“Life gets simpler as you get older,” I boldly declared to a friend who had celebrated almost as many birthdays as myself. That statement drew a chuckle as he launched into a long recital of his ailments: arthritic joints, inability to climb two flights of stairs without getting winded, embarrassing memory loss, and on and on.
As one who has nearly reached his 82nd year, I’ve experienced many of the same symptoms my friends described. Our aches and pains, and those wistful feelings of loss when we remember what we once were able to do are reminders of our age and our condition. Manamko, senior citizens, or just plain old “seniors" is what we’ve grown to become, entitled to the sympathy and respect of the younger and more active set. But there’s so much more to old age than this.
Don’t we have something to share with those youngsters who pity our stooped posture and slow steps? Here’s what I’d share with them.
Relax and let instinct take over
When the young and the earnest declare that they are struggling to “figure out” their lives, we older people can smile sympathetically. We recall how, long ago, we shared their concern as we tried to decide on our college major and our career path. But how do you tell these earnest seekers that the most important things in life not only emerge, but they take control of you in a way you would have never thought possible when you were younger?
The truth is that we seniors recognize that we have never been in charge of our life in the way that we once thought we might have been. Most of our life-altering “decisions” can hardly be called that at all, since they are not the product of our own choices. My decision to enter the Jesuits after high school? It wouldn’t have happened if my uncle had not insisted that I enroll in Canisius High School rather than the Christian Brothers high school I so badly wanted to attend. The decision to volunteer for Micronesia, where I’ve spent almost all my adult life? Impulsive rather a cool-headed decision. But are “impulse” and “instinct” simply words for something more mysterious at work?
“We old-timers have learned to run on instincts,” I used to tell the young volunteers in Micronesia who came to seek counsel. When they asked what I meant by that, I’d explain that we old-timers are learning to put the purely rational and prescriptive in its proper place. We’re constantly being handed formulas for everything – prescriptions for finding happiness, losing weight, coping with stress, managing an office and raising a family.
Such formulas may be nice starters – sheet music for the untrained – but they are a derivative, a map of the chords that doesn’t even begin to describe the music itself. Why turn to the sheet music when we have the melody throbbing in our heads? The young may need their formulas for a time, but as we age we find ourselves called on to trust our intuitions to guide us through life. With each passing year, we can hope, they will be better honed.
The big choices are really simple
If life becomes simpler with age, why can’t we say that life choices are simple as well? My experience with a wide variety of human beings – Pacific Islanders, Asians of every stripe, Americans and Europeans – suggests that all of us, whether believers or not, are called to make one fundamental choice in our lives: whether there is some spiritual presence that accompanies or guides us, or whether we walk alone. This doesn’t necessarily translate into theists and atheists, since that spiritual presence might not be translated as “God” by many.
Another way of putting this is that all of us, equipped as we are with wider horizons and greater hopes for ourselves and the world, have to decide whether these are deceptive or whether there is some legitimacy to them. Each of us has to decide whether we will reach beyond the narrow confines of our limited self-interest to something richer and more beautiful that guides us to a form of self-surrender. What could be simpler, or more universal, than that?
Father Fran Hezel is a former director of the research-pastoral institute Micronesian Seminar. After serving as Jesuit mission superior in the Micronesian islands for six years, he continued heading the Micronesian Seminar until 2010.