Getting Old

A few years ago, I remember watching some late night show when Bill Cosby came on to do stand-up. He walked on stage slowly, sat down in a chair, and then gave a spiel about how much it sucks to get old. I don’t remember all of it clearly, but the opening went something like, “When I was a boy, I could not wait to grow up, because I thought that when I was grown-up I was going to get to do all the things adults told me I couldn’t do as a boy. And then I grew up, and yes, I was allowed to do all those things I’d wanted to when I was younger, but I no longer felt like it because all I felt was tired.” He goes on to describe the way his body now aches, the weird things that the body does when you pass a certain age that you never thought the body was supposed to do, and then somewhere in the midst of some awkward laughter, he declares, “Oh, see, you’re laughing now, but you won’t be laughing. No, you won’t be laughing when you’re my age.”

As I get older and turn thirty this year, that late night moment resonates with me more than I wish it did. Thirty is probably the wrong age to start facing the downward slope toward your own death (if “downward” is the right way to put that). But I think it’s just the right age to realize that you’re no longer allowed to take your health for granted.

Last week, I was diagnosed with “thinning of the retina,” and today I discovered that I have a hole in my retina and two lacerations in each eye. I had to fight my insurance company over whether or not they would cover surgery (that’s a whole other blog post), but the good news is that I caught the tears before the retina detached and before I went blind. Many people don’t. (And the other good news is that I’m not even sure you could call the surgery “surgery,” since it’s really more like lightsaber eye stitches that patch up the holes.)

I guess the irony for me, as I was sitting in the doctor’s office listening to Sugar Ray’s Someday, was that I had devoted so much energy in the Peace Corps to improving people’s vision, but for all the free glasses I gave away, the thousand-something vision tests we did, I made the mistake of thinking, “These are problems that happen to people who are not me.” At the time, I was wishy-washy about having made a difference for a few folks, but now that I know I could’ve gone blind if I hadn’t caught the holes in my retina early, I have gained an earnest appreciation for why that work was so important and for what it really meant to people. Of course, giving someone glasses can’t improve something like a retinal detachment, but we all have to do what we can, however small that is, and the small contribution I tried to make in Morocco is one I understand even better now that I’m Stateside facing my own eye issues.

Still, as I’m wont to do, always brooding, I sat in the doctor’s office tossing over how precious my health is and how easily it floats away from us, and it occurred to me that each of us are only given a short time, in the grand scheme of things, to live on this earth and do anything with whatever it is we call our life. I think part of my difficulty finding the right job (or any job) is connected a bit to that existential crisis – you know, you don’t want to waste any of your time doing the wrong thing in the wrong place or the wrong way. Add in the fact that there are so many things we can do, so many directions we can take, and it’s a recipe for a lot of confusion. Maybe we limit ourselves a little bit by what school we went to and what degrees we hold, but I think we’re only limited by how much we’re willing to let society carve those boundaries. By how much we believe we’re limited.

I want to do it all. I don’t want to be limited by a job or a family or money or borders or people who say no. I’d walk the whole planet helping people in little ways, if I could. Then, one day, when I’m old, I can sit back and be cranky and say, “I’m too tired for this crap.” But that day isn’t here just yet. So, why do I find myself sitting down like Bill Cosby feeling like it is?

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