Existential Psychology

Getting Older And Feeling Sad

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What happens to a lot of people is that as they move into middle adulthood they start to wonder where all that time went. As Martin Sexton would say, “Like a jet plane, in and out of sight.” They realize for the first time in a real, visceral way that they’re getting older. There’s usually some marker to really bring the insight home, like a little graying hair somewhere on the body or a birthday that feels especially significant. As the insight of aging starts to sink in they start to grieve their lost youth.

There’s a deep, unavoidable sadness there of course. As the years pile up we are sooner or later forced to confront our mortality, to confront the fact that we’re on a timeline and that time is going to keep pounding out that same steady beat whether we like it or not. We realize that those golden years of youth, years we believed at the time would last forever, have suddenly vanished into thin air.

So while sadness is unavoidable, prolonged sadness, that constant looking backwards with longing and regret, is avoidable and should be avoided. What happens is that people miss out on living joyfully in the time left to them while their minds and bodies are still young and healthy, where they’re still full of life and vigor, despite what the scary signals are telling them. But they start to tell themselves that they’re old. They start acting in ways more resigned, less bouyant, less curious. They start to take on the defeatist attitude that it’s all over, that their best times are behind them, that everything from here on out is pointless, that they’ve missed the boat.

You can wish to go backwards in time all you want but time isn’t paying any attention, it’s going to just keep on moving at that same steady clip despite your deepest hopes and fears. And what’s probably going to happen is that ten years down the line you’ll look back longingly on this epic of your life, you’ll wish you had these years back!

Much better to dedicate to living fully in the moment now, to approaching people and the world joyfully, with gratitude for a body and mind that are still healthy and very much ready to rock and roll.

Don’t let cultural markers tell you to think and feel one way about yourself when your own immediate experience is sending you the opposite message. And don’t waste too much time on yesterday when you have complete access to today. Because before you know it tomorrow will come, and then the day after, and on until the end.

We don’t have any choice about being sentient organisms subject to rules of time and death but we do retain the choice around how to perceive ourselves and how to be in the world. When we decide we’re old and spent our bodies follow suit. Our minds and bodies are intricately intertwined, after all. When we decide to be curious and interested and engaged and exuberant and full of life our bodies follow suit too, they realize we have a job to do and they help us do it.

If you are still young in mind and body you can say to yourself “thank you body! I’m not going to let you down, just like you haven’t let me down. I’m going to continue to stay active and curious, I’m going to be free and light, I’m going to be happy in the here and now. I’m going to take good care of you with exercise and a healthy diet.”

At some point our bodies will give out on us, at some point they’ll get sick and we’ll die, but there’s no reason to speed up that process by buying into the notion that we’re on the decline. And it’s a real tragedy to waste the precious time we have left, where our minds and bodies are still healthy, wishing we were some place else. Instead we can engage fully with the moment and appreciate all the wonders of life that surround us now.