This first taste may be a shock because, before, you comfortably assumed that you would be eternally young. As we have seen, that is part of the archetype of youth: You imagine that it will last forever. When you feel old age arriving, you sense that something is different. It sparks a process of serious change in orientation. The spark may feel like a jolt of electricity and may unsettle you. But you don't have to give everything of yourself to it. Take serious note of it and then go on enjoying your youth. Stretch out that
youthfulness as long as you can—to the very end, if possible.
Recently I was sitting in a dentist's chair about to have an implant to replace a baby tooth I had enjoyed for seventy-odd years. The dentist said it was the oldest tooth he had ever seen, and that news didn't make me happy, especially in the presence of a much younger man. He had been a little late for the appointment, and
before drilling into my jaw he pointed to a bandage on his cheek.
"I had a cancer removed from there this morning," he said with some frustration. "I'm forty-six years old. I'm too young for this. now I have to stay out of the sun and use sunblock." First taste of aging, I said to myself. An initiation. A deep change. It takes some getting used to.
I'm speaking as though the first taste of aging automatically takes place in your forties. But I have an early memory of my aunt one day going into a fit of crying. The family tried to console her, but it took a long time for her to pull out of it. She was overcome by the awareness that she was getting old. She was sixteen.
When my daughter was born and I was in the birthing room with her mother, I remember holding her when she was only minutes old and thinking that already she was getting old and would face challenges and sickness and, of course, death. I didn't intend or try to have these thoughts. They simply came to me. A father's first glance at the full arc of his daughter's life.
At that moment, for me, thoughts of my infant daughter's inevitable aging made me cherish the beauty and joy of that moment, minutes after her birth. I packed those thoughts and sensations away and I find that, twenty-five years later, I can still draw on that joy.
One thing my daughter and I like to do now is watch an old home movie in which she is a little girl taking a bath in the large tub in our then-beautiful, oversized bathroom. Her feet are crossed and lying on the edge of the pearly white tub. I am looking out the window at the view we had at that time. She asks me what my favorite animal is, and talks in the funny dialect of a four-year-old girl.
I loved that little girl so much that to watch us enjoying an ordinary day in the bathtub gives me endless pleasure. It allows us to visit an Eden-like moment in the past. I love her as much now, but being able to keep those other moments in mind—her birth and that bath—reminds me and restores me to the timelessness of a father's love. If that moment at the bath is not a soulful one, then I have never seen such a thing.
My thoughts at the birth of my daughter also pictured life as complete from the beginning. Today we tend to see everything in a linear, horizontal fashion. We think of a human being on a numerical chart going from left to right, from zero to around one hundred. But my thoughts didn't put my daughter at zero. At that precious moment of birth she was all her ages at once.
Because we think in a linear way today, we are tempted to treat children as though they are nothing, zero, and old people as though they are beyond counting, and therefore also worthless. We fear growing old, when, from a more subtle point of view, we were old from the very beginning. We're just discovering our age, or putting it into practice. In this way of picturing it, aging is a fulfillment of who we are, not a wearing out.
Still, that first taste of aging stings. As long as you are identified by your youth, you never have to think seriously about getting older. But a taste of aging marks the beginning of a passage out of youth, a passage most of us would rather not enter. People around the world have recognized the importance of this particular passage, from youth to adulthood, and have invented strong rituals to help navigate the transition.
We have our own rituals, like getting a driver's license, voting for the first time, and graduating from high school. Any of these experiences give you the clear sensation that you've taken a big step, turned a corner, and entered into unknown territory.
We could use such rituals throughout life, because the passage into our maturity and old age happens in many stages and many different experiences may mark the transitions. Illness, a new job, a new relationship, the passing of a close relative or friend, or even an important event in society may take you to yet another place in your journey. Notice that each of them may well involve some pain.
This sting is an important part of growing up, not necessarily growing old. If we are not stung into awareness of our limitations, our personalities will be lopsided. We'll identify only with youth and we will not have the benefits of the archetype of the old person, with his or her wisdom and weight. You probably know people who are too young emotionally. They haven't grown up and matured. They don't take life seriously. They don't know how to be in the world, hold a serious job, or engage with people gracefully. Every advance in life involves a sting. It wakes you up and encourages you to pay attention. If you avoid the sting or explain it away or numb yourself to it, you don't age, and that is a tragedy.
This excerpt ends on page 25 of the hardcover edition.