How To Be Older

Time rolls on, we grow older, and the pleasures become quieter and deeper. I am, for what it’s worth, in my late forties, so age fifty is in sight. I was going to title this post something like “How to Be Fifty,” describing a few things I think I’ve figured out about how to live free, with no attention to the time. But I realized there is nothing age-specific about what I have to say. These are some of the points we learn, forget, and learn again within every decade, the points we might be able to know for a while and hold onto within any season of life. Rather than “How to Be Fifty,” this post would make just as much sense titled “How to Be Thirty.” To live a life of joy, to experience the days in a way that is not just smart but also unconcerned, to follow more fully after that pleasure that is increasingly to be found in the quiet and the depth, here are a few things I have come to believe are valuable to learn how to do:

1. Waste Time

We lose the trick of wasting time. We lose this trick every time we take the next step or advance to the next level of whatever roles we fill. Time gets recruited after our aims and obligations, toward getting things taken care of or getting work done. Even the kind of time-wasting we kick ourselves for—procrastination—is still beholden to aims and obligations, because the stark fact of those things not being addressed is the very reason for the kick, the reason we view the time as misspent. The “wasting time” I mean here is something different: lost time spent well, purposeless time spent on time itself, the moment spent on fully considering the experience it offers that would otherwise be missed.

For example, none of us ever loses our interest in the weather, but practically all of us relegate it to a background detail. A life of joy opens room for the weather, offering the freedom to experience time sometimes by feeling the warmth of the sun and giving consideration to how the light plays, or listening to the rain’s sound to appreciate the strange lovely way that every rain sounds a little different. Other ways of wasting time include reading for its own sake, thinking just to see where thoughts go, or doing a simple chore that feels appealing rather than pressing. The time-wasting is deliberate and actively attentive“attention-wasting” might be what I really meanso recreations of passive consuming (food, media) likely do not fit the bill.

In an early outline of this essay, I had “waste time” lower down on the list. I moved it to number one because of its power as an act of defiance. If advancing age brings with it the fear that time is short, reclaiming time by deliberately wasting it is the way to push back against this lie.

2. Recognize Your Circumstances As Meaningful

As time passes, as things happen, as we find ourselves in particular places, the destiny that was once invisible becomes partially revealed. The veil gets drawn back on the events and developments that shape us and outline the story of who we are to be.

Seeing the circumstances of our lives as meaningful is the first step to living out that meaning, and also a way toward freedom because of the clarity of purpose this brings. The questions, “Where would you have me go, Lord?” and “What would you have me do?” each receive a response. Answer: He has delivered you there! He has equipped you to do it!

Youth lacks this window into meaning. We are surrounded by others similar to us who have similar stories. But as more time passes, each of us acquires a history increasingly different from anyone else’s, leaving us fitted to filling a place or performing a service no one else could quite do the same way. Time is the means by which one is sculpted, and there come points in time—maybe you are at such a point now—for saying yes to where time has placed you and whom it has made you to be.

3. Forgive Yourself

To be fifty or nearly so is to have made a mess of things. To be thirty might be much the same. The past leaves room for missteps and failure. The bigger the past is, the more likely it contains some wreckage that still gives shape to your story and informs your thoughts. Perhaps it consists of plans that should have been left alone, or perhaps mistakes that someone else would have been smart enough not to make. If the wreckage is fully and entirely in the past, count this as a great blessing.

Count it also a blessing to have the life that is now poignantly softened and informed by the touch of this failure or folly, or even sorrow. Forgive yourself—recognize your brokenness—in part for the sake of peace, which joy requires, and in part because owning the wreckage, claiming it and taking it, is the start of the greater capacity for forgiveness and understanding you might be able to bring to the people and situations you’ll find next.

4. Welcome Weariness as a Liberator

As time passes, what once seemed novel comes to seem wearying. Attainments, adventures, achievements—item after item falls off the list of what seems exhilarating to pursue. However, what once might have been inhibiting can lose its power and place the same way. The voices of self-criticism and self-limitation are discovered to have said much the same thing over and over again for years upon years, producing the same tired outcome again and again. Just last year there came a moment for me when I crossed a line of weariness in my thoughts and questioned an inner voice of self-criticism I had been hearing since I was fifteen or sixteen. The voice wasn’t me, and its rages had long grown repetitive and dull. Not listening was more interesting than continuing to be cowed as I had for so long. The boredom of weariness can enable freedoms that our courage can’t quite reach.

5. Feel Sad

Another way of talking about the pleasures becoming quieter and deeper is the transition away from happiness as a thing pursued and occasionally won toward joy as the thing held and known. A life of joy can have sadness in it. It must allow sadness, because the passing years eventually bring us far enough that the way ahead contains loss as much as gain. Children leave, seasons end, elders pass, doors close. The poignancy of the experience of these things is itself a treasure, so long as we trust in joy’s returning presence sufficiently that we are safe to experience the sadness honestly and fully.

All four of my points preceding this one have to do with accepting and receiving what is—being in and experiencing the world, including the world we have helped to make—as both a complement and an alternative to our efforts to resist, alter, or pull more from the world. Learning this acceptance is valuable partly because the passages are coming that we cannot resist or alter, that leave us with less instead of more.

