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The Things We Tell Ourselves

Scrolling through twitter a couple of days ago, I came across this tweet ‘What would you tell your 18 year-old self?’

I suppose it very much depends how old you are when you read the tweet. I can’t imagine what a 20 year-old would tell their slightly younger self, and I wouldn’t presume to try, or even guess, what a 40 year-old would advise.

It’s not that the concerns and priorities of today’s 18 year-olds differ much from those of previous generations, at least in the essentials, but the context is entirely different. My own 18 year-old self lived at a time when life was both more difficult and at the same time easier than it is now. We took so much for granted and yet our horizons were not so distant. Our expectations were more limited, especially if you were a woman.

I suppose there are many things I would tell that 18 year-old now, but couldn’t possibly have told them to her then. These would include: take your education seriously. It may be the last chance you get for one for a very long time, if ever. They’d also include bits of advice about confidence, along the lines of come to terms with the person you catch sight of in the mirror – the real person, as opposed to the face that you compose for yourself when you’re looking intentionally, so to speak. No, you’re not as thin as you dream of being, but you’re not fat either, even if when you’re not idealising yourself into a size 10 skirt you’re seeing yourself as a size 20. Try to live with the truth about yourself and take care of that self.

That’s the heart of the problem with life, wherever we are on its trajectory. It’s hard to accept the truth about ourselves. It seems that, whatever our age, we must always be justifying something, or excusing it, or evading the obvious. The trouble with all of this is that the truth will inevitably catch up with us and truth can be painful, though not necessarily for the reasons we assume, especially as we grow older.

Personally, I’ve always hated that rather condescending expression about growing old gracefully. It seems to imply that as people grow older they must somehow accept that life holds little more for them and that they shouldn’t be straining to ask more of it than they can reasonably expect, whether it’s more in terms of what they look like or aspire to become. There is, admittedly, a lot less ageism around these days than there was thirty or so years ago, but there are sensed expectations, that the old should not make demands on the young by making their views or presence felt too keenly, perhaps.

All of this puts many older people into a defensive position in regard to others, so that they come across as ill-tempered or set in their ways – which they may well be if they feel they have no place or value as the persons they are. On the other hand, we who are a bit older may only have ourselves to blame when we cry off things pleading old age. It’s easy to tell yourself you’re too old when the truth is you’re too frightened, or too lazy, to undertake the next challenge that might come your way and which, like the education you failed to take seriously when you were eighteen, may pass you by never to return.

So the hard won bit of wisdom I’m starting to learn, as I get older, is to stop telling myself anything and start listening instead – and be prepared to find myself doing things, and possibly saying things, that I would never have dared do or say when I was eighteen or even, perhaps, only a few years ago.

So don’t say things that are expected of you and don’t say things for the sake of saying them. Think first, and listen deeply. This takes time, of course, and patience. I don’t think we grow more patient with age. If anything we grow more impatient. There is so much life to be lived, even if we know our actual life may not last more than a couple of years, or months, or days. There are so many people to know and, more importantly, to love and serve.

You may think all this living, loving and serving is an impossible thing to expect of someone who is old, but very often it is the older people who do the real living and loving because they may have learned how to be really still, how to inhabit their true centre and accept themselves, and life in general, with a kind of ‘bright sadness’ to quote the writer, Marilynn Robinson. I would add that there is even more to this than acceptance. There is the possibility of passion – passionate love for a passionate God who is, of course, our true centre.

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