Sunday, January 18, 2015

Growing old and staying young

This is the seventh in a series of articles dedicated to school-going kids, written for the GUYS AND GIRLS section in Ceylon Today.

Growing old is not easy. There is much to think about and much to adjust for. You need to see things differently, for one thing. You need to be able to judge differently. You also need to convince everyone that age goes along with experience, to prove that you are all the wiser not just because you have aged, but because you have aged gracefully. Yes, there is a difference there. Not too hard to find.

I don't much know about Roman writers or literature. What little I know comes from what my teachers taught me. I do know about Cicero. And Virgil. They were great men. Great writers. And great thinkers.

Cicero wrote an essay titled "On Old Age". It was a brilliant essay, one which put forth his views on growing old. He had this to say about it: "No man is so old that he does not think himself able to live another year." That's it.

And yet, nothing I have read has rung half as true. When we think about growing old, we think negatively, don't we? We think that by growing old, we lose that spark which nourished our youth and gave us life, don't we? And we may not always be wrong in this. Some, who don't care much for physique, may think back, look ahead, and embrace the inevitable passing of time. But they are rare.

Ageing isn't just about losing physique, of course. As we lose our youth, we tend to think more. But beyond a certain point, time passes so quickly that we lose track of things. That's inevitable. This doesn't mean everything is bleak and dreary, by the way. This simply means that as the pressures of life come along and hit at us, and as we get used to them, we tend to treat them calmly.

It's all to do with how you look at the world. As we grow older, we disregard emotion and think with reason. I know an old man who was a fervent revolutionary. He was a member of a radical political organisation. He cut off all links he had with his religion and embraced atheism. He fell under the gospel of revolution. He worked underground for that political organisation, barely escaping with his life. This was at a time of civil war and political conflict. Not an easy career, you must admit.

Years passed. He gained and he lost much. As those years went by, he began to understand that nothing was permanent and inasmuch as he had tried to rebel against everything he opposed, those beliefs he had subscribed to were as bad as what he was trying to get rid of. By then, however, it was a little too late. He had cut links with his religion so badly that he could not return to it. He had isolated friends, relatives, and even some of his political aides. At the end, he had only his son.

Few people can face life with equanimity this way. This man did, though. While he could not reconcile himself to his faith, he did manage to make new friends. He walked. Read. Learnt. He entertained his grandsons with those adventures he'd had while working for that political organisation. They fell under his spell and began to consider him as a role model.

He died last year. Happily. As he should.

But experience isn't everything. You need to be wise enough to take to it. You need to be intelligent and well-read enough to identify what you should take to and what you should not. Remember what Cicero wrote in his essay? Well, that is the truth. The wise man thinks about tomorrow. He thinks about what that new day will bring in, what he can learn and think about in the days to come. He does not fret. In short, he remains as old as he thinks he is. He remains young every day.

We are taught to respect elders. That's not (only) because they are older than us. That's because they are considered wiser in every possible way. They think different from us. What we see as black or white, they see as grey. For them, problems can't be solved that easily. They don't take to shortcuts. Not that easily. For them, the longer but more trustworthy path is to be trod.

It's true that we are as old as we feel. Even us. I know some children, for instance, whose outlook on the world amazes me even more than what any writer with years of education behind him can come up with. I know certain school-goers who talk about things I've not even heard about. They talk about philosophy, questions related to life and death, even religion, in a way I can't quite understand. And yet, I know they are wise. Far wiser than me, the "elder" to them all.

We all grow old. Some of us grow older than others, at heart and in mind. Some of us stay young. Growing old and staying young isn't easy. But it can be done. If age gracefully and stay wise, that shows that we have not let the years consume us completely. For if we have the heart of that child we once were, we can always think back. We can also heed Cicero's timeless saying. We will all live another year. Even at heart.

Written for: Ceylon Today GUYS AND GIRLS, January 18 2015