In the life of joy, these passages too are life. Sadness too is life. While standing on the expectation of joy’s safe return, sadness can be explored and known. The sorrow passes but the softening it produces hopefully remains. Well into the years past thirty and, I expect, well into the years past fifty as well, we discover we are still being remade. We discover the losses might even be gains. Time is still sculpting, and the sadness softens us so deeply that we can more fully accommodate the shape that joy would have us take.

What is Joy? The Same Sentence Appears in Two of My Books—Here are Excerpts

I just noticed that the same sentence, asking the same big question, identically appears in two of my books. That question: “What is joy?”

Happiness and joy are different. This theme speaks to me, apparently. It has appeared in various posts to this blog. And as I’ve now noticed, the theme is a thread of continuity running from one of my books into the latest one.

Relevant passages out of the two books actually somewhat fit together in exploring this question. What follows, then, is an essay built out of excerpts from different books.

From The Ten Commandments, chapter 5:
What is joy? Joy and happiness are actually two different things, and the distinction is profound. [...] In this life, happiness is the fleeting substitute we pursue when joy is lacking. Indeed, happiness must be pursued. (The U.S. Constitution’s phrase, “the pursuit of happiness,” seems to appreciate this point.) We race after happiness as quickly as it fades. By contrast, joy is something we have. It is a fruit of the Spirit, a possession of the heart. Rather than trying to get happiness out of life, obtain joy from its source—the love of God—and channel that joy out into life. This reversal reorients the believer’s very understanding of the nature of fulfillment and personal freedom.

From You Did Not Choose Me, But I Chose You, chapter 17:
To begin to confront the personal struggle inherent in Christian faith, start here: The way of the Spirit is not a way of happiness. 
Christians are rarely told this fact bluntly. They should be. The way of the Spirit is a way of joy, but happiness and joy are different. 
Jesus shows us this. Jesus surely was a man of joy, because joy is a fruit of the Spirit of God (Galatians 5:22). Yet nothing about the portrayal we have of Jesus in any of the four gospels suggests a man who was happy. Nothing we see of him in the gospels suggests a man who kept himself carefree, who delighted in accolades, who filled his time with pleasures. Nothing about him suggests an irrepressible grin. Such a grin is an expression of satisfaction with this world, whereas Jesus was a man of the other world. His thoughts were elsewhere; his understanding was elsewhere. He knew more. 
His knowledge gave him eyes to see, an awareness that was not averted. Jesus knew what death had done in the world and what it was still doing. Far from laughing, scripture tells us that Jesus wept.

From You Did Not Choose Me, But I Chose You, chapter 20:
What is joy?
An easier starting point is this: What is happiness? If the two are different, then it helps to explore this question.
We can be happy. Start there. Happiness and joy are different, but they are not opposed. Happiness and joy can exist together. It is just that the one is fleeting. Happiness is the enjoyment of an attainment, pleasure, or prize—a feeling that always ends. A life of joy might include much happiness, and in fact, joy makes happiness easier. With joy, we can watch happiness pass away without desperation in seeing it go.
Because happiness always does pass away. This is its nature. The nature of happiness is that it is hostage to the futility that rules the world. Happiness must be pursued to be kept, must be chased to be held, because another attainment or pleasure is always needed to restore happiness or keep it aloft. Much energy is wasted on the seduction that life can be found through this chasing. 
Joy, by contrast, is not pursued, but instead is trusted. Joy is not a feeling to ride, but a foundation on which to stand. Thus, joy leaves room for any feeling within the experience of it. The person who knows joy can be sad. Sadness might even facilitate joy, because a sadness that is sufficiently draining can break us from burning up energy on happiness’s pursuit. A great portion of one’s life can be spent on running away from hurt or fear by seeking happiness after happiness so we can feel, for scant moments at a time, that we live in a world where the fear or hurt is absent. Joy is a different answer. Joy says the fear and hurt are present, but it is they that are momentary. They are fleeting. The fear and hurt are real, but we know something bigger than these feelings, something eternal. We know the Spirit of God, the Spirit that even now blows where it will. And joy is part of the fruit of this Spirit moving through us, moving through you, the fruit of being in the place or doing the thing that the Spirit would join you in doing. 

What to Say to Someone Who is Hurting or Has Suffered a Loss

People in pain add to their pain by fearing that what they are experiencing is a burden or bother to others.

And people who have suffered a loss fear that this loss is the beginning and that other things will be lost to them as well.

I have heard, “No one ever knows what to say” to those who are feeling these things. Once when I was feeling bad, I jotted some lines I thought would be meaningful to hear. I recently was reminded of those lines and looked them up again.

I think maybe you say this:

“I know you’re sad. Just know that if you need to go ahead and be sad—if you’re sullen, or withdrawn, or not quite there—that’s OK. I’ll still be around, and I’ll even be here if you need anything from me.”

Or maybe you say:

“I’m your friend, and no clock is running on what you’re dealing with. I know you need to go through this. I am not going anywhere.”