks so much younger – my wife and I, our children, friends, even our parents – everyone! Everyone looks so beautifully youthful. And there’s a tinge of sadness as I contemplate all the years that have passed and I’m trying to work out why.
It’s not as if those years have been filled with tragedy – quite the opposite in fact. There have been sad times but overall life for me has been full of joy and wonder. So the sadness is not rooted in any disappointment about the past. It seems to revolve squarely around the fact that
I am not young anymore.
Why is there inherent sadness in this fact? I am not sick, or about to die. In all likelihood I have many years of health left to enjoy the time ahead. But I have less time than I used to. Is that it? That I can longer pretend that the end is far off in a distant future?
Is the quality of ‘young’ intrinsically better than oldness? Is it somehow better to look young and youthful than it is to look old and a little weathered? And if so, why? Looking older of course is a constant reminder that you’re time is limited, or that you have been around for many years. There’s a sense of loss in there – a loss of a feeling of invincibility; loss of that feeling that there is lots of time left to enjoy people and places.
One could see this as positive – I enjoy my life. I have no reason to want it to end. I want it to go on for as long as possible. I could count my blessings. (I do.) But still the sadness of aging lingers. Is it because I don’t look young? That I feel a little irrelevant to the generation before me? That I am adjudged to be in some sense passed it?
You do however sometimes hear people my age talk about the advantages of being over 60. And I totally subscribe to this. There is something really pleasurable about knowing who you are; knowing what you think; having fewer doubts; knowing that you can express opinions better than ever before. And maybe even that you think more clearly than you ever did. But would I rather be younger with the accompanying angst that comes with it? Probably. Why? Because that would mean I had more time.
So it’s the shorter timeframe thing again. I look back on those photographs and am reminded that I probably won’t have another 30 years of memories. But who can tell? I may well. There may be decades of memories left to create and in 30 years I could be looking back at photos I took today. And what – feeling even sadder because I’ll be even older?
And in the background Gordon Lightfoot coincidentally sings:
It’s cold on the shoulder; and you know that we get a little older every day!
When I was 23 I returned home from 14 months travelling overseas. A family aunt asked my on my return, “Apart from feeling a little wiser and a little sadder, how was your journey?” I asked why she assumed I would be sadder and she said no one ever came home from that kind of journey without being sadder. In her view it was as if having such an out of the ordinary experience was ipso facto going to result in a degree of sadness. In time I came to agree with her.
Over the years I have learned too that sadness is quite a precious emotional state and is closely related to a sense of beauty and appreciating the things we care about. So I’m not disheartened by the idea of being sad when looking at my past, or because I’m so much older now. I think there is a sadness attached to growing older but it doesn’t have to be debilitating. I’m just trying to disentangle the roots of that sadness. But in the meantime, as Don Henley and Merle Haggard sang:
Wear it like a royal crown when you get old and grey.
It’s the cost of living, and everyone pays.