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Fri, Jan. 24

Piacenza: Growing old, sobering up

Growing older definitely has both an upside and a downside. Those of us of a certain age know the physical downside all too well. The back, the knees, the hips and various other parts are showing their wear. If we’re lucky, any chronic condition is more an aggravation than a disability, but some of us face much bigger health challenges. Pride of appearance becomes a very relative thing, as we consider ourselves in the mirror: “Well, I don’t look too bad, considering…”

For me, one major upside of aging is gaining perspective on the events, successes and failures of the past. It’s a gift to realize that some things I might have blamed myself for were out of my control, some apparent barriers to reaching a goal in fact helped spur my determination, some blissfully happy episodes couldn’t be sustained but were no less a gift. I feel more or less at peace with how things have gone in my life, and in particularly peaceful moments, grateful for it all.

Operating less out of reactions to the past, I also find myself fretting less about the future. Through experiences good and bad I’ve gained a modicum of confidence and a better sense of the boundaries of my natural inclinations and abilities. I trust myself more to make decisions I can live with and to live up to my own values more consistently. All in all, the youthful chase after happiness has mellowed into patience with what is.

This lessening of self-concern often feels like a personal burden lifted while at the same time, it’s increased my awareness of other people. This goes beyond individual relationships to the community I live in and the world of human activity that I’m a part of, if only by virtue of being a fellow human. I might feel differently in another age, one without 24-hour news broadcasts, internet news at the touch of a button, and a barrage of email appeals from charities and politicians. As it is, my satisfaction with my own state of affairs is no longer the endpoint of my thinking.

Drinking that cup of self-satisfaction no longer brings the same level of blissful ignorance, i.e. if I’m OK, all’s right with the world. There are many things I find right and beautiful with the world and they are food for optimism; yet, I can’t ignore what I see as a heavy counter-weight of sad, mean and unnecessary harm going on. The result isn’t a flip-flop to pessimism, but a certain soberness has crept over my viewpoint. I see the many good things in the world and in myself in a fuller context.

The world and I have a lot to learn about drinking the ambrosia of self-centeredness to the detriment of seeing, accepting and doing something about our failings.

There’s no point in trying to tackle problems outside our sphere of control, but we can’t have the happiness of cultivating our own garden without pulling weeds. As our sphere of awareness grows, as “our own garden” broadens into a larger field, so does our responsibility to quit ignoring what may not affect us personally but is doing a disservice to others.

Perhaps the wine of youth is better appreciated after a few bitter pills have been swallowed. And perhaps my greatest sympathy is for the coming generations. They deserve their chance to taste that wine, to chase their happiness, and then to age and grow into self-aware if more sober senior citizens.

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