The biggest surprise of old age is how new, how fresh, things feel. Far from the prescribed cultural narrative—continual, inevitable decline or frantic efforts to reverse the decline and the fall from youthful grace—my experience is better characterized by discovery, uncertainty, ambiguity, and mystery. As Philip Roth said, when asked about his unexpected retirement, he asserted, without resignation or sadness, “I’m in a different stage of life.”
It is a difference that makes a difference. Simone de Beauvoir once wrote that “Old age is particularly difficult to assume because we have always regarded it as something alien, a foreign species.” I take that idea literally. In old age, we are in unexplored territory. Being an explorer in that territory is a privilege I never expected to have.
In a previous essay, I wrote young people seek independence. For older people, freedom comes almost unbidden when the ties that bind us to activities, relationships, and communities take flight Let me begin by counting some of the ways, small and large, that that freedom comes to our doorsteps. There is the freshness of each, unscheduled day. I can ask: What shall I do? What do I want to do? At last, the weather plays a role as it hasn’t since childhood. If it’s sunny, I’ll take that walk. If rainy, I may read more, or call a friend. Or a friend might call me, and I can usually respond positively. Spontaneity is my friend again.
There is the greater stillness in my body, so that I take more notice of the lilacs in bloom and the pine-scented paths on my walks, sights and smells that I had barely glanced in the rush of adult life. The natural world is more alive to me at this stage of life.
There seems to be more uncertainty in old age. It’s not just your schedule that’s flexible. You can’t count on your health as much. Friends, too. They get ill, become infirmed, die, move away. I mean this not so much in a sad or depressing way but as a fact of life, one that changes almost as much and as rapidly as during any time since early childhood. It can make you anxious and unsure of yourself. There’s a temptation to draw inward and to limit yourself in an effort to ward off bad things. But, in the purest sense, there is change to challenge your adaptability and this can awaken you to a life painted in brighter colors.
I am surprised to be alive. My father died at fifty and I was long filled with the kind of magical thinking common to children. If you think a plane will crash, then it will. I imagined that my genetic heritage would bring me down at 50. It didn’t, and I’ve had all these extra years, years that I didn’t expect, no less deserve—years that seem a heavenly gift. I don’t appreciate that gift each day, though I wish I would, but I do so often enough to feel the last 24 years as a bonus.
I had imagined that old age meant playing out a relatively prescribed script. The sad part of the script—of course not the whole of it—included physical decline, nostalgia for my lost youth and vitality, and a narrowing of my social circle. Now that I’m almost 75 see that I was wrong in so many ways. Like others, for instance, my ideas and images about old age have continued to shift. As a young man, 60 seemed old. By the time I was 45, it was 70. At 60, it was 75. Now, at 75, I feel so much more alive than I imagined I would. The ground of expectations keeps shifting and the shifting keeps me on my toes.
Of all the things that change in old age, history seems the most unlikely. I mean your personal history, your life story, which by this point is extraordinarily well-rehearsed, as you have told it to others and mused about it inwardly for decades. Instead, my narrative keeps changing. My father, who felt like such a rock, now seems such a troubled man. My mother, who felt more like a peer, a friend, now seems like an inspiration. I’d like to tell you that, with the perspective of years, I see them more clearly ,but it may be truer to say I see them differently. I see them now in light of my current life. I see them now as younger people. I see their lives more in terms of the choices and drives and changes they faced, and less in relation to me, their child. In ways, that makes for a more interesting story.
As my image of them changes, so does my self-imagery. For example, I was said to be my father’s child. Supposedly, I looked and acted like him. I was his heir, meant to carry on his dreams. With each passing decade, though, I discover how much I have taken on my mother’s restless energy, her defiance, her wish to explore new territory. One day last month, I looked into the mirror and saw, not a reflection of my aging father but a dead ringer of my mother and her side of the family. I keep “discovering” things about my childhood, my family, my neighborhood—not because they have actually changed but because I keep seeing them anew.
You can say that these aren’t such major discoveries, but they are because they shake up everything. If I’m really more like my mother—or even equally like her—then that “realization” changes how I view the rest of my family. It changes how I feel about gender, about my purpose in life, my destiny. I put the word realization into quotes because I can’t be sure if my new insight is, strictly speaking, true, or if it’s just another view of the same phenomena. But it feels new. And when you jostle your sense of reality, it stimulates a scramble to reorganize everything. That’s what has happened to me. I am scrambling.
Historian that I am, I have begun to re-imagine the flow of events and relationships in my life. Since I’m pretty comfortable with myself at this point, the project is more a source of fascination than anxiety. I have begun to give up on the idea of a coherent narrative, with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Like others, I have a great desire to pin down the definitive story of my life. But there is nothing of the sort. Rather, it is a story that has been invented and reinvented many times throughout my life.
There is freedom in this realization. A long time ago, Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan taught me about this kind of freedom. The more others think they know about your past, he said, the more they think they can predict your behavior in the present and future. These predictions become expectations, and expectations limit possibilities.
When we slip off the straight jacket of cultural narratives and family expectations, of social prescriptions and proscriptions, even for a while, we enter a world of radical possibilities. In that world, we can experience the sunshine on our faces and the scent of the forest, the smiles of friendship and the embrace of lovers as if for the first time. That is the possibility of freedom in old age.