On Growing Old

By Madeline Clark

There will be those who say there is no such thing as growing old in these lush days, when centenarians abound, and those past eighty often still preserve their sprightly hold on life. And yet, of course, the end does come in sight; but we do not necessarily feel it as the end, because the sense of immortality is always with us, consciously or unconsciously to ourselves. So all we see, when we are ripe in years, is the end of this one episode: we begin to see that it is drawing toward its close, but it does not trouble us. On the contrary, a new serenity of outlook seems to come over us. We turn our heads, and there lies the road we have traveled, but under a revealing light, and we see that those years have not been in vain, but they have been rungs in the ladder of experience. It is a varied path that we have followed, learning all the way, leading at last to this point of vision where the meaning of it all begins to come clear.

Where in youth and middle age we used to be concerned about the future, hoping this or that would happen to help us on our way in the material struggle, we now feel surprisingly carefree, as if a load had fallen from us, and the future holds only the grandeur, the certainty of freedom and fulfillment. Also, small annoyances in the incidents of every day, cease to bother us as they once did, or would have done, because we see them in the context of a larger picture that is beginning to dawn upon our consciousness.

When I was a little girl, not strong, and often unable to play with the other children, I used to spend much time in the company of the elders, and while they were teaching me to sew, putting together the pieces of a patch-quilt, we would talk about all sorts of things having to do with life as a field of experience. These dear and dignified ladies responded to my questions and passed down to me many wise observations upon life in general; and out of all this I gathered some inkling of what was the great inclusive goal of the onward march of humanity, and that from the very beginning of our life there is the real Self that understands the object of all experience, and there is the Soul, its child, that is learning. They even told me that it didn't matter whether I was born a boy or a girl, because in one life or another both kinds of experience came to human beings, to express the qualities that were already a part of our inner nature.

Children and the old seem to take naturally to the idea of coming back and being born again as many times as we need to. They know it, just as they do the going to sleep at night and waking up in the morning. So we have grown old many times: it is a familiar and happy experience -- a "second childhood," in the sense of drawing nearer to the Real, which was so close to us in our early years.

The oncoming of old age has been described as a gradual withdrawal from the interests of mundane life. And sure enough, there is a transition that takes place, like the change of key in the course of a Beethoven symphony: the tonal colors blend and alter as in a crucible of light, and beauty is born again as the harmonies resolve, bringing us into another chamber of awareness. We all know that experience when listening to music; but now it is really happening within ourselves, kindling the finer faculties in readiness for that moment of expanding perception which crowns a life with perfect understanding of what it has all meant.

We gather from the Eastern teachings that as the soul departs, the whole panorama of the closing episode passes in review before the inner eye, and is seen in all its essential significance. But this insight into truth probably begins to dawn long before the parting moment comes. It is as though the light from the opening door reaches the still earthbound consciousness and finds expression in a new serenity and wisdom.

Great minds have always concerned themselves with old age -- not in the sense of Shakespeare's "lean and slippered pantaloon," but as in his glorious Sonnet 73:

In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou seest the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.

Cicero in his stately essay on Old Age, cites any number of eminent men, of his own or previous eras, Roman, Greek, and Persian, who had preserved the sharpness of their faculties and skills even into extreme old age, and has been able, through ripeness of experience, to pass on their spiritual substance to the younger generations. And Marco Cato, himself of venerable age, is made to say: "The fittest arms of old age . . . are the attainment and practice of the virtues; which, if cultivated at every period of life, produce wonderful fruits when you have lived to a great age." This practice of all-round culture is everywhere cited as the foundation of a competent and dignified old age. Hence Rabbi ben Ezra can say, "the last of life, for which the first was made" -- and can promise us, "the best is yet to be" in the so-called declining years.

It has been commonly believed that fatigue, or death, comes about due to the depletion of vitality within the bodily organism; but the fact actually is that the waves of life-force sustaining our bodies mount up in intensity through the hours of the day or years of our lives, so sleep or death ensues. Hence it could be said that our body is indeed "consumed with that which it was nourished by." And sleep, or the perfect sleep of death, is the avenue of opportunity for assimilation and adjustment to take place, ready for the new day, or the new lifetime.

The bird of immortality nests within us, known or unknown, ready to spread its wings (our wings) whenever the signal comes to move on, following "the tides of a current flowing, forever flowing." And Walt Whitman speaks for all mankind when he avows:

I know I am deathless,
. . .
And whether I come to my own in ten thousand or ten million
I can cheerfully take it now, or with equal cheerfulness
I can wait.

The future is indeed bright with promise, and it is a rare happiness, growing old.

  (From Sunrise magazine, August-September 1974; copyright © 1974 Theosophical University Press)

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