Of a Certain Age: A Reflection On Growing Old

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
-Robert Frost

A quick google search results in the following definition for the somewhat antiquated idiom of a certain age: “not yet old but no longer young.” I can certainly testify to the “no longer young” part. And I choose to remain in denial about the “not yet old.”
The famed developmental psychologist Erik Erikson taught us that every life transition has its own challenge, and the challenge of old age is to achieve a level of integrity, the sense that in spite of all the sins of the past one can look back and say, I did some good, I’m OK. If not achieved, Erikson added, the result is despair, which we more familiarly experience as deep depression.

No one has offered a more poignant cinematic example of the importance of integrity during the closing years of life than Steven Spielberg in the opening and closing scenes of his Oscar-winning World War II epic, Saving Private Ryan. In the first part of the scene, which opens the movie, Private Ryan is now “of a certain age” and has returned to Normandy to find the grave of Captain John Miller, who lost his life in the mission to save him. Spielberg plays out the scene for maximum effect: We see the elderly Ryan advancing toward the cemetery, his wife a step or two behind—it is his pilgrimage, after all, and she defers to him in this moment of truth. Behind them are their adult children and grandchildren, the younger of whom indicate no awareness of the import of what is taking place. The camera pans the thousands of stone markers, bare crosses and Stars of David, otherwise identical save for the names of the fallen soldiers. Ryan finds the captain’s grave and, weeping, drops to his knees. The scene then shifts to Omaha beach and the Normandy invasion, followed by the titular search, which takes up the bulk of the story. Mission completed, the movie returns to the aged Ryan kneeling at Captain Miller’s grave. He rises, turns to his wife, and implores her in words that have no doubt defined his life mission: Tell me I’m a good man.Tell me that I lived a good life, one worthy of this man dying for me. Assured that it is so, Ryan turns again toward the grave, straightens himself to attention, and salutes the man who saved him. And the movie closes.
I have never been able to describe that scene with dry eyes. Can you imagine reaching the closing years of your life and wondering if you have lived in a manner worthy of another man’s giving his life for you?

I am glad that any claim to integrity that I might deserve will not be measured against the value of someone dying for me. I need only repent for a life of self-obsession, self-absorption, careless insensitivities, and a multitude of poor decisions (and a few godawful ones), with the occasional good deed thrown in to keep things somewhat in balance. Frankly, that’s enough of a burden to carry, and my prayer is that I have enough years left to make up for the sins of the first seventy.