Getting older—or old, if I’m having a particularly hard day—has a bad reputation. We see it as the beginning of the end of everything. We perceive it as the time when our lives get smaller, both literally and figuratively. For some of us, this might seem like a relief after years of too much work and endless hours raising kids, paying bills, and dealing with all that life presents to us on a daily basis. For me, though, as I inch my way closer and closer to 70, the world feels as if it’s opening, and every opportunity is ahead of me. I never imagined in a million years that this would be my experience at this time in my life.
During a recent house project, I had to do some downsizing of books and clothes and old boxes of things I hadn’t seen in years and had practically forgotten existed. But rather than make me feel as if my life were getting smaller, as I thought it might, I kind of got inspired. It was a good chance to think of new directions rather than simply closing out old ones. And in a way, that’s how my whole life feels right now. Early in my 60s, I started planning my retirement, because that’s what one does when they reach this age. When I ended up going back to work a couple of years later, I realized that our roads don’t have to come to an end. There’s always a turn ahead in a new direction.
That’s when I got it that my job is not to make the unfolding happen, but to go with it when it does.
And what I’m discovering—almost on a weekly basis—is that we can continue to grow in ways we never imagined. When I was younger—in those first years when I was really a grown-up with a career and a house and money in the bank—I thought I had figured out the answers. I had obviously been able to master the puzzle that opened the door to adulthood and I was sailing along. Truthfully, I was a little surprised that I had achieved these things, in that way we are when something actually works out as we’d hoped or imagined. I was also slightly afraid it could fall apart at any moment, so I made sure to follow all of my made-up rules and maintain enough vigilance to keep a small town operating at full force. Needless to say, it made for an anxiety-filled decade or three until I realized that I could let go of the reins from time to time and my life would still unfold over and over again. That’s when I got it that my job is not to make the unfolding happen, but to go with it when it does.
All these years later, I am a little astounded at how many turns there are in every road—how many times I imagined I was heading south, when really it was all moving north. But with all of those possibilities comes a bigger jackpot. With every new turn, it feels like my life just keeps getting bigger and more interesting. And my own capacity—or at least my perception of what I’m capable of—has expanded many times. What used to scare me still makes me nervous but, for the most part, I have pretty good sense that I will survive it and learn from it.
My parents actually got both braver and calmer as they got older. They joined the Peace Corps in their 60s, they survived the death of one of my brothers, and they found contentment in their own marriage (not something I imagined I would see in my lifetime). At the time, I didn’t attribute any of that to the way we probably all learn and grow as we age, but I see now that they undoubtedly experienced some of what I’m feeling right now.
We imagine that the learning occurs early in our lives to prepare us for all that lies ahead. In truth, it not only continues well into our late adult lives, but even intensifies. It’s as if the more we know and the more we can do, the more we become capable of knowing and doing. I think now that if we let that happen, there is a huge surprise at this end of the road—a much bigger world and the treasure of being able to live in it with the grace of experience.