November 15, 2018

Aging and the Meaning of Life

A friend of my ex-husband’s was in town for the holidays. She was someone I’d always liked, and my husband and I didn’t “divide up” our social circle when we split. Any friend of my ex’s is a potential New Best Friend of mine. I hadn’t seen her in a couple of years, and we were making plans to get together.

“We’re still on for dinner Thursday?” I asked. “I really want to catch up and hear what you’ve been doing.”

“Yes, we have so much to talk about,” she agreed. “Life. Work. Aging.”

“Wait! Did you say ‘dating’ or ‘aging’?”

“Aging.”

“You brought that up yourself? I didn’t introduce that topic?”

“I’m totally obsessed with aging these days,” she said.

I’m totally obsessed with aging, too, but I assumed it was situation-specific. I’m single. Divorced with a child. Past 45. Living in Los Angeles. This is not a life stage most of us dream of achieving. We don’t spend our 30s rifling through Solo Mom! magazine, cutting out photos of perky 40-something single mothers sitting in cardboard-box “boats” in the living room with their 10-year-old sons while sneaking peeks at OkCupid on their iPhones. Aging and dating are intertwined for me.

“Everyone our age thinks about aging,” Michelle said. “We think about aging, and you know, the meaning of our lives. Especially me, because I don’t have a child. I think if you have a child, you have more of a sense of meaning.”

I considered this. “I think you need five children for meaning,” I said. “You need to be hectored by other people’s needs at all times to feel that your life has meaning in any consistent way.”

“Well, this is where the Orthodox got it right,” she said.

I thought about my Orthodox friends, a young Chasidic couple whom my son and I have grown close to since moving to L.A. four years ago. When we met, they were in their late 20s and had four kids. I was in my mid-40s with one. Now they’ve crossed into their 30s and have six kids. I’ve turned 50; still one child.

Meeting them reminded me of my late 20s, when I’d lived with an artist boyfriend in Houston, and we both still felt full of the promise of everything. We believed our personal salvation would come — in the form of a one-man show at a New York gallery (him) and publishing a book (me) — and that reaching these goals had profound significance. We had that conviction, the clear-eyed faith that what we were doing mattered beyond ourselves, and in a big way. There was nothing tempered or hedged or particularly practical about our belief in the power of our dreams.

I was also in love for the first time, and fully captivated by the relationship, too. It felt miraculous, like a story. It didn’t occur to me to hold back, wait and see, consider all the factors. I was all in, fully committed.

I have far fewer moments of existential angst than when I was younger.

Our Chasidic friends still are, and it’s always encouraging to see. We’d just joined them for Shabbat the previous week, arriving before sundown. I’d definitely had a moment of peaceful meaning while holding their incredibly cute toddler in a towel, still warm from his bath. He lifted his knees against my stomach, trying to tuck his toes under the terry cloth to avoid the chill.

The month before, we’d helped them serve latkes to passersby at Whole Foods on Montana Avenue. The mother handed me the baby while she chased after the 2-year-old, who had taken off for the parking lot. The 6-year-old girl wrapped her arms around my legs. I stood there, pinned for a moment, looking at the sun slowly setting over the ocean, and felt a profound sense of gratitude. I live in Santa Monica, unbelievably. There are plenty of kids to go around.

Although I am not remotely Orthodox, I love this intelligent, passionate family. They invest so much thought into parenting, and they always provide opportunities to help. I think meaning patches in and out, but service to others, I have realized, is an increasingly important meaning-generator as we age. We move off the center stage in certain regards as we age — or are pushed aside — and can’t help but accumulate knowledge, whether we intended to or not. We often have more traction, more to give, by helping lift up others.

In truth, I have far fewer moments of existential angst than I did when I was younger. Part of this is the lessening of the grip of my ambition. Even when theoretically tethered to telling a story that will change people’s lives — or dripping swirls of candy-colored acrylic on canvas that challenges the current visual vocabulary — personal ambition is too singular a drive to round out the whole day, leaving you too inadequately woven into the lives of others. Lack of responsibility to real, live people can easily flip into that gut-punch of emptiness. Also, ambition requires some success. If no one reads the book, no one’s life gets changed. But there’s no bar you must reach when it comes to helping, especially when it’s physical, interactive and tangible. No critic needs to laud your latke-serving skills in order for that stranger on that corner to be fed.

The opportunity to help is one thing those of us living strictly secular lives can have trouble finding, and part of what my friend Michelle was noting. For so many of us, it takes real effort to find something to do for someone else these days, and regularly, and in a way that doesn’t detract from our other goals. To me, the hosting and needing others to pitch in is where the Orthodox got it right.

That, and the big dinner party every week.


Wendy Paris is a writer living in Los Angeles. She is the author of “Splitopia: Dispatches From Today’s Good Divorce and How to Part Well.”