No one is born 80 years old. No, we all come into the world with zero miles and zero hours of experience, with the entire world to explore and seemingly nothing but time to get that exploring done. Rich and poor alike, we enter as masters of our universe. We live for quite some time in the full and reassuring knowledge that the sky’s the limit.
Then one morning we see the sun come up. We notice the next day that it happens again. And again. And again. If we’re lucky and if we take care of our health, we see many, many sunrises – perhaps on the order of 29,000 of them in an average lifetime – and each subsequent one brings a day on which we are exactly one day older. It is one day, one sunrise at a time that we age.
Funny things happen to our perspective as we happily paddle our canoe down what feels like a river of time. An understanding comes into being that 29,000 sunrises does not equate to infinity, and a budding consciousness of our own limits moves toward taking shape. This awareness brings new concerns about life, and possibly profound appreciation for the sunrises that remain to us. In her popular book titled Passages, Gail Sheehy explored the arc of human life as a series of conceptual doorways that we pass through, emerging into phases of life that she argued are more or less defined and predictable. It is certainly true that our cultures dictate where these lines are drawn and boundaries are placed that define such passages, which facilitate our movement within our society and greatly influence how we see our own transit along the river of life.
It can be, too, that culture often works against us. It may begin to tell us, through the spider web of ageism and its tenets, that we are something called old – and we can find ourselves even buying into that narrative and beginning to regard ourselves as outdated, even decrepit – a thing no longer human, no longer possessing the full rights and authority over self that should be and should remain our birthright for the entire extent of our sunrises. But we can and too often do buy into the story, the cultural machine that builds a wall separating the olders from the rest – the young, the vital, the people who still matter. Such is the tone of this narrative.
But this dividing wall between generations – a concept that is itself a tool of the narrative – is artificial, and the social structures that promote it are inherently divisive to society and damaging to an understanding of our integration within it. With each sunrise, we simply age one day more – and it is neither more nor less threatening than that. One day, another day. Younger, then older. The author Ashton Applewhite put it best: Living is aging.
Back on the river, those in the lead canoe can now hear the distant waterfall, and look back in a panic toward the revelers in the trailing canoe, who are shouting back at them – are they laughing? Are they mocking this sudden fear? Those in the lead canoe find themselves wishing they were in the trailing canoe. But what is the difference between the two? Once, not so long ago, they indeed were the ones laughing in the trailing canoe. Now the mist rises above the river ahead – because everything and everyone in this world is destined to go over the falls. There is no advantage to being in the trailing canoe, because the canoes and the river, the water and the falls, the cloud of foam now gathering around the river’s growing haste – it is all the same, all one thing. Living is aging. Perhaps the biggest challenge in life is to make our way downriver with dignity and self-integration, to retain our authority over self and some semblance of grace as the roaring of the falls overwhelms all else. The only other option is to shrink in fear from the prospect of the waterfall – and that is no option at all. It is our life to live fully. The canoe is the canoe: It knows this river well.