|Paprock Photography 2015|
I Don’t Want To Be A Bitter Old Man: A Reflection on Modern Aging
by John-Brian Paprock
I don’t want to be a bitter old man or one slumped over in despair or shuffling in the fog of disappointment and regret. Yet, I have felt fragile and vulnerable more as a middle aged man than I have as a young adult. Back then I could take risks without contemplating the consequences or cringing at physical limitations, even though there were consequences and there were limitations.
I have felt the dull shadow of death approaching as I grow older – and I wonder what I am afraid of. I have lived half my life (I hope) without such angst. When I was younger, I felt the angst of being too young and without experience. Now, my angst is more about not seeing that what I have done has lasting value, not being able to tell what will I leave behind, and not being able to predict my final years. Will I be surrounded by loved ones or abandoned? Will I be forgotten even before I have left his world? Will I be impotent in the physical limitations of disease and old age?
In me there is such a strong desire to be alive until the day I must give my breathing. Yet, I have witnessed so much neglect and abuse, so much disease and fragility among those that have reached old age before me. At the same time, I know there are those that seem to defy this despairing and whimpering weakness to which I am admitting.
A friend is fond of reminding me that it is only today that we have to live. In today, there is always opportunity. I agree whole-heartedly agree, yet I squander hours in a melancholy daze of “what if’s” without feeling that I have any further chances to fulfill my life purpose.
Another friend reminds me of how much I have to live for by reminding me of what I have already accomplished in this life: helping others, benefitting society, my profession, projects finished and service fulfilled. Yet, I have the nagging sensation that I have nothing, that none of that really matters.
A mentor of mine recently asked me to recollect what was going on in my life thirty years ago. I recalled a bold young man that had moved to New York City to study and serve the community where he lived. That mentor then asked if I could recall twenty years ago. I remembered a young father serving the Midwestern community where he lived with courage and innovation. I recalled fatherhood and leadership roles. My mentor then asked if could recall ten years ago. And again, I could see that man, now entering middle age, serving the church and community in which he lived. He then encouraged me to consider the decades yet ahead, asking me to think about the number of times I lost track of time while doing what was true to my heart in the decades past. I resisted acknowledgment of his wisdom.
Sometimes the sadness of my life is overwhelming and my periods of self-exile from the world preferable to the demands of my own egoistic impulses that are driven by lack of confidence in the face of social interaction. I still feel like a bumbling 7th grader or eager-to-be-accepted 4th grader, not sure of my footing, not clear of my social standing. I walk out among my fellow humans often feeling naked, embarrassed without reason or cause, already sensitive and sore, bruised and vulnerable.
As a child, I was abused, bullied, sullied and humiliated. I was neglected, impoverished and ignored, damaged. I was afforded a few adults and fellow children who encouraged me, stood up for me, asked of me one thing above all others, “Take the high road.” I had adults pray for me from distances that confounded me. God and His angels were there as I slogged through a painful childhood, bringing joys of the created world and thrills of creativity into my life. Despite adult accolades in my youth and opportunities created by strangers and teachers, I would end up with dust in my mouth from a sudden fall to the ground due a certain naiveté, a lack of confidence, fears of the intention of others, my emotional need to be accepted. This continued into my adulthood. With every fall, a more determined effort to get up again. In my youth, I had a grit and determination that neared foolishness. In my middle age, getting up again seems much harder than ever before.
Perhaps it is the death of my parents, separated by nine years, which brings a sense of futility to surface, even though hereditary and emotional flaws may have origin in generations before them. Maybe I miss the better side of each of them, where I had occasional endorsement and encouragement for my talents and abilities. Regardless of the psychological and hereditary baggage that I carry for them and because of them, I genuinely miss them. The loss has had a profound impact on my aging. I am an orphan adult. I grew up not trusting adults would be available when I was overwhelmed, but hoping they would. There is still a part of me waiting for a trustworthy adult, even though I have been fortunate enough to meet many of them. It is hard to admit that, as an adult, I too have failed myself.
Maybe I set my goals too high. Throughout my life, it seemed possible that anyone could be a millionaire, rich and famous. As I have gotten older, it seems less and less likely. It even seems possible that I will end up in some institutional nursing facility, divested of my belongings, limited by rules intended for my safety and the frailty of old age; so easily forgotten by youth.
Yet, in the midst of my angst and anxiety, my depression and fear, my lifetime syndromes and chronic health complications, my aches and pains of all sorts, there is the light of eternity stretching forth to meet me. When I am able to focus on that light, all the dark and creepy things seem to fade as though covered in a dense fog. There seem to be two main contributing inward connections to that light. One relaxes the heart, the other relaxes the mind. In that relaxation, there is a peace – sometimes fleeting across the horizon; however momentary, that peace is real.
The relaxation of my heart comes when I give loving attention and show compassion. It doesn’t seem to matter where I direct that love nor does it seem to matter if the other responds, as long it is genuinely felt by me. Whether towards God in prayer and worship, towards a loved one in caring interaction, towards animals, plants, even insects, the appreciation of those outside myself and beyond myself can bring me to a forever place and connect me to the light. This requires cultivating gentleness and compassion, forgiveness and selflessness – often difficult in this modern age of such ruthless individuality and sectarianism.
The relaxation of my mind comes when I let go of agendas and expectations, accept what is and what was, and allow my thoughts and sensations to be free in the experience of the present moment. The present moment is that constant reality that ties that past to the future. It is where all decisions are made. It is a place where divinity can be felt and eternity can be known. When I am present and available to life, I am living in the moment that is here and now. I am aware of my surroundings and I am able to access my uniqueness. I belong to the present moment always. I do not have to force myself to belong, to fit in. This is the place and time where my dreams and visions meet the awesomeness of reality. This is the place and time where prophecy is understood. It is the stepping off point for the rest of the journey and it is the forever place of the journey. As the saying goes, wherever you go there you are.
In this relaxed mind and heart, I do not need to know the details of the future to be safe. I am comforted in my place in the created universe. I am unstressed about the timeline of my life, I can reflect on the details of my past without becoming enmeshed in the morass of shortcomings and short-falls. I can smile genuine smiles. I can love genuine love. I can be older.