getting olderthat's what he said, by Frank Wilson

The surprise of old age

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“The biggest surprise in a man’s life is old age.” Thus spake Leo Tolstoy, who made it to 82.

It is hard to disagree, especially if you find yourself, as I do, on the cusp of three score and ten, the so-called Biblical age. Of course, old age is not surprising in the sense that it is unexpected, but rather that it turns out to be so different from what you may have expected.

When I was young and found occasion to ponder the prospect of growing old, I tended to think of it in terms I can only describe as airbrushed: the hair would turn a lustrous gray, and the lines in my face would deepen in just such a way as to suggest a certain gravitas. I failed to factor in the slight paunch and the somewhat sagging cheeks, to say nothing of the exquisite aches my knees have lately been visiting upon me.

But the biggest surprise, at least for me, has been how much my past is tending to impinge on my present. I am not an especially sentimental person, so I am not much given to nostalgia. I’ve always been more interested in what’s going on now than in what happened whenever. But recently, just about everything I lay my eyes on has reminded me of something in the past.

I found this both puzzling and not altogether pleasant. In fact, I didn’t find it especially pleasant at all. Then, last week, I read something Alan Watts wrote that seemed to have some bearing on it:

We think that the world is limited and explained by its past. We tend to think that what happened in the past is going to happen next, and so we do not see that it is exactly the other way around! What is always the source of the world is the present; the past doesn’t explain a thing. The past trails behind the present like the wake of a ship, and eventually disappears.

That is certainly true of my past: Most of it has largely disappeared. So what am I to make of these various bits and pieces that seem to be floating to the top of my consciousness all of a sudden? What Watts says leads me to think that they have been with me all along.

Most of what happens to us on any given day we leave in our wake. But not everything. We take some things along with us. We accumulate as well as discard. As Faulkner noted, a lot of what happened in the past isn’t really past. It’s the ingredients of who we are.

But you can only accumulate so much for so long. At a certain point there are things you just aren’t looking for anymore. The result is a definite change in perspective. You really do see things differently.

I have noticed, for instance, that when I see a young woman these days I am more aware of her imperfections than I ever would have been when I was her age and looking for that someone a young woman like her just might have been.

This is more than just surprising. It is downright unnerving. You suddenly realize that you have arrived at ripeness. But ripeness is the point of climax, after which comes the dénouement. The ripe apple’s days on the bough are numbered.

I think this is may have something to do with why the late work of great artists becomes spare. Superfluities may be permissible, even necessary, when one is learning a craft, but eventually they simply get in the way.

So I surmise that, as I grow ever older, a process of paring down is in order. Little else needs to be taken on and a good bit needs to be discarded.

That is not exactly surprising. What is surprising is that this ripe you turns out to be so different from what you may have expected that you have to make an effort to get to know him.

Frank Wilson was the book editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer until his retirement in 2008. He blogs at Books, Inq.

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3 Responses to “The surprise of old age”

  1. Seeing flaws in those who, once, would have enchanted you? Perhaps not ripeness, sir, but rot. I’m 61 next month so I say this as a fellow traveler!

  2. Well, I didn’t say I was unappreciative, just that I had begun to notice things I would never have when I was younger. I also felt exactly as you do when I was a mere 61. Another surprise is how different 70 is from 60.

  3. Oh, and Kate, I was talking about very young women, whom we tend to think are flawless, at least when we are very young ourselves and don’t want to be distracted. My wife is my age, looks years younger, and has no flaws that I can discern. Me, on the other hand …

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