By Jennifer Richardson
I had the privilege of celebrating another birthday this month, which brought me to the grand age of fifty-one. I say grand, because the sixth decade of life has proven to be pretty fabulous so far.
My 51st anniversary of my birth will always be a special memory for me because some special people came to see me. When my parents asked me what I would like for my birthday, I simply said, please come for a weekend visit. They did, and it was wonderful to see them in person.
Spending time with the people who gave me life reminded me of how well they have aged. My mom is still beautiful and gracious, and my dad is still offering uncommon wisdom and substantive conversation. I had to remind myself that it would be inconsiderate to keep them up until the wee hours of the morning, just to continue enjoying their company.
When I am not with my lovely parents, I see others who do not embrace advancing years in such a kind hearted manner. Aging in general seems to be portrayed as something to be disgruntled about, a sad fact of the passage of time, accompanied by a host of ailments and complaints that discourage even the conversations they touch.
My experience of aging has been altogether different. Yes, I have been through tough times, I have noticed the aches and pains, and I acknowledge the challenges of keeping up with the youngsters in my life. But the freedom that comes with aging makes it all worth it, and then some.
I remember the dog days of my late twenties when I was a young mother of three and I stayed up until midnight cleaning my house in case a visitor stopped by the next morning. The thought of anyone seeing my house in less than perfect condition caused an internal crisis. Time has given me permission to leave the dishes in the sink for a day or two. Years with children have taught me that it is more important to sit with my daughters and talk with them than it is to have a perfect house.
The social rules that govern our lives have a looser grip on me these days. There was a time years ago when I would not have dreamed of taking regular phone calls from a male friend. But when a longtime friend lost his job, his baby, his health, and thoughts of taking his own life had crossed his mind- I understood that sometimes people just need to be listened to and supported, no matter what anyone thinks about it. As I stare down the barrel of impending decades, I will spend less time worrying about what people will think of my decisions, and I will be less judgmental about the actions and motivations of others.
I have discovered in the last few years that I don’t have to spend my life engaged in pursuits that don’t fill me up. It’s encouraging to realize you have the choice to abandon behaviors and situations that don’t lead to positive outcomes. It is better to make less money and work with great people who lift you up and help you be the most you can be. I am feeling the autonomy to choose jobs, activities, pursuits, and friends that make my life better and light me up. In so doing I have learned that ultimately it’s my responsibility to find my own happiness and fill myself up in order to give to others. I am free to make my own weather and carry it with me.
Perhaps the greatest liberty of my last decade has been waking up to the gentle but amazing realization that I am free from the need for others to constantly approve of me. I can remember agonizing over my own poorly worded comment, or time wasted wondering if the unpleasant tone in someone’s voice meant they didn’t like me despite the polite words we exchanged. Not everyone needs to like me. I do not seek conflict with anyone, and with my mother as my example, gracious treatment of others is a personal goal—but no one has to like me and it’s ok if they don’t. I am not defined by how others see me. I am free to be myself.
With the guidance of my parents, I have learned that a joyful life has a beauty that is impossible to find otherwise. I can honestly say the years have been kind to me but not in the sense that we usually hear those words uttered. The kindness has been in the form of quietly loosening the chains that would keep me tethered to a life someone else might choose.
So I am glad to be in my fifties. I embrace the passage of time and celebrate with my much-loved mother and father, and everyone who has the blessing of another birthday this year. Aging is kindness itself, the freedom to grow, change, and be more of who we were born to be.