Old age is physical. If you live long enough, you’ll get old. No doubt about it. You’ll be crippled with back pain, your fingers will ache with arthritis, your knees and hips will need surgery and you might end up with a walker or a wheelchair. But that’s not all. Your eyesight will fade, you’ll need hearing aids, and, oh yes, sex will be just a happy memory. That’s old age. But it’s not aging.
Aging has nothing to do with your birthdays. I know many men and women in their 80s and 90s who haven’t aged a bit. On the other hand, I know several men in their 40s and 50s who are “over the hill.”
Aging is purely psychological. It doesn’t matter how old you are or how healthy you are; what matters is how you think about your life. Old age means a life with no meaning. But this can happen to young people, too, you know. This is the reason so many of our young heroic veterans are committing suicide. Some of them are perfectly healthy, but their war experience has aged them far beyond their years. They have lost all reason for living; they have lost the meaning of life.
“Man’s Search for Meaning” was written by Victor Frankl after he was liberated from Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp. He had survived many years of brutal beatings, watching his family and friends march off to the ovens. He said he slept on a board with nine other men in the bitter cold and could share only two blankets between them. The men wore the same shirts for six months or until their shirts fell off in rags, and then they worked naked in the winter cold. Frankl knew pain and he knew old age, but he learned that “aging” was purely psychological.
Frankl kept asking himself and the other prisoners around him: “What possible meaning can we find in our miserable lives?” Some said they wanted to live to see their children who had not been captured; some had pets; others had homes. Everyone who survived had something to live for, some meaning still left in their tortured lives. Those who lost meaning were the ones who started aging, both young and old, both rich and poor, and they began to die.
Many think that wealth brings meaning. I knew two very wealthy men here in Middle Georgia who lost their reason for living and ended their lives by suicide. Each one could have purchased a yacht or a home in the Bahamas and lived in luxury; they could have bought fancy cars and huge mansions and lived right here in Georgia. But with all their money and all their possibilities, they could find nothing to bring them meaning.
Meaning can be as simple as a blind puppy who needs you, or as noble as the desire to publish a book on tips for living. Meaning is what gets you up in the morning and pushes you to exercise when you just want to sit in your easy chair. The great thing about meaning is the search. People who are continually searching for new treasures in politics or religion or art or friendship will, of course, get older, but they won’t age; they will always stay young at heart no matter how many birthdays tumble by. But the person who throws up his hands and sighs, “Is this all there is?” is doomed to a miserable life of boredom, and that person will age before your eyes.
I am searching for an historical Jewish Jesus, hidden behind layers of myth and centuries of oral tradition. It’s a search fraught with frustration because I am sometimes pummeled with scorn and abuse and anger, but I take it. I take it because — after all these years — I know I’m getting closer. I’m an old man now in my middle 80s but I’m not bored; I still find this search to be exciting and invigorating and something that keeps my mind alert.
I’m getting older, for sure, but I’m trying desperately not to age.
Bill Cummings blog is www.progressiveheretic.com.