GROWING YOUNGER ON THE INSIDE
WHILE YOUR BODY IS AGING ON THE OUTSIDE
At seventy-two, I am less and less interested in the exterior of people’s lives – what their bodies, clothes, houses, vacations, or social media images look like. I pay more attention now to how their eyes twinkle, how their voice dances, how their laugh breaks out across a room, whether both children and adults enjoy their company. When the people showing these signs of vitality are old, I really pay attention. When I sense a fountain of youth, I don’t just want to take a drink, I want my own fountain.
Despite frailty and senility, incontinence and immobility, acute and chronic pains, or long years outliving their mates, siblings, and old friends, some older people never talk about these frustrating things. They change the subject to more positive things outside themselves they are more interested in. This makes them a pleasure and a privilege to visit or take care of.
I’ve been asking people like this to share with me how they live this way. I’ve learned that some blessed few believe they are actually growing younger on the inside faster than they are growing older on the outside. I can see it in their lives. Besides the obvious devotion to keeping their bodies and brains in shape, here is what they have taught me:
- Stay open-minded. Educate your prejudices away. Ask people what they think about public things, and listen – especially when they don’t agree with you. Whatever they believe or believe in, try to understand why. Keep learning new things, and telling others what you’re learning. Tell people what you aren’t understanding, and ask for help.
- Stay open-hearted. Take an active interest in your loved ones’ personal lives. Ask about them, care about them, and lift them up in your conversations and prayers. Avoid newsfeeds and filter bubbles that are pessimistic, hateful, fearful, or biased toward vested interests. Make sure the people and media you pay attention to broaden and deepen your circle of concern.
- Embrace mystery and wonder. Spending time exploring nature is great for this. So is researching questions you can’t answer. Don’t think you understand why things happen. Keep a childlike amazement and curiosity about you.
- Tell the truth with kindness. Children do this, and we love them for it.
- Be a little naughty and adventurous. Say and do things people don’t expect from you.
- Keep growing your sense of humor. Aging itself is hysterical. Give nicknames to your character flaws, and ask people to tease you about them. Build a treasury of funny stories, and learn to tell them well. Learn from your mistakes, but enjoy when you have embarrassed yourself – everybody else does!
- Embrace your lack of influence. Use reverse psychology here: don’t give uninvited opinions or advice. People are more likely to ask for them if you don’t offer.
- Keep a balance of work, rest and play. If your life’s work seems mostly behind you, volunteer to stay busy thinking of others. Make sure your leisure life truly re-creates you and others. These things will naturally help you sleep well.
- Don’t sweat the small stuff, or the big stuff either. Avoid news and conversations that are biased, fearful, hateful, or pessimistic. Let God handle the future of the world, and your family. Don’t spend much of yourself on solving problems you didn’t create, unless you’re resolving most of the ones you did (like your health, family, or job).
- Stay up with technology. It is the love language of young people. We need to stay in touch with them, so ask younger people to help you here. It will keep the doors in your soul open to the outside world, and to younger generations.
- Keep seeking new spiritual experiences. Growing younger at heart faster than our bodies are aging requires somewhat of a miracle even to imagine. Many of the best descriptions and examples I’ve found of this reverse-aging process are in the Bible. The man-child King David believed people could “still bear fruit in their old age, remaining fresh and green.” Jesus told his followers to humble themselves to become like little children. The apostle Paul got it too, advising us: “Do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.” Traditionally, the best ways to renew this spiritual new life from within are prayer, worship Bible study fellowship and service.
- Keep seeking new sensual experiences. Try new places, foods, music, and art with people who enjoy them. Find ways of giving affection to your closest family and friends in ways they enjoy, and at times when you are generous enough to give without expecting or needing anything in return.
- Plan future conversations. Use your spare time to recall what others are doing and feeling. Rehearse asking them about all this when they call or visit, which they’ll do more often.
- Downsize and entertain. Don’t hoard, bequeath. Keep room around you for visitors. Minimize artifacts to the parts of your past that only interest you. Invite people over for their sakes. Plan how to bless them when they come.
- Remain actively open to constructive criticism. Ask those who know and love you to tell you what changes in your life they think would be good for you. When things aren’t going well, don’t just rely on your own theories about why – ask others for insights and suggestions, and try them out.
- Eat healthy. You are what you eat. Minimize processed foods, and maximize natural, healthy foods like fruits and vegetables. Eat moderately to keep your figure looking young, your mind working young, and your heart feeing young.
- Exercise and stretch regularly. Instead of letting your joints get stiff and your heart and lungs weak, keep active with walking, working out, and aerobic activity. Work at keeping your posture upright.
- Use medicine as a last resort for pain and dysfunction. Instead of medicating your symptoms, first try exercise, physical therapy, dietary change, attitude adjustment, prayer, counseling, and other lifestyle changes. Remember that over time, medicines usually create both side effects and dependency, and lose some of their effectiveness.
- Don’t talk about pain, illness, or disability. Complain about your aches and pains only in the doctor’s office. Everywhere else, ignore them, or joke about them.
- Plan for your death to minimize problems you leave behind for others. Minimize the worries, decisions, and unwanted possessions your death dumps in your loved ones’ laps. If you’re afraid of death, tell a pastor, not your family. And if you’re looking forward to heaven, share that with your family and friends.
The funniest description I’ve found of growing younger inside came from one of the framers of our Constitution, Samuel Johnson. When someone asked him about his own constitution one day walking along the streets of Philadelphia, he said, “I have never been better in my life! But this old house I’ve been living in for 84 years is falling apart!”
Dr. Paul Schmidt is a psychologist life coach in Louisville and Lexington, blogging and podcasting at mynewlife.com.