One thing we all share is that we can’t escape aging. Since old age is unavoidable (hopefully), the only question that remains is how we deal with it -- and what we choose to do with our lives in the meantime.
It’s helpful to put our fears into perspective. For one thing, our culture’s concept of aging -- treating it like a disease to be fought with everything we have -- isn’t universal. It’s learned. Which means it can also be unlearned. In fact, I’m lucky enough to have come from a country that honors and reveres old age. Some years ago I went to see the monastery of Tharri on the island of Rhodes. There, as in all of Greece, abbots are addressed by everyone as “Geronda,” which means “old man.” Abbesses are called “Gerondissa.” Not exactly terms of endearment here in America. The idea of honoring old age, indeed identifying it with wisdom and closeness to God, is in startling contrast to the way we treat aging in this country. The geronda at the Tharri monastery was not even old; he was probably in his late fifties. But “old man” and “old woman” are titles bestowed on older people because of the respect they inspire.
Honoring elders isn’t confined to the Greeks, of course. It’s part of most indigenous American traditions, such as the Inupiat of Alaska, who require not just respect for but deference to their elders, especially from children. Traditional Asian societies also give the highest social rank to their oldest members, in both the family and the community.
Even if you’re not ready to consider yourself a fearless sage, remember that age definitely isn’t what it used to be. It’s not just that life expectancy is now so much greater in the industrialized world (it’s gone up from the late forties at the beginning of the 20th century to nearly eighty these days) it’s also that our forties and fifties are now seen as prime years. Fifty really is the new thirty.