The Humility of Aging

Aging requires an honesty almost unknown in other stages of life. It requires an honesty comfortable with humility. Yet, few of us are comfortable with humility. The humility of aging calls for a new relationship with one’s own body, and something of a new relationship with younger people. This humility has a kind of internal and external dynamic as it has to do with how one sees one’s self, specifically one’s own body, as well as how one relates to those who are younger.

Let’s first explore the humility of aging with one’s own body. Those of us who know, at least one of, our biological parents, might know this experience. Looking in the mirror, I am sometimes stunned that I see the shape of my father’s body standing before me. The curve of his hips seems to have found a home in mine. My father lived to be ninety-four years old. Thankfully, he was in decent health most of his life, even into his later years. But his body certainly did the settling that most of our bodies do and I now begin to see the same contours of that same settling in my body.

Additionally, I am experiencing a new elasticity in my skin. Where once my skin clung to various part of my frame, it now sometimes rests more loosely than it ever did. This changes one’s shape, it changes one’s shadow, it changes the feel of your own body. People joke about gravity having more effect on older people and I suppose this is what they mean. One’s skin seems to ease its way down toward the ground more than it ever did before.

One can also experience the body as causing more problems than it ever did. As someone who has been in decent health most of my life, I now experience the various illnesses that might take me out of this place. Like many American men, I have high cholesterol and a variety of other conditions that can lead to heart disease and stroke. I’m not sure what will take me out of this life but conditions I know I have now, could be “cause of death” one day. It’s like seeing some gates in the distance. I’m not sure which one I’ll go through when I get there but it could be one of those I now see.

The body’s problems also reveal themselves in unknown ways. Like many older people, I experience more mysterious aches and pains than I ever did as a young man. Something might hurt or nag at me for a day or two and then it’s gone. It’s not clear to me what I did to cause that pain, but it came. And thankfully, it also went. This happens more and more.

Noticing one’s body as it ages calls for a kind of humility, a comfort in not-knowing. I don’t know why my lower back bothered me yesterday and doesn’t bother me today. I don’t know why drinking milk bothers me now more than it ever did before. Similarly, I don’t know why it’s harder to improve my running shape than it used to be. Yet all these unknowns are real and I need to accept them, acknowledge them, even befriend them. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work to stay in shape, to keep our bodies working and useful for as long as we can. I still run every couple of days. I still work out a few times a week too. This summer, I have been running, working out, and even taking yoga and a breath/meditation class. All these practices have helped me. But regardless, a body in its sixties is not a body in its thirties. There it is. Humility required. It’s not all in my control. Some of it is. Some of it is not.

Looking outward at others also requires a new shade of humility. Occasionally, younger people make assumptions about older people. The minute I write this, I know, I am in danger of leaping into a giant pool of stereotypes so I’ll try not to. I do not believe for a minute that all young people think older people are fools, incapable, slow, to be tolerated. But I know for certain that some people think these descriptions are true of many older people. I have experienced others making these assumptions about me in the workplace, on the street, in social situations.

Sometimes, it’s true that I don’t know much about new music, singers, groups, or “what’s trending.” I learn about new actors all the time. I ask others, “Who is that? A new singer?” or “Is that a new music group?” And they smile patiently only to tell me that this pop singer has been around for nine or ten years. I give them a polite “Really? Ok.”

Occasionally in the workplace, I encounter young people who speak and act with a kind of authority their age should never assume. I wonder if I did that when I was their age and I probably did, to some extent. I recall recently asking a younger teacher who had urged me to try a particular practice in the classroom, “What makes you think that’s wise?” This young person had no idea why they thought it was a good idea on its own, much less why it was a good idea for me to try it in my classroom. But she had no qualms about pushing me to do it. This is when aging calls for yet another kind of humility– the humility that enables one to be patient with others’ incorrect images of us. It’s also a humility that allows others to claim more than their experience should allow them to claim.

Most of us know the phrase “He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.” This is a reality I see very often. When one has been in a certain field for a long time, one should know both the blessings and the limits of one’s experience. As a teacher of more than thirty years, I’ve taught in all-Black schools as well as in predominantly white schools. I have a lot to learn about both. But it’s remarkable to hear a younger (so-called white) teacher, who has never taught in a majority Black school, speak with rock-solid authority about teaching students of color. This might require two new kinds of humility — first, the humility that requires us to speak up. (That will be the subject of another reflection soon) But it also requires the elder teacher to find ways to speak to that younger teacher in such a way that he can see what he does not know.

What’s both beautiful and maddening about this aging thing is that there is no way around it. You can reject the humility that aging requires. But you will just end up slamming again and again into the limits aging offers. The limits can be gifts, if we can see the opportunities in them. I don’t pretend for a minute that this is easy. It’s not. But the only option to exploring the required humility of aging is to not explore it. That choice will never be fun. That choice will never open us up to life as it is. And that’s what the humility of aging really means: accepting life as it is, not as it was, or as we wish it were. Life as it is– that’s the only one we can enjoy.

The photograph above is of a recent watercolor by J. Ross

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Poet & Teacher. Author of four books of poetry: Raising King (2020) Ache (2017) Gospel of Dust (2013) Meeting Bone Man (2012)

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