Even though I have titled this SEP “relativity,” the image above should assure you I am not going to explore the finer points of the physics and mathematics of Einstein’s theory of relativity. Instead I’m not surprisingly mostly interested in what it means to be "relatively old” and the relativity of aging.
I read once - and I think it is mostly true - that throughout a lifetime we consider someone who is fifteen years older than we are as “old.” When we are 5 years old a 20 year old cousin looks very old indeed. When we are 20, at least in the mindset of a generation or two ago, we were warned that the age and cultural 15 year differential was such that we shouldn't trust anyone over 30 let alone 35! And when we are 35 we consider a 50 year old as someone much more settled, distant and likely quite “parental” and too anxious to offer advice. And at 50 we think of someone who is 65 as someone who is now old enough to retire (and should do so?) from the workplace and settle into a less demanding lifestyle. But the equation works the other way as well. As I hit 80 I look back when I was "relatively young” at 65 years old and remember now with some longing about my (and others') comparative vigor and youth at that age. And now at 80 I consider those who have made it to 95 as respectfully “quite old” as I admire their resilience and, perhaps, just good luck.
My point is that perception and attitude have more to do with aging than the actual years lived. I am reminded of the tombstone inscription that read that the man had died at age 40 but was buried at age 80. In other words, the death of his spirit had long preceded his bodily death, and one of the main goals of our lives, in my opinion, is to maintain a sense of being as alive as possible before we are actually buried!
I am often interested in the difference between the “relativity” of how “old” one is regardless of one's chronological age. We often speak about a young person, even a young child, who seems to have an “old soul,” meaning they exude a kind of intuitive wisdom and grace more advanced than their age. For my part, I think that kind of wisdom has come upon me much more slowly with wisdom gained mostly from challenging life experiences that have, indeed, make me “wiser” as life has progressed. I was not so much born with an “old soul” as I have seasoned mine through life itself.
I believe it is crucial throughout life to have time for reflection as it relates to how relatively well our lives are grounded in faith and meaning. At the end of one’s life we all know the true value of our lives was not what we simply accomplished during those working years, but how well we grounded our relationship with ourselves, others, and our humble and grateful place in the sacred universe.
With a more seasoned sense of wisdom during our later years the reality of an awareness of more physical and mental limitations become more apparent. And it’s tempting to compare our relative stability and success with those of our peers. When I worry about my physical stability and unreliable memory at times, and whether I can still effectively function, I look around me (for better or worse) to compare myself to others my age.
I think of “old” 81 year old brother Joe Biden traveling all over the globe while also being accountable for running a complex democratic government. He daily has to fend off those determined to frustrate his leadership while he is also negotiating the high stakes of preventing (or initiating?) an expanded war in the Middle East, immigration policy and an election only months away. So Joe Biden and many of my octogenarian peers remind that me not to complain too much when life gets more complex than I would like, and I can’t just withdraw simply relative to my chronological age. When I read of other “high performing” 80-somethings I want to think about myself among their numbers!
We all are engaged in some form of these relative comparisons with others at all ages. It is crucial, of course, to be aware of how grateful we are to have our assets and abilities no matter how old we are. I try to acknowledge how fortunate I am that my body and mind have not (yet) succumbed to serious debilitation as scarred and worn as I may be. As I travel the hallways of medical clinics and hospitals these days, where others my age hobble along, I especially realize how lucky and truly blessed I am with the life I am living, and I hope I maintain that attitude even during the inevitable challenges ahead.
We may sometimes feel like a car with 115,00 miles on the odometer with a dent and rattle or two. But we are not machines. We are enspirited body and soul with the option and encouragement of affirming and living the fullness of life at any age.
Peace and the grace of aging well, whatever your “relative age,”