Aging has changed my life. I am no longer who I used to be. Hardships, illness, and experience have turned me inside out. I wander through a world transformed. Growth has altered my viewpoint, as well as my capabilities. With wrinkles, has come insight, from uncertainty, acceptance, and with the big picture, some greater humility.
I am more the man I imagined myself to be than ever. As I arrive, I show up more, and live out the gift that grows me. It has taken a long time to become full enough to be empty. Now, I have something to surrender. The loss of giving in, with time, has blossomed into something unimaginable and miraculous. The paring processes of Life have reduced me into something useful.
As I reflect upon the improbability of my ripening I often turn with delight and inspiration to the life and death of Nelson Mandela. From radical firebrand and revolutionary, to statesman, from prison cell, to architect of multi-racial freedom. As an elderly man he showed the way. The life he led, filled with loss and heartbreak, added up to world changing. None of what he did seemed possible, or likely, yet now apartheid is a relic of another era. Aging changed his life, and then he went on to change the world.
The improbable does happen, with the right amount of aging, ordinary people become sensational. Nelson Mandela is a great example. The elder he became, old and wise, has shown me more than empowerment — his example reveals the way Life changes itself!
A little talked about characteristic of Nelson’s life is the degree to which he, as a wise elder, practiced dispensability. Nelson chose multi-racial governance over the politics of division, because he knew that freedom would grow faster and more complete in the former. A one-term president, he also knew that for independence to reign, the struggle had to be about freedom not him. So, when he could have had power, he stepped back. This endeared him to the people, and made freedom a real possibility. He realized, what comes hard to all of us, that Life is the active ingredient, and that what is crucial is not him.
This is the realization of an older person. Nelson was 71 when he came out of prison, 75 by the time he became President of South Africa. By achieving greatness as an older, oft frustrated man, he embodied a different awareness. One aspect of this different wiser awareness, is the realization that the struggle to achieve a self, is so that self can be given.
The very dispensability of one’s life is the greatest affirmation of a larger life. Giving the self, once it has ripened, is elder wisdom, and the apotheosis of maturation. Life feeds on this achievement, and evolves in new ways because of it. Life changes when we do.
Nelson shows us our possibilities. Locked out of the world, character still grows. More than anyone else recently, he shows us how much freedom is ultimately an inside job. Old people know this more than others. Life, like it did with Nelson, shapes the self with all manner of trials, but the final vital ingredient is the willingness to go, the will to surrender, to become dispensable, and to paradoxically, become useful.
Practice surrender, not for peace of mind. But, because surrendering is a great activist attribute.
I’ve come recently to think that the Tao Te Ching was written by an elder. Who else but a wise old elder, who had achieved a kind of paradoxical awareness, could have written it. Lao Tzu would have a way of summarizing Nelson’s achievement. He would have said something like, “The way to be something indispensable is to become dispensable,” or, “out of nothing comes something.”
I am only glad I have lived long enough to glimpse how this can be true.