There is a great advertising campaign for a new foundation with the slogan “Happiness never grows old!”
I beg to differ.
The phrase’s explanation further infuriates: “Because aging is not dying. Because going grey doesn’t mean losing your grey matter. Because our wise elders don’t always want to be told what to do.”
Who are they kidding? Who looks at us as wise elders? And who doesn’t think that elders are losing their grey matter? It’s called dementia. And everyone loves to tell us what to do!
It may be that, in other times and cultures, people did esteem the aged. We have a statement in Hebrew that commands standing in deference to an aged elder. We have phrases in Judaism that note people gain wisdom and character with the passing of time. There was a time when people assumed that the wisdom of our community resided in the elders. There was a time when to be older was to be respected.
But we don’t live in that era anymore. In this digitized techno world, older people are out of tune with the times. Too often, the aged are treated as though they know nothing, add nothing and are worth nothing. Even in the famed Pirkei Avot (Sayings of the Ancestors), there is a statement that 90 comes with decrepitude and at 100 it is as though one were already dead! Our society is enamoured with youth, not with maturity.
Thus, from this vantage point, happiness is hard to find as you age. Every morning, one wakes up wondering which part of his or her body will abandon them that day. Every week, we learn of a new friend who is ill, moved away or, sadly, deceased. I now read the obituaries. When did that start! Every day, we recognize there are fewer decades left ahead of us and there is no guarantee that we will see the next one, or even be aware. Loss lives within our aging world and we have to struggle to create happiness. It is there, to be certain – in the lives of our friends, children and grandchildren – but it does not come easily or habitually.
I know I sound like an old curmudgeon – how did that happen? – but I am not advocating depression; just recognizing a reality that few are comfortable talking about or living with. There are, of course, lots of jokes about aging – the best ones contain a grain of truth. Honestly, we should recognize that we are lucky in many ways if we do live long enough to age. But how can we confront it in all its complexities? How does one age with dignity?
I remember when my father told me that he had no recollection of growing old. “How did it happen, Norma, that I am 80? I still feel 25!” Now I can hear myself utter the same protest. How did it happen that my friends and I aged? Right in front of our eyes, the mirror relayed an old face. There are creases and wrinkles, pain and loss of movement. Glad to be alive, but…
In so many ways, I can recognize that I am fortunate. I have had a long and wonderful marriage to a great man. (I can recognize the joy we had, even if he no longer is that person.) I have lived a comfortable life with a career, great friends, loving children and amazing grandchildren. All of these continue to give me pleasure. I am surely happy to visit friends and family. But I also recognize that it is getting harder. All of it! I don’t want to be sidelined, but that is the nature of life. We age and become less relevant, less in tune with the times. We are loved, but not needed.
Happiness is nearby, but harder to collect.
So while happiness itself may not grow older, I have.