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Age gracefully, and leave your toys behind

A fond memory from childhood popped up in my head the other day.

The neighbourhood kids were all out playing, as was the norm back then. There were no “devices” available to us other than makeshift toys, perhaps a ball or two. Entertainment was confined to a single cartoon show from the Voice of Kenya once a day—and hardly anyone in the street possessed a television set.

So we entertained ourselves, playing age-old games and inventing new ones.

Through the melee that day, I spotted a distant figure walking towards us from the bus stop. She had just jumped off a bus and was carrying something heavy in her hands. It was my grandmother. Now, grandma was a formidable figure, a strict disciplinarian who brooked no nonsense. All the kids of the hood feared her—as did their parents. So the play stopped quickly, and we fell silent as she got closer.

But wait, was that a big smile on her face? And what was that she was carrying with her? A gleaming, brand-new tricycle, with multicoloured ribbon streamers on the handlebars? We all waited, agog. She walked right up to me, her infant grandchild, and put the trike down in front of me. Then she walked away.

Pandemonium and cheers erupted as all the little ones took turns to ride the shiny new thing that had landed in our lives. I think back and wonder: granny took a bus all the way into town, to the only toy shop in the city of those days, paid for the best three-wheeler she could afford, and lugged it all the way back, alone.

Childhoods light up with moments like those.

I write this today not to reminisce, but to make a different point. After a year or so, we all outgrew that tricycle. Now we were at the age for two-wheelers. Only one girl on our street had parents who could afford a good bicycle, and one day a red Raleigh Chopper bike—it was all the rage in those days—appeared. Children came from far and wide to ride that beauty.

After that, we lost interest in bikes and yearned for cars. Some who got reconditioned boy racers would take their buddies out for spins. Then, as we got into employment, we transitioned from whiz cars to status signallers to family carriers over the years. As situations changed and conditions altered, we evolved.

Now picture this. What if you saw me, today, still riding that tricycle from years back? Would I not look ridiculous? And would I not fail to move more than a few feet, if that? And yet, that is what so many folks are stuck in—the toys and pursuits of their distant pasts.

The Bible puts it well: “When I became a man, I put away childish things.” I have written before of the Hindu philosophy of the four stages of life: studying the world; being of the world; withdrawing from the world; finally, renouncing the world.

Too many of us, however, stay stuck in the thrills and payoffs of the first two stages—our earlier epochs. We loved the play, discovery and adventure of those days, and we don’t want to lose those feelings. And so we keep trying to look young, dress young, behave young—and end up being both ridiculous and ineffective, just as I would be sitting on my old tricycle.

In our businesses, too, the old thrills hold us in their grip. Founders love the unbridled control of the startup, and struggle to share decision-making power. Successful companies think their winning formulae of way-back-then will fuel their future growth as well. Boards comfortable in the good old ways fail to hand over to those who can understand the new.

There is a season for everything. You plant in one season, harvest in another, and leave the field when your time comes. We must age gracefully. It is nonsensical for an older person to be known for strength or energy or aggression or virility. Those are the arenas of the young. There is a new treasury of attributes available to the old, if they can find it. From those who have seen many seasons, we want different things: the wisdom that comes from having done much; the serenity to not be perturbed by every new development; the calming of desires and appetites so that a deeper reflection can occur.

The young cannot be the old—they have not seen or understood enough. The elderly also cannot be the young—they no longer have the vim and vigour. But both can coexist and cooperate using their unique strengths and assets.

So age gracefully, or you will be the silly old codger still trying to relive what is already long gone. Dismount from the tricycle, no matter how much you loved it.

(Sunday Nation, 3 October 2021)

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