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On Aging

Not everything about aging resembles bright stars in the night, but we also must not lose sight of the possibilities, as long as we are blessed with life.
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August 4, 2021
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Is aging as positive as some claim or as terrible as others perceive?

The Book of Job states that “with the ancient is wisdom; and in length of days understanding.” The American writer Edith Wharton, on the other hand, complained that “there is no such thing as old age, there is only sorrow.”

There are clearly very different opinions as to whether old age brings benefits or confers only losses. The great World War II hero, General Douglas MacArthur, said:

“Nobody grows old by merely living a number of years. People grow old by deserting their ideals … You are as young as your faith, as old as your doubt; as young as your self-confidence, as old as your fear; as young as your hope, as old as your despair.”

Perspective changes our sense of what is trivial and what is significant in life.

For General MacArthur, age is not as much a number as it is an attitude toward life. For him, ideals, faith, self-confidence and hope are ageless and belong to all people in all stages of life.

In that spirit, I offer my own Eight Truths on Aging:

  1. In Hebrew, if you wish someone a long life, you wish him or her yerichus yomim, length of days. Why not length of years? Why days? Judaism puts the emphasis on each day. Yom Yom. Take it day by day. If the days are good, the years will be good. We hope the years will be long, but it is quality over quantity that matters. So the first Truth is that our lives are made up of days and we should focus on making each of those days count.
  2. With age comes experience, which should confer perspective. The older person realizes that what seems important to the young is less so with the passage of time. Perspective changes our sense of what is trivial and what is significant in life. Material acquisition yields to relationships, and ambition gives way to the search for meaning. The second Truth is that the journey of life moves us from a focus on the superficial and the transitory, to one on the profound and the lasting.
  3. Older people realize, as the joke goes, that, except for one trifling exception, the world is made of others. In time, they become less self-centred, less striving, more satisfied and appreciative. Along with the understanding that there’s a wide world out there beyond the self—with much to offer and many people in need of care, along with many opportunities for expanding one’s horizons—older people often engage with others more frequently, and often find great satisfaction. The third Truth is that, as time passes, much of one’s former life gets left behind, but there is also plenty of life ahead.
  4. It is undeniable that seniors do not have the energy of youth and often suffer from more than one ailment or disability. But that loss of youthful dynamism can strangely affect the mood in a positive way. Life seems more settled, less frantic, and we feel more at peace. We are free in a way that young people are not. Youthful ebullience is traded for a sense of accomplishment, memories, understanding, insight and even a touch of wisdom. The fourth Truth is that there is a lot to be said for the serenity that old age can bring.
  5. Thinking that “things were better in the good old days” is neither productive nor necessarily true. Boomers often talk about how great things used to be back in the 1950s and 1960s, forgetting that civil rights for minorities were restricted, opportunities for women limited and the Vietnam war and the Cold War loomed large. As the saying goes, nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. The fifth Truth is that seniors need to look back honestly at the past, and look to the future with hope.
  6. Just as young people grow professionally, intellectually and in other ways by taking on challenges, so should older people. Young professionals learn on the job, take on responsibilities at work, and often assume leadership positions in charitable organisations or synagogues. Old age need not be a time to withdraw but can be a time to take on new challenges. After a career in the university, teaching and publishing research in academic journals, I was invited to write for a Jewish newspaper. I have done that since retirement and found writing for a different audience in a different medium to be exciting and energizing. The sixth Truth about aging is that change is an opportunity at any age and should be undertaken with enthusiasm.
  7. Do not accept decline as a given. Everyone experiences difficulties at some point, especially as we age, but we do have some agency in our own state of health. We can always make improvements, and resignation should not govern our feelings when good decisions can have positive outcomes. The seventh Truth about aging is that we should do what is within our power to enhance the “Golden Years” physically, mentally and spiritually.
  8. In keeping with the seventh Truth, I conclude with an idea from psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. He taught that we cannot control what happens to us but we can determine our reaction. When truly difficult situations arise, we always have the choice to become disillusioned and defeated or act with grace and dignity. The eighth Truth on aging is that we should never stop believing in our ability to exert agency over our lives.

The American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote:

“Age is opportunity no less
Than youth itself, though in another dress,
And as the evening twilight fades away
The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.”

The poet’s words are aspirational. Not everything about aging resembles bright stars in the night, but we also must not lose sight of the possibilities, as long as we are blessed with life.


Dr. Paul Socken is Distinguished  Professor Emeritus and founder of the Jewish Studies program at the University of Waterloo.

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