Desiderata is a poem loved by many for its wisdom and quiet optimism. This is the 11th blog in a series on the poem, as we mine its riches line by line.
“Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.”
In a world that worships youth and vitality, it’s very common to see those of us who are older try to hold on to what is young. Being in my late 50’s, I can certainly relate. On this topic, Desiderata has some gentle, but necessary, advice for us.
I know myself I have tried to minimise the effects of aging. Some people say I look young for my age, and I certainly try to stay fit. I go to the gym regularly (have done since my late 30’s). I’ve always been slim, but since my mid forties have had to actively watch what I eat in order to keep weight from packing on. My hair has slowly been thinning for 15 years now and I’ve been able to get away with a ‘semi’ comb-over that didn’t look like a comb-over, but in recent times that’s exactly what it’s looked like and has had to go. I now keep my hair pretty short and it looks fine – it’s just a different look.
I’ll confess I have struggled a bit against aging (those of you who read my blog have noted my occasional comment on this). I don’t want to accept that there are some things I can’t do anymore – I’m a little bit in denial (but only a little, because at least I know I am). I’m very good at not giving up on something, which on the one hand is commendable, but on the other hand is not good if you are putting off the inevitable. And there is nothing so inevitable as aging.
This is where Desiderata comes in – the author gently exhorts us to “take kindly the counsel of the years”, and surrender gracefully. Lovingly put. It’s unwise to resist the inevitable, and even though we shouldn’t just ‘give up’, there is a certain dignity in recognising one’s limitations.
It need not be an abrupt, heart wrenching capitulation.We shouldn’t package ourselves up for the nursing home just yet, but at the same time we shouldn’t try to be a young person all over again. Even though I fully intend to do as much as I can, both physically and mentally, I should still take stock of climbing ladders for example (I’ve read that people over 50 are less able to balance properly and ladders need to be approached with caution). That’s just wisdom.
Part of our problem is not just accepting the limitations of our bodies. I think we have a myth, propogated by society, that youth is where life is at its best. I don’t think that’s true. We’ve all heard stories beginning with “if I could be young again I would…”, but almost always they add in “if I knew what I know now”. Well, there’s the thing – a young person doesn’t know what you know now, and they can’t. That’s the beauty and the fragility of their world. In your world now, the beauty is in your wisdom, is (hopefully) in the rounding out of your character, perhaps also the size of your bank balance, and the fragility for you is unfortunately your body.
We face a different world when we are older, but in some ways it is a better world. My wife and I now have the time and the resources to go on trips overseas. With the benefit of wisdom and our lived experiences, we make decisions about things more easily and confidently than we did as younger people.
In my line of work I come across a lot of clients who are retired or about to retire. It’s not uncommon, once they’ve retired, for many of them to say “I don’t know how I ever found time to work, I’m so busy doing things!” They’re involved in charities, or helping with grandkids, or going on holidays, or enjoying golf, or gardening, or reading, or visiting friends and family.
Of course, not everyone is in that category. I’ve also known people who didn’t want to retire because they dreaded knowing what to do with themselves once they stopped work. The person whose business I bought several years ago sold it in order to retire, but in handing the business over he went through extreme anxiety, and only a year later he bought another small business just to keep himself busy. One of my clients was forced to retire a few years ago because the business was relocating interstate, and at the age of 72 he reluctantly accepted his redundancy package. Whenever I visit him he looks at a loss to know what to do with himself, and he tries to find all sorts of ways to keep me there for a longer chat, because he’s lonely.
So, old age has its faults and obvious downsides but isn’t automatically a terrible thing. It’s just different. But in our youth filled western environment, we hear all about Botox, face lifts, hair transplants (for balding men) and a smorgasbord of potential beauty enhancers, designed at least in part to stave off the effects of aging. We might look younger (emphasis on the word “might”) but our bodies are still older on the inside.
I don’t really want to go out to night clubs anymore, or have all night rages. I do wish I could still play footy, but not massively. I don’t really want to go through the hassle of finding a life partner again (though I know of course some of you at my age are doing just that). I don’t really want to go through having babies and small children again (though I look forward eagerly to having grand kids). I do wish I had the energy of a younger person, but in reality I don’t need that level of energy anymore, because I don’t have to face raising kids or working extra long hours to impress the boss or get ahead. If necessary, I can take my time to get things done.
It’s simply a different world, a different phase of life for people who are more than half way through their life. But it really is a “surrendering gracefully the things of youth”. I think we do actually need to surrender them. Lets not be too eager to do that before our time, but when that time comes, most of us make a conscious decision to let go.
I don’t want to try and be something that I am not (that theme again, which runs right through Desiderata). If there is something you or I want to do, I think the best approach is to say “Do I really want to do this? Am I being foolish in trying to do something that my age simply will not let me do?” If the answer is yes and then no, then I say go for it.
It’s not up to someone else to tell you to act your age – they can of course, but you have to be the one to decide if there is wisdom there or not. Unfortunately, unless they know you really well, they’re more likely to categorise you and try to limit your decisions by their notions of what an older person can do.
There are men in their 80’s still pushing weights at the gym, there are women of the same age still working in charities, there are people of both sexes writing, painting, giving, sharing. Older age can be full of so much activity, enjoyment, and fulfilment. What more could you ask? Let the young people enjoy their youth – and let yourself enjoy the life that comes with your advancing years.
Interestingly, we are seeing more movies and shows these days featuring old people in lead roles, where they are not trying to be anything other than old. And I think (and ladies you can tell me if I’m wrong) there has been an upsurge in fashion for older women. Perhaps our culture is finally allowing older people to carry themselves with dignity, and be comfortable with who they are.
Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Strive to be happy.
Max Ehrmann, Desiderata, Copyright 1952.