By John Lee Pendall
Old age tends to take all of us by surprise, even though it shouldn’t.
Getting old is one of the few things we can be relatively certain of in life, but it’s easy to put it on the back burner. Just like how childhood is preparation for adulthood, adulthood prepares us for elderhood. Instead of spending our days mindlessly bouncing around, it’s healthy to take practical steps that will make seniority easier.
My grandma and my dad have two things in common.
1) I love them both, and 2) Neither of them has taken the time to figure out their passions or their purpose. Passion is purpose; everything else is bullshit. The more passions you have, the more meaningful and engaging life is going to be.
There are millions of things we can be passionate about, but they basically fall into three categories: active, appreciative, and contemplative. If you invest time and energy into saving up passions, then old age is going to be brighter for you, and you’ll feel younger longer.
We’re taught to plan for the financial burdens of old age, but no one ever talks about the most insidious burden: time.
It doesn’t matter how much money you’ve saved if you don’t have anything meaningful to spend your time on. That’s why so many people get sick or die shortly after they retire—we literally die of boredom. Boredom is ground zero for almost all the terrible shit we think, do, and feel. Why did my cat knock my coffee cup off the counter? Because the adorable little monster was bored.
If you’re bored at 20, 30, or 40 years old when you can actually do things with relative ease, imagine how bored you’re going to be when you’re 80 and can’t even get out of bed in the morning without fracturing five bones and shitting your pants. Don’t think you’ll ever shit your pants? You will—everyone does eventually.
We’ve got to prepare ourselves for the pants-shitting, bone-splitting, light-sleeping, slow-moving world that awaits us. It’s not going to be some other person who experiences those things. It’s going to be you, the person reading this. It’s going to be part of your story.
The best way to prepare for the existential nightmare of growing old is by cultivating passions when we’re young. My grandma is struggling because it’s difficult for her to examine herself now, and introspection is the way we unearth the things we’re passionate about, the things that make life meaningful.
She spent almost all of her time working, and the little hobbies she developed (like doing puzzles and sewing), she did for the grandkids. Now that that grandkids are adults, those hobbies don’t seem fulfilling anymore. Our most enduring passions are the ones that don’t depend on other people. My dad is in his 50’s. He still has a chance at finding meaning, as long as he’s willing to disrupt his old routines while branching out and trying new things.
If you really don’t know what you care about in life (because you haven’t had the time to investigate it), then we can make a cheat sheet.
Active passions are action-orientated. Making music, writing, painting, dancing, social activism, having sex, swimming, playing with the dog, and taking care of your family are all active passions. Active passion is the most obvious way to give our lives meaning because they keep us busy. The problem is that some of them can get tricky when we get older. If you’re passionate about jogging, for instance, be prepared to let that go when you can’t do it anymore. If not, then you’ll end up miserable.
Appreciative passions are harder for time to steal. Listening to music, reading, having a zest for romance, enjoying silence and nature, meditating and drinking coffee all involve appreciation. Appreciative passion is stronger because it depends less on specific interests, and more on our ability to be passionate people in general. This is the type of passion I’ve spent most of my life on. It’s paid off because the only time I’m bored is if I’m around people who are bored.
That said, the most reliable passion in life is finding meaning in suffering.
Yeah, I know we took a dark turn there, but you’ll be alright. Life involves a lot of pain, loss and hardship. That’s not going to stop. It’s probably going to get worse. Life isn’t easy. Sometimes it’s a struggle to muster up the will to get out of bed. Our job is to figure out what our life’s lesson is, to see what all this suffering can teach us and how we can use that lesson to make our life story our passion. That’s contemplative passion. We can take that one with us to our deathbeds.
There’s no one-size fits all to any of this. We’ve all got to figure out what turns us on on our own, and—for the most part—we don’t get to choose what we’re passionate about. We can only choose if we’re willing to figure it out or not. That opens up a fourth passion: self-actualization, being passionate about finding passions.
It’s entirely possible to live a meaningful life by dedicating your life to finding meaning.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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He has a B.S. in psychology and lives between two cornfields in rural Illinois. His errant knowledge base covers Buddhism, philosophy, psychology, astronomy, theology, music theory, and quoting lines from movies.
Feel free to check out his Facebook page, and his blog "Salty Dharma".