Getting old is a privilege

Prague Leaders Magazine, September 2006

When my friend Valentina turned 40 years old, she celebrated this important milestone in her life by asking all her female friends to tell her everything that is great about getting older, while at the same time telling her everything that wasn’t so great about being considered “over the hill”. At first I was at a loss for something meaningful to say: Aging is an irreversible process and everyone perceives it according to their own background, culture or upbringing.

As a child I couldn’t wait to grow up. I thought that being a grownup would finally allow me to do what I wanted to do instead of always doing what adults told me to do. Like many people, I don’t remember my adolescence as being the most comfortable period of my life and to be honest, I have absolutely no desire to return to my twenties. But by the time I turned thirty, my life had developed into something quite interesting and rewarding. I had learned to let go of many fears and insecurities and was able to enjoy my life much more. By the time I reached my thirties, I felt that I had finally made it. But to my surprise, life got even better when I turned forty.

So all I could think of saying when Valentina asked me about the benefits of getting old is that it is a privilege and those of us who are lucky enough to be alive and healthy at forty have many reasons to be happy and grateful for their situation. Many of us like to think that we will be young forever and we often take our youth for granted until we reach a milestone in our lives where we are reminded that life is both a gift and a privilege.

When I met my friend Tony in 1989 he had just been diagnosed with HIV soon after his 32nd birthday. At the beginning of his illness I watched him struggle with his new reality. He even went as far as to bravely prepare his own funeral, which he assumed would happen sooner than later. Although he was convinced that he had only a few years to live, he didn’t give up on life. He threw himself into the battle against AIDS and became one of the most prominent AIDS activists in Canada. And to his own surprise, he was still alive eight years later to celebrate his 40th birthday. Sixteen years have passed since he was first diagnosed, and although Tony must still live with the disease, he is as healthy as anyone carrying the HIV virus can be. As always, he is still living life to the fullest and is making plans for the future: He is currently looking to buy an apartment of his own. He is not planning his funeral anymore, he is planning his life. And with that he reminds us all that getting old is a privilege as it means that we are alive.

Being alive can be a challenge, but it also brings many opportunities. Over the years, I have learned to welcome any opportunities to learn something new and exciting. I recently took up golf as my new hobby and have set myself the goal of becoming the best public speaker I can be. I have learned to enjoy the challenge of getting up in front of a roomful of my peers, controlling my natural anxiety and speaking about issues I am passionate about in front of a large group of people.

Most people aren’t very comfortable speaking in front of an audience. Even members of the Toastmasters club I belong to feel anxious when they are asked to stand up and deliver a speech in front of other members. But they know that public speaking is a skill that can be learned and that with regular practice and the support of others, they can overcome their fears, gain newfound confidence and better themselves both personally and professionally. It takes more than a few speeches to begin to master the art of public speaking, but most members, regardless of their age and skill level, understand that attending regularly Toastmasters meetings is a fantastic opportunity to challenge themselves and build self confidence. As I get older, I value the opportunity to learn and improve myself much more than I did when I was young. Getting old is a privilege as it means that we can still learn, grow and broaden our horizons.

But being alive, learning and growing takes on a whole new meaning when we can share what we have learned with others. Getting older not only means more opportunities to learn, but also to pass on our knowledge, experience and ideas to those around us.

Because of this I am very happy to be a member of the first Toastmasters club in Prague, the Prague Speaker Club, as it gives me the chance to share my knowledge and experience with my fellow Toastmasters or anyone else who attends our weekly meetings. Getting old is a privilege as it gives us the opportunity to give and share our knowledge and experience with others Of course, my friend Valentina also asked to know about the downside of growing older. Having put so much thought into what it is I like about growing old, I found myself at a loss in coming up with a few good reasons why turning 40 might not be something to celebrate.

Of course, I must admit that I don’t particularly like what the aging process does to my body. Nor do I like the fact that I have much less energy than I used to. But there is very little I can do to influence this natural process: I just try to maintain a healthy lifestyle and develop good habits such as regular exercise and a healthy diet while reducing stress in my professional life.

But I still prefer to celebrate the benefits that the getting older brings, rather than dwelling on the negative aspects of the aging process. The fact is that the prospect of getting old is something that we must all eventually confront. How successfully we are in doing this comes down to the way we perceive getting older. Deepak Chopra, a proponent of the Indian Maharishi Ayurveda system of healing, said that after 40, we have the chance to choose the life we really want to lead. Since first reading that, I have always tried to identify everything that “life after 40” offers that “life under 40” couldn’t. Taken from this perspective, the old saying “Youth is wasted on the young” often rings very true.

Very soon I’ll be reaching the half-century mark. While I sometimes have a hard time believing that almost fifty years of my life have already passed, I am also very much looking forward what new adventures this new phase of my life will bring. And if the past is any indication of what the future holds, I know that I will have many opportunities to learn, to grow and to share with those around me.

Be happy and rejoice: Getting old is a privilege!!

Originally published in Prague Leaders Magazine.