Once, when I was about 12, my father came into my room holding a book. He was in his forties at the time. “I want to show you something,” he said.
The book was an autobiography of the poet Robert Graves. On the front cover was a photograph of Graves as a young man: black-haired, handsome, and full of vitality and hope. My father turned the book over to show a photograph of the present-day Graves: hair white, face wrinkled, eyes shrouded in sorrow.
“Look at this,” my father said, turning the book over and over, showing me the startling transformation of youth to old age and back again. “You can’t understand this,” he said. He dropped the book on my bed, and, just as suddenly as he had come into my room, he turned and left.
I had not said anything. I sensed my father’s awkwardness and the poignancy of his effort, but he was right. I didn’t really understand, any more than I could understand Suzuki Roshi years later when he spoke of enjoying his old age. Now, at 64, I do understand, and I thank my father for his long-ago effort. The old understand the young better than the other way around. My father wanted to reach out across the gulf separating old age from youth and tap me with the magic wand of this hard-won knowledge, but he couldn’t. He could only show me the two photographs and wish the best for me as I set off on the journey to adulthood.
When Suzuki said “Everything changes,” he could just as easily have said “Everything ages.” That is what my father was trying to show me.
Intellectually we know this. We know that everything ages; we see it all around us. For much of our life it is like the house we live in or the air we breathe—a familiar fact that we barely notice. But as we grow older that fact is harder to shrug off. Aging is not just change, but irreversible change—for better or for worse. We did not get that sought-after promotion, and now it will never come. Or we did get the promotion, and life has never been the same. We are poor. Or we were once poor, but now we are not. We have a bad knee, and even surgery will not make it new. Or maybe the surgery worked, and we can say good-bye to the pain we lived with for so long. We always wanted children, but now we are too old to have them. Or we adopted a child, to our never-ending joy. One way or another, our life consists of “the things that happened to happen.”
Irreversible change is different because there is no going back. Its triumphs sustain us; its losses mark us. The real question is: what do we do about it? In much of today’s world, people are living longer than they ever have. The life expectancy at the turn of the century was 45; now it is 80. Living into one’s eighties, nineties, and even past one hundred is a real possibility today, one that makes your fifties and sixties a time not for winding down but for gearing up—though for what, we may not be sure. In many ways society has not yet caught up with these new facts of life, and neither have we. We need to look afresh at this prospect of a longer life and ask ourselves: What’s the best use of this extra gift of time?
The answer, I propose, is that aging is an ideal time for the cultivation of the inner life: a time for spiritual practice. Why it should be so is captured in that image of the old Robert Graves that I still vividly remember. Graves’s white hair and lined face seemed to tell my father a story of loss, one that he was already experiencing in the disappointments of his own middle age. But I saw something else, something that made me want to open the book and read. The face of the old Robert Graves seemed to me to be the face of a wise person, one who knew something important. I wanted to know what that was and how he had gained it.
As I turned the pages and followed Graves’s life story from youth, to full adulthood, and finally to old age, I caught an inkling of what it takes to live a rich and complete human life from start to finish. And now that I myself am closer to the end of my life than the beginning of it, I realize that my reading of Graves’s story so long ago was the beginning of my interest in aging as a spiritual practice.
When my father barged into my room with the Graves book in his hand, I believe he wanted to say that the dreams he had when he was young were slipping away, and where was he going? What was he doing?
My father, a self-taught man who read Greek philosophy in the evenings and thought deeply about things, had touched upon a universal truth. I have heard some version of it from many people when I talk to them about their experience of aging, and I have given it a name: Lightning Strikes.
Lightning Strikes is the moment we truly wake up to our aging and can see the full significance of it in our whole life, from its unremembered beginning to its unknown end. Until that moment, regardless of our age, we spend much of the time not thinking too much about where our life is headed or what it all means. But once lightning strikes, it’s different. We have reached a tipping point. We have stopped seeing things as we wished they were, and, for a moment at least, can see them as they actually are.
Lightning can strike in what seems to be a disturbing or negative way, as it did for my father, or in a positive way, as it did for Katherine, a 57-year-old chief of staff for a local politician.
As I sat in Katherine’s living room one summer afternoon, appreciating the shimmering leaves of an aspen tree outside the open window, she sat a bit formally on the couch, quietly answering my questions. But when I got to the question “Is there anything you particularly like or enjoy about aging?” her face lit up. “My granddaughter!” she exclaimed as she reached for a photo album on the coffee table.
We spent the next few minutes looking through her album of new family photographs. As the interview progressed, I asked Katherine if she could say how the birth of her grandchild had affected her view on aging.
She grew thoughtful. “This sounds odd,” she said finally, “but it’s made me feel as though my life has really amounted to something. Isn’t that strange?” She laughed. “I didn’t feel that way when I had my own children, and I’ve accomplished a lot in my life.”
My father and Katherine represent the two faces of aging: the wrinkled face on the cover of Robert Graves’s book and the joyful smile of a new grandmother. Regret and celebration are equally important facets of aging.
Practice: When Lightning Strikes
A Contemplative Reflections Exercise
First, ask yourself, “How did it feel?”
I know when lightning struck for me. It was when I sat in my doctor’s office and he told me I had cancer. I was 35 years old, and until that moment I had never given much thought to growing old. I was in the prime of my life; everything was going my way. I walked out of my doctor’s office utterly changed. In the time it took me to drive from the doctor’s office to my house, I felt as though I had aged 20 years.
When did lightning strike for you? Can you think of a specific event that shifted the way you thought about aging, as it did for my father, or for Katherine?
If you can, focus in on that memory. Jot down your thoughts as you do so. Study that moment in all its detail; tune in to the feelings or emotions you had at the time.
Was the feeling positive or negative? Name the feeling: Give it a word.
If the feeling was positive, did it change or shift your feeling about growing old? If it did, how would you describe that change?
Ask yourself the same questions if the feeling was negative. When I did this exercise myself, I recalled my feeling as negative. I felt confusion and anxiety as I drove home from the doctor’s office, but it was not about having cancer; it was about what I was going to tell Amy, my wife.
But when I told her, she took it in stride. She was solid as a rock, and that gave me the strength to say to her, “Well, I’m not going to die.” At that moment, I was visualizing myself living to grow old, having a long life.
How did you feel when lightning struck? And how did that feeling change your attitude toward aging?
Then ask yourself, “How is it going now?”
How is it going now for you? How is the moment when lightning first struck affecting your life today? Has the memory faded, or is the recollection still fresh? Have there been more such moments, each one building on the last? Write a single sentence describing how it’s going now. Read it back to yourself. Has your present self fully absorbed the lessons of the past?
What spiritual lesson did you learn from the moment lightning struck?
What I would write is: That was the day I grew up. After 25 years, that spiritual lesson is still alive for me. Our whole spiritual life is like that, I think. It flows like an underground river throughout our life and surfaces to help us remember what is really important and who we really are.
Read an interview with Lewis Richmond here.
Lewis Richmond was ordained as a Zen Buddhist priest in 1971 by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. He is the author of Aging as a Spiritual Practice and founder of the Vimala Sangha, a Zen Buddhist meditation community in northern California. This article was adapted from chapter 1 of Aging as a Spiritual Practice: A Contemplative Guide to Growing Older and Wiser by Lewis Richmond © 2012. Reprinted with permission of Gotham Books.
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