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Things You Learn as You Grow Old

OK, so I know the saying, “Getting old is not for sissies.” But yesterday as I was reading the section on Buddhism in Huston Smith’s seminal book The World’s Religions, I came to his treatment of the Four Noble Truths.

Just by way of background, in case you’ve forgotten, the first of the four noble truths is: Life is suffering (“dukkha”). Smith points out that the Buddha, possessing an analytical mind, could not leave the First Truth in such a bare-bones state and added six moments when, in Smith’s words, “life’s dislocation becomes glaringly apparent.” It was the third of these pressure points that caught my attention.

3. The morbidity of decrepitude. In the early years sheer physical vitality joins with life’s novelty to render life almost automatically good. In later years the fears arrive: fear of financial dependence; fear of being unloved and unwanted; fear of protracted illness and pain; fear of being physically repulsive and dependent on others; fear of seeing one’s life as a failure in some important aspect.


Reading these words, a summary of the teachings of a man who lived twenty-five centuries ago, reminds me of how little the human predicament has changed over those many years, and how common and fundamental to life is a small core of issues. Pop culture in the twenty-first century lags way behind the Buddha in understanding what really makes human beings tick, or maybe makes them stop ticking.

So, if you feel a little decrepitude coming on, look it in the eye, describe it in your journal, and embrace the dickens out of it. Decrepitude isn’t the enemy.

Illusion is.

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