I took up golf as a way to get more exercise, and I found the game relaxing and fun. This game that many find silly or only for the upper crust helped me relax, get more play in my life, and develop new friendships in a light and happy context. While playing at downhome local courses, I met a variety of people from all backgrounds and enjoyed many deep and moving conversations. The game also put me in a meditative state, and sometimes I'd come off the course with a story in my mind. I collected and published eighteen of these stories, each making a certain subtle point about human nature.
As we'll see, sensing your old age and your youth at the same time is a signal that you're aging well. After my surgery I felt both older and younger and enjoyed the benefits of each. In part, my new peace of heart came from entering the new flow of aging, in contrast to any attempt to stay inappropriately young. Any traces of the ambitious hero seemed to fall away.
Now seventy-six, I notice when someone in her early fifties or even forties complains about growing old. I'd love to be fifty-five again, when my daughter was four. I liked telling her, when she asked my age, that I was "two nickels," or five-five. I felt good and was able to do anything physically. I had no worries about my heart or other things that might be falling apart. But I understand that an awareness of aging comes in steps and phases. You get glimpses, and those hints accumulate into a loss of youth.
Professional psychology calls it "subjective aging." I think of it as the aging of the soul.
We say that youth is fleeting. By that we usually mean that our youth goes by fast and it's gone before we know it. But in mythology, stories full of insights into what is eternal and essential in human life, young people are fragile and often live short lives. It isn't just that the years go by fast; there is something about youth that is brief and vulnerable. The well-known phrase "eternal youth" means that when we are young, we may feel that youth will last forever. So then, as we notice signs of growing older, the shock is strong. The shiny glass sphere of eternal youth develops a crack.
In Greek mythology young people often come to a quick end, and that myth stirs whenever we hear about a young person whose life has been cut short. Icarus is well-known for putting on wings crafted by Daedalus to fly up high into the sky, only to have those wings melted by the hot sun. He falls, plummeting into the sea. Phaethon was a young man whose ambition was to drive the chariot of his father that made the sun rise each morning. He tried but came down in a fiery crash. We idolize movie actors who die young, after being
"stars," and some of us mourn young people close to us who lived short lives.
Lessons in the ageless soul are sometimes bitter. My daughter lost a friend not long ago, a gifted, bright young man in her Sikh community. He fell off a mountain cliff while on a simple hour-long hike. It has been two years since the accident, and the community is still in shock. A promising young man losing his life throws his community into deep and painful wonder about the nature of things. We have to find our way toward appreciating the ageless soul, the meaning of a life that wasn't allowed to reach full maturity, to say
nothing about old age. We are forced to consider that the life of the soul may be complete and full without the usual span of time that includes getting old. Aging, in the sense of becoming a whole person, is not the same as growing old.
We can learn several lessons from the mythological stories about young men. One is to keep our ambitions even and moderate. Peaking too high can cause a painful crash. This could mean, psychologically, that youth and old age should be joined together as long as possible, the mature element in us keeping the valuable immature part from reaching too high and the spirited youth keeping us ever on the adventure, not giving up because we're getting old.
When I was a music student in my early twenties I had a professor who was something of an Icarus. Donald Martin Jenni had been a musical prodigy and was also remarkably gifted in languages. When I met him, he was working on a degree in world literature by reading all the assigned texts in their original languages. I remember the time when he was reading War and Peace in Russian. One story is told of how he stepped in at the last minute to be the translator for a Vietnamese speaker who was visiting the college. He was also a musical genius with an ear beyond normal human limits. I sometimes wonder if the reason I didn't pursue my career in music—I was a composition major—was that I was discouraged by having such a genius for a teacher. I knew I could never equal him.