Aging, despite problems all along the way, is part of the vitality of life. I'd be lying to say getting old is always fun, but it is definitely interesting if one makes the most of each of their years, fulfilling their individual life purpose in a culture that only limitedly enforces rules for how each age must be lived. The ones who get here are also fortunate as so many do not.
In the past, I have written on my belief that one of the tasks of old age is to find peace and alignment with what happens after our bodies cease functioning. This is a spiritual task and whether someone believes in a creator, reincarnation, dust to dust, heaven or hell, it still is important in old age to find acceptance and be comfortable with the ending of physical life. With the uncertainty of exactly what comes next, there is one sure thing. This flesh, that we think of as everything to us, that often defines and explains our whole identity, doesn't last forever.
One of the concepts I found interesting in Eckhart Tolle's book, A New Earth, was how he compared the creation and story of the universe to the same pattern in the human life cycle.
Tolle writes how astronomers have observed the current universe began with the Big Bang probably 15 million years ago. As it expanded, it became more complex. That is not the end of the story. Astronomers believe that someday this universe will reverse itself. The expansion will stop and contracting will begin. It will return to the formlessness from which it began. Perhaps then the process will begin again. Perhaps it has before.
Why this happens is what religions are created to answer, but in the end, it is mystery which mankind tries to understand and must accept through submission if nothing else.
"The outer purpose of the universe is to create form and experience the interaction of forms-- the play, the dream, the drama, or whatever you choose to call it. Its inner purpose is to awaken to its formless essence." Eckhart Tolle in A New Earth.We are born and grow, expanding our sphere of experience as we learn about the world and our place in it. We love, give, take, hate, and our lives grow in complexity as we mature and take on adult responsibilities. That part of aging goes on a long time-- or so it seems. (Sometimes, when you get to my age, it seems it all happened to someone else.)
It continues that way until another process begins. For most of us that comes with old age as our physical form begins to deteriorate. Our body loses powers. We adapt to these changes or live with constant dread and frustration. Our choices, of necessity, change and can seem to dwindle with our physical abilities.
Tolle writes that with old age, we will have begun a new part of that path from formlessness to form and back to formlessness.
Although humans like to have a firm date for all of this, establishing specific times for saying someone is old (senior discounts, retirement from careers, Medicare, Social Security), in reality aging (contracting) will happen at different times and rates for each of us.
Each of these stages-- the becoming more and then the becoming less-- have purposes. Tolle writes that the purpose of youth is doing; the purpose of old age is being. It is unfortunate that our culture has little respect for the old age part of this cycle. In some cultures, it is the aged to whom others go for wisdom, for spiritual guidance, for the telling of the stories through which they have learned. The elderly are a repository of wisdom regarding the changes they have witnessed. The elderly also can be the ones who have time and experience to delve into the spiritual realm and come up with truths that help those younger.
Regardless of the life stage, some humans resist their purposes. Some youths refuse to grow up, resist taking on responsibility for their own lives, don't want an education, or to have life experiences that would stretch them. Perhaps they put it off believing there is will be time later or they darned well won't do what their parents did.
Generally speaking, humans aren't governed as much by instincts as other animals. At least in our culture today, there aren't firm guidelines for how to ideally live a life during growing years. Have children early. Don't have children at all. Experience adventure early. Get a meaningful career. Stick to easily changed jobs. Get married. Don't get married and so it goes with options that vary for the individual as to which best expand their life experience.
Arriving at the elder years, it's the same thing. Some elders don't want to think they are old. They look around, think they don't look so bad, have seen how the aged are disrespected and by golly, they do not want to become formless or invisible.
Face lifts, hair dye, lots of exercise with a trainer, youthful clothing, constant rounds of activities,and doing anything possible to deny that the path ahead is back-- to formlessness. This wouldn't matter if there had been no purpose to this contracting stage of life, but what if there is?
(The first three pictures were scanned from 35mm slides. 1966 was reading in bed; 1979 was hiking in Arizona, Seven Falls behind me; 1993 was reading at a campsite on Miller Creek in Montana; and yesterday was here at the farmhouse. All photos taken by my husband.)