Inner Old Man, 2

By John Mattingly

Getting old is supposed to be “no fun.” My Inner Old Man (IOM) hears this all the time from various uninformed folks who have failed to grasp that life is a terminal disease.

Meaning: the Right to Life advocates have it backwards. Death begins at conception, not birth. The only guarantee that comes with birth is death. There are those who hope for eternal life, but as far as IOM can tell, this expectation is based solely on belief, and, as should be obvious, only fictions require belief. Reality does not.

Besides, life without death has no meaning. Immortality would be a state of unbearable lassitude in which you would have too much time to do everything on your list, and therefore would have no motivation to do anything until tomorrow, which repeats relentlessly into eternity, depriving you of necessity. Death is necessary for anything to have meaning in time.

Despite this unforgiving irony of life, we rise with the sun and struggle. We learn, build, strive, give and take. Some of us try to leave the world a little bit better than we found it, and still others try to reduce the suffering of others who, like all of us, are living with the irony that we will spend a lifetime doing and learning, only to die and stop doing, and finally: forget everything.

Given this astounding absurdity, it’s little wonder that some people dull themselves with drugs, or distract the pending doom with wild adventures, or, sadly, become deliberately destructive. This is where getting in touch with one’s IOM can be a big help. Or, as the case may be, one’s Inner Old Woman.

Old age is the time when a person no longer has to worry about being a withering sprout, a struggling adolescent, or a confused middle-aged groper. Old age has the benefits of accrued experience, some of which translates into wisdom. It’s arguably the best time of one’s life.

People champion the virtues of youth, chief among them being that a young person “has their whole life ahead of them.” Yuck. People should look forward to the time when they “have most of their life behind them.” Do you really want to be in diapers again, or falling off a bike, or jilted by heartless teenagers, or drinking your first beer? Put in perspective, would you rather be diddling your backpack at the trailhead or bracing yourself against the winds near the summit?

We shudder and wince, pitying our children as they go through the terrible hoops and trials of youth, and then turn around and wish we were young again? Not this old man who has found his Inner Old Man, that source of inner peace that comes only with age.

Anyone who would want to be young is obviously missing the point. Old age is the omega point in the life cycle of human mammals, who, incidentally, are extremely old as mammals go. Most mammals make it to twenty or thirty years of age, and then, having passed their reproductive prime, sensibly pass away. But humans have defeated their predators, microscopic and mammoth, giving them an unnatural edge.

Unfortunately, not all humans understand that the way to use this wealth of additional time is to share the wisdom. Instead, old people are more easily forgiven than respected, more easily tolerated than cherished.

I once associated with an old rancher who specialized in buying and selling old cows. While all his neighbors were bidding up the sleek young cows, he hung back and bought the old down-in-the-backers, the cutters, the canners and the gummers for ten cents on the dollar.

He took the old cows to his ranch and treated them like royalty. His place was like a home for old cows. He fed them good alfalfa, ground corn and oat silage, and they gained weight faster than any feeder steer. When they gained a couple hundred pounds, he took them back to the sale and received a good ticket.

About half the time, one of the old cows would have a calf. He saved the heifer calves from those old cows and built an exceptional herd from them over the years. One time I asked him about his ranching plan, and he said, “Well, I prefer old cows. A cow gets old for a reason, and that reason is she’s a good old cow.”

One day he told me, “Old cows and good old people have a lot in common.”

This wisdom, no doubt, marked an incunabular moment in the disinterment of my Inner Old Man.


John Mattingly cultivates prose, among other things, and was most recently seen near Creede.