Last year, before the pandemic, I spent a few days on vacation with two long-time friends, and I noticed how strong and independent we had become. We didn’t need someone to tell us to clean the kitchen or start dinner. If something needed to be done, we jumped in and did it. But we also knew what we wanted and needed and weren’t shy about saying so. Like “I need a nap now.” Or “I can’t sleep with that light on.” Or “I can’t eat dinner that late.” Or “It’s too cold and icy to go for a walk.”
It occurred to me that if we were with younger people, they might judge us to be crabby old ladies. In fact, that’s how I judged my grandparents when I was young. But now that I’m officially an old codger, I can see that old age confers self-knowledge and awareness that I didn’t have when I was younger.
I remember a bus trip through Portugal when I was in my 30s. In the small-town plazas, old men sat on benches, enjoying conversations and a warm day. Their faces had so much character—lines and creases that reflected decades of easing into their true nature—and were more interesting to me than the faces of the young people, which seemed unformed and all alike.
Like many others, I loved the photo of Sen. Bernie Sanders at President Biden’s inauguration. He was sitting off by himself rather than hobnobbing with Washington’s elite, who were dressed up for the occasion. Instead, Bernie was wearing thick mittens and a sturdy down parka, and looking a little grumpy at having to be outside on a cold day. He was an old man trying to stay warm, and he didn’t care what anyone thought.
I hear the complaint that old people are set in their ways, that you can’t teach an old dog a new trick. But I think it’s more than that. It’s taken many decades for me to realize how I work: breakfast first thing when I get up, a good lunch and small dinner; some time alone but also a need to be with others. I know that when I get exhausted and over-stimulated I need to take a break; if not, I’ll get sick—or worse, crabby.
When I was young, not only was it was more important to go with the flow and get along (especially when working), I also didn’t know myself as well as I do now. But over the decades, I’ve dug deeper into my psyche and am less willing to accommodate myself to what the world thinks or wants. There’s a power in speaking truth—one that older people have earned as we age. As we get older and time becomes more precious, why should we put up with things that don’t make us happy: a noisy bar, obnoxious people, uncomfortable clothes. I can see how we look to younger people: crabby, opinionated, sometimes inflexible. But I see something else: a refining of our lives and a deep well of self-knowledge. If we’re impatient, it’s because we’re running out of time—and energy.