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OPINION | PAUL PRATHER: To age well, let go of the past and enjoy the present

by PAUL PRATHER | January 8, 2022 at 4:25 a.m.

My Granny Prather, who was never a happy-go-lucky person, said balefully more than once during her senior years, "There's a lot of things worse than dying young."

Later, when my father was in his 70s, he said to me, "Son, I think I'm starting to get old."

Trying to lighten the mood, I replied, grinning, "You're not getting old. You are old."

He not only didn't see the humor in that, but never forgave me for it.

I'm descended from people who, in my opinion and observation, displayed a phobia of old age and caused themselves and others unnecessary pain as a result. I've mentioned this before.

To be fair to them, both Granny and my dad faced major obstacles in their later years. Granny struggled with cancer and poverty, and spent time in a Dickensian nursing home. My dad suffered from eye problems, was devastated by my mother's early death, then descended into dementia.

Old age was objectively tough for them. Their fears were not entirely unfounded.

I somehow now find myself officially old, registered for Medicare and eligible to draw Social Security. My body reminds me every time I sit on the couch or try to get up from it that I'm pretty creaky.

I'm in the early stages of my elderliness, but I've definitely entered the final quarter of life. Which leads me to ponder why some people manage to age gracefully and others face their decline kicking, screaming and denying the obvious.

I'm also smart enough to realize that if I live another 10 or 20 years I may have to eat the very words I'm about to share here -- but nonetheless, I've arrived at a conclusion.

One key to aging well might be this: you have to let go of the past.

The past is impossible to hold onto anyway. So let it go. You will never again be the person you were a few decades ago. Ride peaceably wherever the winds of aging and the ages carry you, because carry you they will.

Typically, we get the opposite advice.

"Do not go gentle into that good night," the poet Dylan Thomas famously wrote, perhaps to his dad. "Old age should burn and rave at close of day;/Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

But it's instructive to remember Thomas died at 39. Maybe he didn't know what he was talking about.

When you're young, the universe seems designed with you at its center. You're gainfully employed in some buzzing job; your phone rings non-stop. Your spouse depends on you. Your kids think you're God. You've got friends everywhere. Chances are you're healthy. You have 20 extracurricular activities to choose from and the energy to pursue them.

As you get older, that life shifts off its axis. You retire, and no longer have your professional identity or purpose. Your kids grow up, move off and take the grandkids. Your friends start passing away. Perhaps your spouse dies. Sooner or later your health becomes an issue. You find yourself with huge blocks of unfilled time.

It's easy, then, and perhaps natural, to start feeling forgotten. It can seem as if you've failed somehow, or that you've been intentionally cast adrift by others. If you're not careful, you become bitter, depressed or self-pitying. You try desperately to reclaim a past that's vanished forever.

The solution, I think, is to not rage against these changes, but to relax into them. Accept that you've entered a new phase of life that's going to be different from the way you lived before, and take that as an opportunity for a fresh adventure.

Old age has long been likened to a second childhood. That's a trope, sometimes a silly one -- kids don't get prostate cancer -- but it contains an element of truth.

Children, like old people, don't have much control over things. Yet children generally don't waste much time longing for the past or fretting about the future. They live in the moment. They seize joy from everyday pleasures.

I think that's how older people should live. We can learn not to hang onto our former life, and not to worry much about what's ahead, but instead to abide in the present. We can read great books. Take long walks. Meet new people.

We can be content to go wherever God and the universe take us. We can find comfort from others when they're with us and a different comfort from solitude when we're alone. We can behold this new world with wonder instead of raging against the dying of the light.

We can allow ourselves to be reborn every day.

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling, Ky. You can email him at

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