I notice elderly people a lot. Maybe it’s because I’ve passed the mid-century mark and know I am moving into the later stages of life or maybe it is because my children have moved out of the house; whatever the reason, elderly people catch my eye. Sometimes they are shrunk within a wheelchair being shuttled by a caregiver in white uniform through a grocery store. Sometimes they are vibrant and laughing and getting a Starbucks coffee in front of me. Sometimes they are dying and the subject of attention of my friends or colleagues as their loved ones’ lives slip away. Sometimes they are walking arm in arm in my neighborhood ‘for exercise’ or on holiday ‘for fun’. I saw Jack LaLanne on television recently celebrating his 95th birthday with 95 push-ups and 95 sit-ups. Sometimes they are sitting alone in a nursing home, sad and suffering, just ‘ready to go’.
When I see the elderly I often think about them as children, adolescents, mothers and fathers, business leaders, artists, persons with youthful skin, vibrant laughter and a hunger for life. Then I see them falling into categories – happy and curious, content and blissful, comfortable, struggling, frightened, angry and grasping. While physical discomfort, illness, memory loss, and other ailments affect their outlook, most of all I notice that their attitude toward life seems to shape how they move toward death.
It is as if there are two orientations of attitude that can be described by a metaphor of a funnel. One view in life is looking through the funnel from the narrow side out – this group of elderly seems to share an expansion of view as they age – an openness, a widening of thought, an increasing curiosity. They appreciate life and are curious to see patterns, connect dots of their experiences with that of others across the landscape of life’s experiences. The other group of elderly seem to view life through the other end of the funnel, instead of expanding with age – they seem to contract, to narrow their view, to become more and more focused on a self-oriented view of things, with diminishing curiosity. They become less interested in the world and more focused on what is affecting them.
It is an interesting dichotomy – one group seems to open with age, the other seems to close. With openness, it seems that death is much less frightening as if it is merely another viewpoint of sorts. With the closing of view, death looms large. I think it is analogous to a landscape painting. If the landscape is vast, one tree is but a blip on the horizon; if the landscape is narrow a single tree can consume the canvas.
Perhaps wisdom is the exuberance of youth seen through the widening lens of age, a broad, open perspective on the landscape of life. When one opens with age, exuberance arises because discovery abounds. This discovery requires no movement of sorts, it unfolds from within, from an endless expanse of curiosity and novelty in everyday experiences.
In death approached from this stance of wisdom, fear of the unknown seems to have little space to grow.