Franny and I just returned from a trip to the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where we walked and walked in the Yosemite Valley, gazing in awe at the granite monoliths, El Capitan, Cathedral Mountain, and the Half Dome, soaring 3,000 feet above. Sometimes we dared a little more, climbing 1,200 feet to the source of the Vernal Falls, where water rushes with terrifying beauty to the Valley floor. Then we moved on to the Eastern Sierra, where trail heads begin at 10,000 feet, permitting us to hike into the back country, above the tree line and into basins filled with lakes and fields of flowers and rimmed by snow covered peaks.
For more than thirty years, until 2007 or so, I had relished grueling, week-long backpacking trips with my friend, Carter, and my brother-in-law, Steven. This is where I had been most peaceful. The mountains, huge and uncaring, dwarfed me. I felt insignificant, a speck in a world too large to comprehend. At first, this was frightening and I wanted to flee. But then I grew absorbed in the vast silence. I became nothing. And in that moment of alpine magic, I would emerge on the other side, somehow part of it all and at peace.
I know that one of the keys to this feeling of peace is the exhaustion that is achieved by hiking, generally with fifty pounds on my back, with brief moments of rest, from seven in the morning until three in the afternoon. The effort quiets my body and I am happy to be still. It is in that stillness that my heart opens to whatever transcendent inclinations dwell in my soul.
Now, at seventy-five, my expectations are more modest. Leading up to the trip, I had wondered about that left knee which I have been planning to replace. I had been convinced that my conditioning, honed on flat walks and the slight ups and downs of Lexington streets, would not prepare me for anything rigorous. I had feared that I might lose the beauty of the mountains to dull and repetitive reflections on aches and aging. I’d pay more attention to the pain of the day pack on my shoulders and the panting of my lungs than the Ponderosa pines and the reflection of the mountains painted in pastels on the lakes.
But I was wrong. Even if I can’t’ be as absorbed as I was before, I can walk with pleasure and enjoy the beauty that is all around me. Much to my surprise and delight, I felt healthy; and I began to contemplate greater challenges, trusting that my body would hold up to the exhaustion that opens my heart. At least I could take that chance.
As I opened myself to this possibility, I wondered whether, in the name of mature adaptation to the “realities” of aging, I had been giving up too soon. Had I let my ideas about age dominate me, misreading aches and pains as signposts to premature resignation? Could I have been hiking for the last ten years? Playing tennis, even as my knees and back yelp? Couldn’t I have let them yelp and moved on? At a lesser pace to be sure but without stopping? Did I retire too soon last year when I could have simply worked half or quarter time? Could I dip deeply into a new craft like photography or painting?
Mature adaptation sometimes represents an excuse for yielding to many of the doubts and fears that have been there all along. During my younger hiking days, for instance, I was also afraid of injury. During the nights, awake in my tent, I was often frightened—bears or snakes or unknown creatures might invade—and counted the hours to morning’s light. During the last decades of my working life, I was afraid that I had not accomplished enough, that I’d end my work life feeling like a failure, and that it would be easier to simply stop working in order to make the doubts go away.
I looked forward to retirement, when I could make a final assessment of work, accept it and put aside my doubts. I could grade myself and let it be. I could stop asking myself whether I was somebody or nobody, a good or bad person, a resource or drain on society. Mature adaptation has partly meant “parking” my doubts. It has also meant yielding to some of the darker forces that have been there all along. I think we do that in old age—maybe because we are naturally more anxious and more “realistic,” but maybe, too, because we are following a cultural prescription that has led us astray.
The problem with parking my doubts is that it also requires me to park the daring and adventure that have provided the spice of my life. Even when we venture forth into new activities during our later years, activities like writing, painting, photography, meditation, and deep study, we tend to do so in the spirit of hobbies and without the passion, the sense of importance, that we might have brought to new ventures earlier in life.
Don’t get me wrong. There is virtue in mature adaptation to aging. It has permitted me to focus on what I can do—reading and writing and good relations with family and friends—instead of what I can’t. It has, in fact, allowed me to be less judgmental about myself.
And I’m not advocating defiance, alone, as an alternative to adaptation. It’s alright to “rage against the dying of the light,” but not as a steady diet, not if it distracts you from the joys and the distinctive pleasures of old age—like wisdom and relaxation. However romantic, a steady diet of defiance can be a bore. Resistance, alone, blocks the sun.
I do want to resist the easy forms of resignation that the cultural narrative of old age has prescribed; but I don’t want to become consumed by resistance to that narrative. I don’t want to be silly, either, like wearing clothing meant for young people or seeking bars and restaurants that overwhelm me with their noise. I’m not interested in technical climbing on high cliffs or training for the Ironman Marathon competition.
So what’s the best compromise between stretching yourself and maturely resigning to your limitations. You’ll never know if you don’t keep trying to move beyond your fears, beyond the lowest level of effort and daring. I like the idea of extending myself before pulling back, and then drawing conclusions.