Seeing me standing on the crowded tube train, a young woman stood up and offered me her seat. I felt shocked and a little upset. It seemed like only yesterday that I would have done the same for a senior citizen. Did I really look so old? A voice in my head said that I was quite capable of standing the next ten stops to my destination and that I should refuse. If I had allowed it to speak there would definitely have been an edge of indignation to it. I hesitated. Actually, my legs were aching a little and I was feeling tired. I smiled at the young woman and, with some relief, sheepishly accepted her kind offer and sat down.
I was twenty-five for many years. Then when I turned fifty I decided to act my age and became thirty-five. Now as my sixtieth year passes I fear my grip on thirty-five is weakening! Several things have recently conspired to undermine the confidence I have had in my mental and physical capabilities…..
“I didn’t know you smoked!” I said as Karin sat down to eat her lunch, placing an unlit cigarette in readiness on the table beside her plate. Karin is the young Columbian waitress at my local café. “Yes, you knew,” she replied with a warm smile, “You said exactly the same thing a couple of weeks ago when we sat at this very table!” Was I losing my mind? I had always had an impeccable memory. I was mortified.
My friend had parked her car in my street to save money. As a resident I have parking permits for visitors for just £1 per day. But when I placed the permit on her dashboard I forgot to scratch off the box showing the applicable time of day. The result was a £30 fine! I berated myself for being so stupid? Me, the Careful Planner! Mr Organised!! I never used to make silly mistakes like that.
As a dynamic seminar leader I used to pride myself on my stamina. I would push myself and the participants hard during the intensive 16 hour days, often being the last to leave the hotel bar at night. I worked longer and harder than any other trainer and despised those who weren’t able to keep up with me. These days, if I am to function well the next day, I have to pace myself and make sure I get to bed early. Part of me feels deeply embarrassed by this. It feels that I should be able to work just as hard as before.
The words of T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock come to my mind: ‘I grow old… I grow old… I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.’ They remind me of my grandfather who, when on holiday by the seaside, would stroll barefoot along the shoreline with my grandmother. When I look in the mirror these days I see more and more of him in my face and my physique. “And what’s wrong with that?” you may ask. Well, it depends through whose eyes I see myself.
If I look at my current mental and physical capacities through the eyes of the primary selves that ran my life in my 20’s and 30’s they will find much to judge. My Mind will have anxiety attacks when I misremember or forget information. My Perfectionist will cringe when I make mistakes. My Organiser and Planner will go ballistic when I can’t find something, screw up a schedule or double book an appointment. My Pusher will despair when I tire more easily and don’t have the energy to finish a task quickly enough. If I remain identified with these selves as I grow older, my Inner Critic will have plenty of rods with which to beat me! Growing old will be a painful and dispiriting experience.
To avoid this requires that I unhook from the primary selves that have run so much of my adult life and take a little of the medicine of their opposites. I have to allow myself to accept offers of help from others, not remember everything perfectly, not know it all, make mistakes, be more spontaneous and flexible, and take breaks and naps. The reality is that my neurons are not firing as they once did and my body doesn’t have the strength and endurance it had when I was younger. To try and pretend otherwise - to still identify with the rules of my primary selves - will only result in increasing frustration and hardship.
When my friend who left her car in my street came to collect it I told her about my mistake with the parking permit. Rather than be upset, she empathised with me and then told me what had happened to her that very morning. She had stayed at her brother’s house overnight and had put the kettle on to make herself a cup of tea. Smelling burning plastic she rushed back into the kitchen only to find that she had put the electric kettle onto the gas hob to heat!! We both burst into laughter and suddenly everything lightened up. We agreed that incidents like this would only get more frequent as we grew older and that to chastise ourselves served no purpose. Then suddenly we had a great idea: why not set up a contingency fund to cover the cost of parking fines, new electric kettles and the like?!
Being able to separate from our primary selves and embrace their opposites makes us more compassionate - both to ourselves and to others. This is one of the great gifts inherent in growing old and the secret of graceful ageing.