“We grow neither better nor worse as we get old, but more like ourselves.”
I have seen the future – my future – and she is old. Whatever else the days to come will bring, they are guaranteed to embrace joints that will creak a bit more, hair flecked with grey and white, and steps that will slow. My office is near a retirement home, and every day I see very elderly people slowly shuffling down the street, alone or with relatives, and I wonder what they are like now as old people. Do they have good stories from their past decades? Are they happy with how they have lived? Are they bitter and suspicious? I look out my window and think that old age is inevitable and a natural part of the future, but what is not inevitable or guaranteed is to age gracefully.
I am still young and thinking about “what I want to be when I grow up.“ The future is still uncharted territory, still full of possibility. But what if I don’t get everything that I want out of life, or don’t do all the things that I tell people I want to do? The secret goals I hope to achieve may never be realized. Who will I then become when life is made up more of memory than possibility?
I was recently chatting with an elderly woman, excited to hear some of her stories gathered over a life of nearly eighty years, hoping to glean some wisdom from her experiences. But the conversation quickly deteriorated into a long monologue of complaints about her family, irritation with the neighborhood and condemnation of different choices her children had made. The rant continued for hours, and not one thankful or positive thing was said. Not one. I was appalled and terrified: Is this what I will be like in fifty years?
I confess that it is often easier to voice complaints rather than give thanks, to keep score rather than forgive those who have let us down, to criticize friends and family rather than affirm them. But after a few decades of this crotchety posture we will become the worst version of ourselves, for the older we become the more the polite veneer chips away to reveal our true spirit.
The secret to aging well must have less to with anti-wrinkle cream and more to do with gratitude, generosity and a good sense of humor. Growing old is beyond my control, but growing crotchety is not. I have seen my future and, yes, she is old, but that is not all she is because I have a choice. The future me can be wise, thankful, hopeful, loving and adventurous. And I believe that as much as I care about what I should do and accomplish in my life, I should also care about who I become. How I react to my successes, failures, disappointments and opportunities will ultimately shape what kind of woman I become – an old crotchety lady who complains constantly and eyes everyone with suspicion, or a gracious old lady who is thankful and eager to make the most of life.