We often hear that age is just a number. Whoever first made that statement probably had fewer years ahead than behind. I have no problem with age being just a number provided we remember there are small numbers and big numbers. Your account officer understands this very well and that is why your bank balance is not just a number, any number.
Your bank balance shows how much money you have and not how rich you are. Money is measured in numbers. Riches are measured in contentment – the difference between what you have and what you want. Your age shows how much time you have spent and not how young you are. Age is measured in years. Youth is measured in vigor, appetite for life – the difference between what you have experienced and what you long for.
The richest perspective I have on age and youthfulness came from Samuel Ullman’s 1918 poem – The Youth. Ullman, an American poet, humanitarian and businessman was 78 years when he penned down this beautiful piece.
Nobody grows old merely by a number of years. We grow old by deserting our ideals. Years may wrinkle the skin but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul.
Time wears out almost everything except wine and friendship. There is an Igbo adage that when you look at the lips of an old man, it appears he never used them to suck his mother’s breast. What were once smooth and succulent are replaced with ridges, rough and ugly. As we age, the skin becomes thinner and drier; its collagen and elastic fibers break down. The ability to stretch back and cover grooves that form under the skin surface is reduced. Permanent grooves become more visible.
Enthusiasm is to the soul as collagen is to the skin. When enthusiasm breaks down, the soul loses flexibility to stretch back and cover the grooves of fear, disappointment and defeat. When Ullman wrote about the wireless station at the center of every heart that receives messages of beauty, hope, cheer, courage and power from men and from the infinite, he was describing an enthusiastic soul – a soul that is eager, intense, engaged and possessed. Enthusiasm is the electricity of life. In its lack, men stumble in darkness.
Every child is born enthusiastic. Ullman calls this the lure of wonder, the unfailing child-like appetite of what’s next and the joy of the game of living. The greatest tragedy of growing up is that taming of the spirit that replaces faith with doubt. If you must leave a child one inheritance, let it not be money or power or fame. Restore his enthusiasm, he will find the rest.
Age is what time does to us. Youth is what we do to life. Age reflects an inevitable passage of time. Youthfulness is a choice we make to be alive, all our life. Time makes one 20 years old. Choice keeps another 80 years young.
Going back to Samuel Ullman
You are as young as your faith;
As old as your doubt;
As young as your self confidence;
As old as your fear;
As young as your hope;
As old as your despair!
I write this a few days to my birthday. The mirrors are not as flattering anymore. Hairs recede. Grey abounds. It is comforting that age may be just a number. Mine only happens to be a big number. As my skin wrinkles, my soul stretches in strength, hope and beauty to redefine self, thought and expression. I am young because I am more!