This year, I will “celebrate” what’s commonly referred to as a milestone birthday. Not just any milestone, this is of the “downhill from here” variety.
Contrary to what many younger people might believe, getting older has some serious benefits, like the kind of wisdom, experience, and confidence I craved 10 years ago and finally see beginning to form in me. It’s exciting to start becoming a person who sometimes legitimately knows what she’s talking about, usually can figure out how to prioritize, and actually might be worthy of respect and admiration someday.
But getting older also has its well-publicized downsides, mostly physical. I’m in no position to deny that.
Recently, my husband and I have talked a lot about how hard we have to work these days to maintain, let alone improve, our physical condition. This is no reason to give up on our health, but it is undeniable that no part of our physical bodies will ever again grow stronger, healthier, or more resilient on its own. Left to their natural processes, our bodies are slowly dying every day. Depressing, yes, but true. In fact, centuries ago (and even today in some parts of the world), most people weren’t expected to live much longer than we have already lived. Yet here were are, investing heavily in looking young, being strong, keeping our teeth, and keeping momentum in our careers because chances are, we have a lot of productive years ahead.
So as I look ahead to these productive years, I’m taking a timeout to reflect on some of what I’m learning:
I might as well accept myself.
At my core, I’ll never be anyone but who I am. My circumstances might change, and time and experience have a way of rounding off some of our rough edges. God’s work transforms people, and I hope as I’m responsive to his work, I’ll continue to grow and become a better version of myself. But that’s just it—I’ll still be myself, for better or worse. God created me to be…well, me. I’ve wasted a lot of energy trying to become a different person. I might as well put that energy into doing what God has put me here to do. So in general, what you see is what you’re going to get for the rest of the time I’m around.
It’s never too early to prepare for death.
Statistics, family history, and my own health suggest I’ll be around for decades. But I have no guarantee I’ll be here even tomorrow. And knowing how quickly time took me from carefree kid to mom with a kid who’s taller than me, I’ve started thinking more about how I want to leave life. Preparing for death doesn’t mean planning a funeral; it means living well, caring about what matters, and being honest with myself about what I’m likely to leave behind.
I’ll never have it all figured out.
When I was 15, I figured people pretty much had it together when they were 20 (when I was 20, I thought so too). Decades later, I’m still not sure I’ve figured out what I should do with my life, and I don’t understand myself half the time. I still haven’t learned to love the gaps in my teeth, my hormones get the best of me, and I make mistakes on a daily basis. I don’t think I ever will wake up in the morning feeling certain I have the perfect map for navigating life in this world—let alone feel confident that I’ve discovered all the answers. I’m never going to arrive. Perhaps it’s time to stop expecting myself to reach enlightenment.
History is powerful.
I’ve always loved history. Now that I’m old enough to have legitimately lived some of it, I love it even more, and I wish I knew it better. It’s true: history repeats itself. There really is nothing truly new under the sun. And we can’t understand ourselves—individuals, communities, and the whole human race—without knowing where we came from. We devalue the past at our own peril. People who have and use the lens of history to inform their perspective of the present are the wisest people I know.
Our choices stick with us.
Culturally, we like to believe it doesn’t matter what you do when you’re young, as if life resets itself at 25. Turns out it does matter. And as we age, our ongoing choices continue to matter. Christ sets us free from enslavement to sin, but we live in a world where Newton’s third law (to every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction) is more than just a physical law. Our choices have consequences, and we have to live with them. On my journey through life, I’ve tripped over things I never would have guessed would come back to haunt me. And every day I see other people stumble on the consequences of choices they’ve made, sometimes long ago. Our whole life matters.
People stick to us.
Our interactions with others leave impressions on us, and we make our own marks on them. The people we meet and engage with, even for a short time, have a way of finding us again. I’ve been surprised many times to discover that two people I know from completely different stages of life know each other from some entirely different context—it truly is a small world. We’re far more connected than we realize when we’re younger, and the way we treat people matters.
I can never escape my family.
Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t change where I came from. We all echo our parents and their choices, at least in some small way. Even those who try to break free of their families’ influence find their lives defined by that quest. And no matter how far I roam, I’ll never find another person who can understand me the way a family member can.
Death is always with us.
When I was younger, I thought of death only as something that comes at the end of life—usually at the end of a long life. Like everyone else, I was shocked when it sometimes arrived much sooner than expected. But I didn’t think of it as something that was with me—with all of us—every day. Death’s shadow looms over us, defining life itself so profoundly, we can scarcely imagine living out from under its threat. I see it in our desperate and futile attempts to preserve youth. I recognize it in the empty eyes of a young person whose life is spent in pursuit of pleasure or trying to dull the pain of living in a cursed world. I feel it in my knees, my back, and my nostalgic heart. I see it in the confused stare of someone who can’t remember the name of a person she spent most of her days loving more than life. I’ve seen enough of life to recognize death everywhere I look.
I really do long for heaven.
When I was younger, I was ashamed to acknowledge to myself that I didn’t really want to go to heaven—at least anytime soon. I wanted to stay on earth and experience all the great stuff life had to offer. I wanted to live! And my impulse was right—I had a life to live. But my hope for heaven was limited by my poor vision for it. I pictured a colorless place of somber reflection, a 24/7 choral concert, a place of composed gentility, a sort of pasture for humans who had had their fun on earth. Now that I’m older and I’ve seen what this life has to offer, I draw tremendous hope from the prospect of heaven. I now picture it as a place so full of color, celebration, and genuine joyful living, our best days on earth will feel like a sad and distant dream. So much of what I looked forward to in my life has been great—but full of shadows and only dim shadows themselves, pointing to what will be unimaginably better. I was longing for heaven—I just didn’t know it.
© 2012 Amy Simpson.