Friday Takeaway: On Aging

  • Ilan Stavans, Amherst College Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

Thursday, July 20, 2017

I like aging. In a culture ruled by the tyranny of the new, this might sound like anathema to some people. But getting old feels soothing to me. 

I’m 56. In the Middle Ages, reaching 50 was old age. Today, as marketers would have it, I am “middle-aged.” Either way, this stage has brought me a welcome perspective.

Throughout life, the body can be a battlefield. It has all sorts of impulses it clamors to satisfy. And it is ready to test its own limits at the time. Happily, a few of those impulses have abated now. I know how to feed the body well, how to exercise it. As a result, I have an internal calm I don’t remember having before. 

I have noticed a change at the intellectual level, too. The mind feels more concentrated. Not that it hasn’t been in the past. But thoughts are clearer at this age, less tangled. They have more weight because I know how to shape them, how to give them the weight they require. I know which thoughts matter and which don’t.

Words feel purer. Of course, like anyone my age I occasionally have trouble remembering a person’s name, an elusive noun, and, more frequently, the right passwords. This may be exacerbated because I’m a non-native English speaker. After more than 30 years in this country, I suddenly find myself jumbling up the syntax of a humble sentence, or mistranslating an expression that comes from another language. Oh well, you’ll never use the language perfectly, I tell myself.

On the other hand, in earlier years I didn’t have as many words at my disposal as I do now. I enjoy giving these words their due. Forgetting one is no big deal as long as the word feels satisfying when I relocate it again. For instance, the word “serendipity,” which has such a gentle, surrendering sound. Or “penicillin,” which somehow feels hurtful.

I forget a lot of words in Spanish, too, but that’s because the language isn’t around me on a day-to-day basis. So I must be purposeful in protecting it. Reclaiming those words is about keeping in close touch with my origins. 

Routine is a major topic for me at this age. I used to be allergic to repetition. However, without realizing it, I have taken a rather surprising U-turn in this regard: I actually like routine. I no longer think it’s about repetition but about adventure. Doing the same thing nowadays allows me to be inventive.

In fact, one of the things I most enjoy at present is returning to something — a book, a place — that brought me joy before. By this I mean that I’ve become less interested in discovering a new item than in rediscovering an old one. I like rereading an essay by Borges for the hundredth time. Or rewatching Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Three Colors Trilogy: Blue, White, Red.”

My attitude about money has also changed. In earlier years, when making a place in the world, providing for my family and giving back to my parents, I used to be preoccupied with having enough. Now I want to do the opposite: I want to spend what I earn. A few years back, Alison, my wife, got a fortune cookie with an emblematic line: “If you had to live your life all over again, you would need more money.” It’s a misconception! If I had to live my life all over again, I would need less.

This brings me to three important qualities: simplicity, clarity and straightforwardness. I agree with Confucius (“On Government,” 491 BC) that life is really simple but we insist on making it complicated. I also believe, along with Albert Einstein (“Mein Weltbild,” 1931), that if you can’t explain a difficult idea to a six-year-old, you yourself don’t understand it. At this age, it feels good to recognize that knowledge isn’t about accumulation but about distillation.

Just as an unexamined life isn’t worth living, a life without others is a waste. I love the precious time I spend with family and friends. That is what makes age in general worth its cycles. I like eating watermelon with my family. I like zigzagging in conversations. I used to think that conversations needed to have a purpose. But they aren’t stepping stones to something else anymore. Instead, they are ends in themselves. Wherever they take me, I like the journey.

More than anything else, aging is obviously about one’s relationship with time. When I was young, the world seemed full of possibility. I used to think I could do anything, go anywhere: learn Norse, live in a yeshiva among Talmudic students. Life was about looking forward. And waiting would take long. Things go in a flash now. I spend as much energy looking back as I do looking forward. I still have plenty of aspirations, perhaps even larger than the ones I had before. All this to say that time does run faster, but it also feels more elastic.

I find expressions such as “50 is the new 30” disingenuous. I liked it when I was 30, but I wouldn’t want to be that age again. I wouldn’t want to be younger than that, either. 

To me aging is about the recognition — essential, unavoidable yet arriving at the right time — that we are who we deserve to be.