Some weeks ago in my blog, I wrote about the art of ageing. I realise now I have much more to say on the subject, for it holds a dear fascination for me. I have just about two years to go before my retirement from service. And I must confess that I have taken to thinking, not so much about my post retirement days, but about the manner in which I shall live out my life as a senior citizen. There is an invisible curtain that you pass through at that particular age: it is the end of a period of hectic engagement with the hustle and bustle of work and the start of a more contemplative embrace of the deeper meaning of life. At least that is how I see it.
At this point, I shall not talk about Robert Browning’s “the best is yet to be” or even Max Ehrman’s admonition of ” growing old gracefully, leaving aside the things of youth”. The burden of this blog is to understand how, in the last couple of decades of one’s life, the pursuit of true happiness can be an end in itself. And the thought that it is then that the wondrous and inexplicable beauty of life, it’s completeness and it’s meaning becomes more and more self-evident.
The thought then struck me: is one happy in one’s youth when the sap of life flows thick and strong within you, or is one happy when the rush and throng of busy days are over and quiet flows the river within you?
The last hundred years has seen the doubling of the expectancy of life. Technology and medicine and vast cultural changes across societies have brought about significant improvements in the quality of the lives that we lead. Today one could reasonably expect to live to a ripe age of eighty or more. Simultaneously, fertility rates have dipped, and as a result, there are more old people than there ever used to be. The world around us is greying, though India is an exception: the demographic dividend has given us a wonderful advantage: in percentage terms there are more people today in our country who are young and can contribute to the development of the country, than in any other country of the world.
But I digress. The question I ask is whether older people lead happier lives than those younger to them. I urge you to listen to Laura Cartensen’s talk on TED on this subject. Her brilliant analysis answers that question in the positive. Her studies reveal that those who are young are constantly trying to expand horizons, to learn new things, to acquire knowledge, to strive to be the best in their field. They take on challenges, even though they may make enemies in the process. Success in life for them is a goal worth putting all your efforts into. Making money, beating the competition, hitting the headlines, all there are legitimate goals in life, worth the risks involved. They work hard and late into the night and spend hours networking so as to achieve their carefully planned aspirations. Jumping from one job to another is now common. The young have the astounding ability to plan for the next two or three decades and chart their lives in a manner so as to achieve what they desire to. The very nature of the lives that the young lead make them look forward, for there is not time to even glance away from the goal.
But that is not so when we age. The marvels of modern science and medicine make our days so much more comfortable than, say half a century ago; there are reliable drugs to take care of our ailments such as blood pressure or diabetes, and should we really fall ill, we have the ways and means to recover and get back to the routine of our lives.
Real joy lies in the manner of our growing old. As Eric Hoffer once said: “The best part of the art of living is to know how to grow old gracefully”. We know we have less years ahead of us than those we have already traversed. The horizon ahead in time has come closer; we tend to live more in the moment. We realise now what is more important, and we invest in things that are sure and certain. We value human relationships more and are reluctant to cause harm to loved ones. Silence itself becomes a virtue to be nurtured, rather than the need to articulate views on everything around us. Disparaging words spoken by others don’t sting us much as they once did. A humorist once quipped: At twenty, we worry about what others think of us; at forty, we don’t care about what others think of us; at sixty, we discover they haven’t been thinking about us at all.
We spend time savouring our lives, taking delight in small things and enjoying the memories of our past. Children become our joy, and grandchildren more wonderful than the power of words to describe. We turn more and more to God and meditation and the contemplation of what awaits us when our days are over. We accept what is inevitable and fret and fume less over what must be. And thus we are more positive in the things that we see around us. We ignore the trivial and the petty irritants that would have once ruined our happiness, we look for things that give us contentment. We care for those amongst us who need help and consolation. We can now look backwards over the road we have passed over, seeing more clearly the mistakes we did once make, often regretting them and or even making amends now, late though it may be.
The years added to our lives, I really believe, have added, or may I say, should add, to the quality of our lives. Growing old today is a much better prospect than it may have once been. Thomas Aldrich said it well: To keep the heart unwrinkled, to be hopeful, kindly, cheerful, reverent- that is to triumph over old age.
Thus I have no doubts how to answer the question I asked at the beginning: Certainly, the old are happier than the young. Period. And so, I am sanguine and optimistic: I pray that good health shall be with me. I look forward to the wonderful years ahead with my wife at my side, visiting my daughter down south where she is, travelling maybe, reading and writing, feeling tearful ecstasy when we hug our little granddaughter as she flowers into a beauty. What a wonderful life lies ahead!