On getting old(er)

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It’s interesting to me how our perspective of aging changes through our years. When I was a kid in elementary school and riding the school bus to Dickson Elementary School, I remember thinking how old and mature the patrol boys were who kept order on the bus. They had a look of authority, stood at the front near the driver, and had a shiny silver badge. They seemed so much older.

Now, I realize that they were probably all of 13 years old! Dickson only went through 8th grade but I couldn’t wait to be 13.

Then, when I was 13, it wasn’t old at all: it was the high school students who seemed old. When I had finished my freshman year, my girlfriend, who was, like me, 15, broke up with me because she wanted to date an older boy.

I couldn’t understand why she would be attracted to someone so old. He was a college freshman and was 18! And then I was 18 and that wasn’t old at all, either.

And on it has gone through the years. There was a time when 40 seemed impossibly ancient. And then, just like that, I was 40 and the only thought I had was that I was old enough to not be thought of as a kid by the old people.

However, the older they were, I learned, the younger I seemed to them. But at least I didn’t have to continue to play basketball with the youth group at church. They, thinking I was really old, had no expectations that I could keep up anyway.

About that time, my perspective on aging began to change. At 40, 50 seemed old. But, as I progressed along through the 40s, and as 50 drew near, that still seemed young. Or, at least, youngish.

I saw myself at being at the beginning of middle age, never mind that my hair was now thinning and snow white. Now, 60 looked old. I mean, those people are almost ready to retire … and I certainly was not.

By the time I got to be 58, I bought a Harley-Davidson Road King, having never ridden a motorcycle before. Suddenly, people started treating me as though I were fragile.

The younger crowd thought it was cool that their pastor rode a Harley but the women, especially, were alarmed and feared for my safety and my life.

“Aren’t you a little old to be doing this?” I heard more than I few times from some of the men.

“Nope!” was my standard response.

When I hit 60, I realized that, why, that wasn’t old at all! Now 70 … 70 is old. But I had ten youthful years before I even approached being old. Even being eligible for Medicare at 65 didn’t convince me that I was really aging. I was just happy that the premiums were lower. But 70? Well, that was getting up there.

One day, I read these words during my morning prayer time: “The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.” Psalm 90:10 KJV.

Threescore and ten is 70. The Psalmist was saying that our life span is about 70 or, if we are strong enough, we might make it to 80. Suddenly, I felt old. Well, older.

Three and a half years ago, I experienced some breathing problems and was taken by ambulance to the emergency room. I was in atrial fibrillation, known as AF or Afib, which is an irregular, rapid heart rate that may cause symptoms like heart palpitations, fatigue, and shortness of breath. Afib occurs when the upper chambers of the heart (atria) beat out of rhythm. I also was diagnosed with congestive heart failure (CHF).

Doing some research, I discovered that 50% of patients diagnosed with CHF die within five years of the initial diagnosis. My heart doctor confirmed those statistics but insisted that I would not be in that group that didn’t make it five years.

Still, I finally began to understand, perhaps for the first time, that our time on this earth truly is limited. I felt my mortality.

If I had to guess, I would estimate that at least 15-20% of my high school graduating class is already gone. Only a very few, and I am among the few, are not retired.

Sometimes, I’d like to retire, but most of the time I still believe that I have something to offer. Oh, I have the common complaints of people who are in late middle-age … arthritis troubles me somewhat, I’ve had a few surgeries, including a knee replacement; I take about 12 pills a day because of the CHF; I don’t sleep all that well; and I get weary about mid-afternoons. But that happens in middle age.

This week, I turn 69. Seventy used to seem old. But with what Psalm 90:10 says and with the average life span for American males being 78.69 years of age, it’s possible that I’m about to slip out of those middle age years. Eventually. Besides, you’re not really getting old until you hit 80!

I really do think that much of life is what you make of it. Almost anybody can make it through Marine Corps boot camp, which I did 50 years ago this year. It’s not the physical challenges, though those are severe. It’s the mental aspect.

A young man from my church, when getting ready to go to boot camp several years ago, asked me the secret of getting through.

I said, “Don’t quit. No matter what, don’t quit. If you get injured, that’s one thing. But don’t quit.” He didn’t and he made a fine Marine. Whatever your age, don’t quit.

An unofficial motto of the Marine Corps, which came about after my time there, is “Improvise, adapt, and overcome.” I that that’s a valid strategy for any person at any stage of life. Life changes. Our body changes. Our abilities change. Our stamina may diminish.

We have a choice. We can become depressed, surrender our dreams, and wait for the final days. Or we can re-assess where we are in life and improvise, adapt, and overcome!

I now have a new ten-year plan. The goal is to get to be 79. At that point, I’ll re-assess. But I must be honest … at some point I’m probably going to get old. But, until then, I’m going to enjoy this phase of my middle-age and go take the Harley for a spin.

[David Epps is the pastor of the Cathedral of Christ the King, 4881 Hwy. 34 E., Sharpsburg, GA between Newnan and Peachtree City (www.ctk.life). He is the bishop of the Diocese of the Mid-South which consists of Georgia and Tennessee and the Associate Endorser for the Department of the Armed Forces, U. S. Military Chaplains, ICCEC. He may contacted at davidepps@ctk.life.]