Old age is not, as the saying goes, for sissies. There are some lucky ones who little by little slow down to be sure, but otherwise go on to the end pretty much as usual. For the majority, however, it’s like living in a house that’s in increasing need of repairs. The plumbing doesn’t work right anymore. There are bats in the attic. Cracked and dusty, the windows are hard to see through, and there’s a lot of creaking and groaning in bad weather. The exterior could use a coat of paint. And so on. The odd thing is that the person living in the house may feel, humanly speaking, much as always. The eighty-year-old body can be in precarious shape, yet the spirit within as full of beans as ever. If that leads senior citizens to think of all the things they’d still love to do but can’t anymore, it only makes things worse. But it needn’t work that way.
Second childhood commonly means something to steer clear of, but it can also mean something else. It can mean that if your spirit is still more or less intact, one of the benefits of being an old crock is that you can enjoy again something of what it’s like being a young squirt.
Eight-year-olds, like eighty-year-olds, have lots of things they’d love to do but can’t because they know they aren’t up to them, so they learn to play instead. Eighty-year-olds might do well to take notice. They can play at being eighty-year-olds, for instance. Stiff knees and hearing aids, memory loss and poor eyesight are no fun, but there are those who marvelously survive them by somehow managing to see them as, among other things and in spite of all, a little funny.
Another thing is that, if part of the pleasure of being a child the first time round is that you don’t have to prove yourself yet, part of the pleasure of being a child the second time round is that you don’t have to prove yourself any longer. You can be who you are and say what you feel, and let the chips fall where they may.
Very young children and very old children also have in common the advantage of being able to sit on the sideline of things. While everybody else is in there jockeying for position and sweating it out, they can lean back, put their feet up, and like the octogenarian King Lear “pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh at gilded butterflies.”
Very young children and very old children also seem to be in touch with something that the rest of the pack has lost track of. There is something bright and still about them at their best, like the sun before breakfast. Both the old and the young get scared sometimes about what lies ahead of them, and with good reason, but you can’t help feeling that whatever inner goldenness and peace they’re in touch with will see them through in the end.
– Originally published in Whistling in the Dark by Frederick Buechner