A friend of mine is turning sixty, and she is not having an easy time of it. I want to give her a birthday card that will lift her spirits, remind her of the blessings that come with age. Looks like I’ll have to create one myself.
If I were searching for something crass and mocking, I’d have no trouble at all. There is a plethora of cards that poke fun at getting older, most of them illustrated with repulsive photos or cartoons. Somehow it’s easier for us to laugh at old age than to say anything nice about it. I do have a sense of humor, and there is no denying that laughter is good medicine. I just wonder why the difficult and tender process of growing older has become a joke.
“I hope I become a sweet old lady,” I once told a friend, “and not a cranky one.” He looked at me and shrugged. “You’ll just become more of what you are.” I’ve thought often about that remark and I believe he is right. How we grow is up to us. We bestow on ourselves our own largess or meanness, and we are all, every moment, setting an example.
There are elderly people who routinely disparage their lot, reminding anyone who will listen that being old is a cruel affliction filled with pain and devoid of pleasure. Is there anyone at any age who wants or needs this message? Isn’t the expression of these thoughts a cruelty in itself? If we can’t serve as inspirations, might we at least offer comfort?
“Dirty Harry” was once a favorite movie of mine. Now it is far too brutal. My friends tell me that they have become similarly sensitive. As our actual skin thins, so does our emotional armor. This keen awareness of the suffering of others strikes me as something of value.
It’s not so easy, in our days of youth and vigor, to experience this sort of empathy. Compassion seems to require a certain number of years. From it flows kindness, another gift of age. With these two qualities, the world around us expands, becomes suffused with a sudden heart-breaking beauty for which we are inexpressibly grateful. Compassion. Kindness. Gratitude. For some people, these hard-won talents are all the compensation they need.
A woman in her eighties gave me the best lesson in aging I ever received. Every time I see her she is wearing a gentle smile. I praised her for it one day, and she touched my arm and said, with perfect seriousness, “Oh honey, you have to smile—it makes you feel better.”