When I was younger, I thought I had nothing to do with those who were elderly. I think most young people find it hard to believe that they themselves will grow old. The reality is however, that now I am among the “elderly,” and I can’t move with the speed and ease that I once did.
My teacher used to say that the last years of our life are the most important. If those last few years are happy ones, we have had a happy life.
Old age is a time of spiritual fruition and completion. When people are no longer pursuing position or status, money or material possessions, they can look closely at themselves and at the reality of life and death without the distractions of superficial concerns.
When you reach old age, you know in your heart if you have lived a satisfying life or not. No one else can know this or decide it for you. The single greatest challenge we each will face is whether we can honestly say at the end of our days on this Earth that our life has been well spent.
I believe that whether we can live a truly satisfying life to the end depends to a considerable extent on how we view death. Sadly, many older people are anxious and fearful about death. But, as a Buddhist, I find it helpful to compare the cycles of life and death to the daily rhythms of waking and sleeping. Just as we look forward to the rest sleep brings after the efforts and exertions of the day, death can be seen as a welcome period of rest and re-energizing in preparation for a new round of active life. And just as we enjoy the best sleep after a day in which we have done our very best, a calm and easy death can only follow a life lived to the fullest without any regrets.
It is natural for trees to bear fruit in the harvest season, and in the same way, “old age” is a period of ripening. It can be the most valuable time in human life, when we have rich experience, deeply polished character, and a pure and gentle heart. The loss of certain capacities with age is nothing to be ashamed of. Rather, I feel the various infirmities of age should even be seen as badges of honor and worn with pride.
There is a saying that goes, “To a fool, old age is a bitter winter; to a wise man it is a golden time.” Everything depends on your own attitude, how you approach life. Do you view old age as a period of decline ending in death, or as a time in which one has the opportunity to attain one’s goals and bring one’s life to a rewarding and satisfying completion? The same period of old age will be dramatically different depending upon your own outlook.
I received a letter a few years ago from a woman in Kyoto who was then 67 years old. Her advice was as follows: “We need to banish any expression of defeat from our minds–statements or thoughts such as ‘I can’t do it,’ ‘I’m too old,’ ‘There’s no point in my trying,’ ‘I’m past it,’ or ‘It’s too hard.’ Instead we should be telling ourselves: ‘I won’t give up yet,’ ‘I’m still young,’ ‘I can still do it,’ ‘I’ve still got plenty of energy.’ Just by changing the way we speak to ourselves and others we can change our pattern of behavior in a positive direction.”
Research shows that when people make continuous use of their powers of memory and concentration, these abilities need not fade. An active interest in others, finding new pastimes and making new friends–such positive attitudes have been shown to slow physical and mental decline.
Even though our bodies may age, if we maintain an active, positive attitude, our hearts and minds will remain “youthful” as long as we live.
To quote the poet Samuel Ullman, “Youth is not a time of life; it is a state of mind; it is not a matter of rosy cheeks, red lips and supple knees; it is a matter of the will, a quality of imagination, a vigor of the emotions; it is the freshness of the deep springs of life.”
It is vital to always look to the future, to have plans and aspirations-such an outlook is crucial to making the last years of one’s life rewarding and fulfilling.
One woman whose youthful attitude greatly impressed me was the American painter known as “Grandma Moses.” She had produced around fifteen hundred paintings by her death at the age of one hundred and one. Yet she didn’t even start painting until she was seventy-five. She had never studied painting and was an ordinary farmer’s wife until then.
She had faced many difficulties in her life. Five of her ten children died young, and she lost her husband when she was sixty-six. She said that though she had experienced real pain and hardship, she refused to be dragged down by suffering and always looked ahead.
Whatever she encountered, Grandma Moses strove to make each day and each moment shine with her smile. After her surviving children left home and her husband died, she refused to give in to loneliness or step back from life. She took up the challenge of painting, and her last years glowed like a beautiful sunset. She wrote, “I look back on my life like a good day’s work. It was done and I feel satisfied with it. I was happy and contented. I knew nothing better and made the best out of what life offered. And life is what we make it; always has been, always will be.”
There is a great difference between simply living a long life and living a full and rewarding life. What’s really important is how much rich texture and color we can add to our lives during our stay here on Earth – however long that stay may be. Quality is the true value, not quantity.