I’m old. I like being old, and I am good at being old. Being old fits me. I was not good at being young or being middle-aged, and it is nice to discover an age I am good at.
What’s not to like about it? I don’t have to work. I don’t have to earn money. I can do what I want . . . all day, every day. I can afford expensive toys. Things are just better.
That’s what I tell myself, but I’ve been known to lie, even to myself.
The truth may be that I like best whatever age I am at the moment. Today I remember being bad at being young, but I don’t remember thinking I was bad at it at the time. Despite a lot of evidence to the contrary, I thought I was good at being young, and then middle-aged. So, thinking I am good at being old is really not much of a change in my thinking at all.
So I’ll try to figure this out.
Are Old People Really Happier?
Social scientists claim old people are generally happier than young people. That seems to apply to me. I was often miserable when I was young and I am seldom miserable today, so I guess that makes me happy. But it doesn’t follow that being happy makes me like being old.
I have eczema today. I am happier now than when I was young and didn’t have eczema, but that doesn’t make me love eczema. The happiness thing sounds like correlation, not causation.
Even the correlation is suspect. Social scientists claim old people are happier than younger people based on self-reporting. Researchers asked people of various ages how happy they were and wrote down the answers. It is quite possible that the results are skewed because we old people are liars.
Those researchers never asked me if I was happy, but if one asked me that question today, I’d lie. I wouldn’t know how to answer. I’d panic and then lie.
Am I happy this minute? Have I been happy at any point during this day? Have I been happy over thirty percent of the time for a period longer than180 days? What does happy look like? As soon as I think about it, I become like the centipede trying to remember how to walk. If I lie and say I’m happy, I look good and the questioner goes away.
If I say I am unhappy, some busybody is going to ask why and try to fix me.
Another reason I would lie is that I am loyal to people who are the same age as I am. People my age need to stick together, and I’m a team player.
I once met an 88-year-old woman in a wheelchair who claimed to be as pleased as punch that she could make it to lunch with her friends and experience another glorious day at the care center. I didn’t believe her.
I have seen a 16-year-old girl, in peak physical condition with her whole life ahead of her, sobbing because she had to endure another day of high school. However, when I energetically agreed with her that being young sucked, she dried her tears and mounted a spirited defense of her generation and her developmental stage. There were bad days, she admitted, but it didn’t suck near as much as being old, which, according to her, is creepy and disgusting.
She was lying in defense of young people everywhere. I respect that.
Don’t I want that youthful vitality back?
Yeah, I do. With conditions.
I envy the young because they don’t hurt when they get out of bed or get dizzy when they stand up. I would like to play softball again and engage in frequent rambunctious sex without the aid of drugs. Those things were great. But in my life there was less of that than there was getting up at six in the morning to go to jobs I didn’t like, being hormonally driven to regrettable behaviors, and sitting, sitting, sitting in front of a computer trying to make enough money to pay my mortgage. That was not so great.
The old people I know who want to be young again want to go back in time and live their youth over. They don’t want to be young in society as it exists today. These people excelled in high school, or college or the military, and have spent decades reliving that three years of youth when they had lots of friends and pop music carried profound messages. They don’t want to go back to physical vitality at a high school, college, or military that has cell phones, variable pronouns, school shootings and TikTok. They want to relive the youth of their memories.
That’s not my wish. I didn’t have a youth I want to relive.
I am 71. Things are good right now. I don’t have work or financial pressures. Statistically, I should have ten more years of decent mobility. In my career as an elder-law lawyer, I saw that after people turn eighty, mobility drops off pretty fast. There are exceptions, but I don’t count on being one of them when making plans.
I like 71, but I don’t expect liking 72 or 73 as much. If I could snap my fingers and have the vitality of a 40-year-old, I’d do it, but it would put me out of sync with my generation. I would be abandoning my people. They may not be the greatest people in the world, but I like them. I know nothing about people who are forty now. My children are older than that.
My old-guy friends and I talk the same language. I would miss them.
They said there would be wisdom.
Over the years, various mental health professionals have asked me whether I would rather be right or happy. I always pick right. Being happy is ambiguous. Being right is like winning an award.
No matter what age I have been, I have always suspected that the people in my stage of development were smarter than everybody else. When I was a child, my parents were clueless. Once I emerged from childhood, I considered the people on either side of me in age to be mildly or severely disabled by either immaturity or senility. This arrogance accompanied me through every temporal milestone so that when I was 45, I considered 30-year-olds hopelessly immature and 70-year-olds to be well down the waterslide to cognitive oblivion. Now that I am 71, I consider 45-year-olds immature, and 80-year-olds to be intellectually suspect.
I am the first to admit that at 71 my chess playing and coding skills have declined, but my insight on deep philosophical and interpersonal issues has increased dramatically. I have dropped some smarts, but picked up wisdom.
Wisdom is better than smart. Everybody says so, and I agree. Fortunately for me and everybody else my age, there are no standardized tests for wisdom. It’s like common sense and porn. You know it when you see it.
To me, the quiet comforts of wisdom are worth the drop in my chess rating. I wouldn’t trade back.
And what if it is only loyalty? Is that bad?
So if the age I currently am is always the best age to be, there must be some self-deception going on.
Or maybe it is less self-deception than it is loyalty.
Loyalty has a checkered reputation. Loyalty to one’s country and one’s family is good. Unless that country is Nazi Germany or that family is the Manson Family. Then it’s not so good.
Loyalty is an escape route from an existential problem. The problem is how to satisfy the human need to individuate, to stand above or apart from the herd, and simultaneously satisfy the human need to belong, to be part of a herd.
When I decide to be loyal — to a cause, or a family, or a church, or a sports team — I make a private decision that expresses the inner me. The hat I wear with the logo of the Portland Pickles baseball team tells the world something about who I am. I express myself and I separate from the faceless masses who are cluelessly indifferent to the Pickles. And in doing so, I also become part of a community of like-minded Pickles fans. I belong.
By embracing my age, I am being loyal to my generation — those people who came of age in the time of the Beatles, hippies, and the Vietnam War. I am being loyal to my developmental stage, people who have passed out of the workplace and become the historians, nurturers and advice-givers. By defending my people—even when other generations and other developmental stages may by most standards appear more attractive — I express my individuality and I belong.
And most days, that is all I really want to do.