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.