I recently and gratefully turned 80 years old. I consider it a particularly noteworthy chronological transition from the relatively secure 70’s toward what seems like a far shore of the 90’s. I’ve decided turning 80 is a little like passing out through the wardrobe in C.S. Lewis’s Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe story in which the entry into Narnia offers a portal into another world.
The children in the Narnia story, it turns out, learn that they cannot return through the wardrobe because they have become too old. This is also my reluctant reality as well. I can’t really return back through the portal to my previous younger years either. Although I like to fantasize that I could still do a backflip off the diving board if I really wanted to, or I could still prepare legislative testimony into the night and then drive to Olympia and back the next day to deliver it, or that I can still climb a ladder to clean the gutters and paint a ceiling if I am foolish enough to try to do so - that is a world to which I can no longer safely and sanely return. But I can indeed continue to live a reasonably active life, and I am always free to return to my "pre-wardrobe world" with my decades of precious memories. More importantly, I can now be present in a new "Narnia world" of continuing surprises and quests for new adventures, using my now well-won years of wisdom and experience as a guide. And this would apply, of course, to all of us as we age.
Being 80 allows me to truly claim elder hood. When I was younger a reference to someone who was 80 clearly implied they were old. But now that I myself am actually 80 I no long consider an aged stigma to apply, of course. I still can experience myself as vital and competent despite the chronology of being an octogenarian. And I increasingly find myself referring to those a decade ahead of me as someone “being only in their 90’s” as if the accumulated years are irrelevant. But then I do a quick scan of my scarred up body and often undependable memory, and the reality of my age is also apparent. A paradox of aging is that we can simultaneously feel much younger than we are while also affectionately accept the impact of our years on our bodies and minds.
The truth we all know is that aging is always relative at any point in our life cycle. I think of our young pre-teen (“tween”) grandchildren who toggle between being a child and also being thrust into adult like responsibilities. On vacation with my then twelve year old granddaughter, who fully engaged us in thoughtful, adult conversations and shared in all our planning decisions, when she found a playground with swings and rides that she gleefully enjoyed, she blurted out “It’s so good to be a kid again!” So when I can again be on a hiking trail, or I am engaged fully in various political dialogues, often now with my much younger coalition partners, or I am challenged to (occasionally) have a new facility with my computer skills, I can also say, “It’s good to be a competent younger person again,” even though I may now move at a much slower pace.
In sum I feel fortunate enough to have lived to be 80 years old. It has indeed been a good life so far. And I am grateful it is still a very fulfilling life in the present. And I look forward to a good number of years yet to continue to explore life and all the surprises and wonders it has to offer.
And I believe I am not alone. I recently was given a community birthday party, and when I asked my assembled friends how many were also octogenarians - or pending octogenarians, or octogenarian wannabes - to my surprise, it seemed almost everyone raised their hand. I found I had good company. And even if any of you are still well below the 80 year mark, you can be encouraged from me that being 80 years old can indeed also be a rewarding and fulfilling time of life.
Quakers refer to respected elders as “weighty Friends,” meaning they have reached a deserved level of stature and respect within the community. So I have taken up the idea that I am now a “weighty-eighty,” not just among the Quakers, but in my family, community, and professional roles in this new era of my life.
So onward into a new decade and beyond, and all the continuing challenges and revelations it will provide.
With gratitude for our lives, however long they may be,