Ridiculous: I Get Happier as I Get Older?

Carla Seaquist
9 min readFeb 15, 2023
Julian Lozano / Unsplash

I know, I know, this is ridiculous, this should not be the case:

Conventional wisdom tells us that, as we get older, life becomes a slog — an unhappy, lonely, increasingly pointless slog. Anecdotes galore attest to this unhappy state: allegations of ageism in a hostile workplace, the elderly “warehoused” in sterile institutions, the lack of respect accorded seniors.

Popular culture highlights this “geezer” theme. But so do serious artists: Writer Philip Roth wrote of aging as a “massacre” of bodily powers, while Thomas Pynchon’s main theme is “entropy,” the general wearing-down of everything over time. Joy is not much cited.

And of course we have Shakespeare on the “seven ages of man,” Jacques’ speech in “As You Like It”: There is the “mewling” infant”; the “whining” schoolboy with “shining morning face”; the lover “sighing” over his mistress’ eyebrow; the soldier “quick in quarrel, seeking the bubble reputation”; then “the justice in fair round belly,” “full of wise saws and modern instances”; then the shift, at the sixth stage, to man in “slipper’d pantaloon,” lost in a “world too wide, for his shrunk shank”; and finally, the “second childishness and mere oblivion / Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

And that’s if you are a man. If you are a woman, entropy starts at age 40, goes the conventional wisdom, when everything starts falling apart dramatically, all joy gone forever, along with your fast-fading looks. Which bilge I imbibed, even though I am feminist…until, deeper into my 40s, I realized: Hang on, this is not the end, this is the beginning — of depth, of richness of experience, of real wisdom (fie on the conventional kind).

Now that I am into my 70s, past the midpoint: How is it I get even happier as I get older? Let me, gratefully, count the ways. Doing so, I am keenly aware that this happiness of mine is provisional: I know I am one stroke or drunk driver or falling boulder away from a radically altered being. But I proceed, in hopes that my subtotaling of accounts may inspire new thinking in others treading the latter stages of life.

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Security, medical and financial, is top of mind at this age. Happily I have both. While I have lived with cancer for 18 years, and recent scans show a cancerous nodule in a lung has grown “markedly” in a year, in my defense Seattle Cancer Care Alliance will “pull the trigger” on an experimental drug. To address my other medical problem, vision — Shakespeare’s “sans everything” applies — I got myself into the comprehensive eyecare clinic at our military hospital. As for financial security: After “draconian” saving — for a full decade, no unnecessary consumption or travel — my husband Larry and I could pay off our home mortgage, which enabled other payoffs, which means today: zero debt. Ah, security. I sympathize deeply with those who, saving equally diligently, cannot get there.

Another kind of security: making the big life-decisions — finally. Over the Holidays, following our family gathering where the main topic was “next steps,” Larry and I finally decided: We will stay in our home — perfect set-up for two writers — for as long as possible, then hire medical help as needed. As the ace-in-the-hole for our survivor, we will buy a condo. Meanwhile, we start downsizing the contents of this house now. It was after making these big life-decisions that I started exclaiming, “I feel so much lighter.” No more joking about “the croak theory”: getting those monkeys off the back elevates.

But all the security in the world means little if there are gaping wounds with the beloveds in your life. As attested by a long-term study much in the news about what constitutes a happy life, it is our relationships that count the most. In big part, I find that to be true.

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Framing everything for me is the contrast between my present life and my unhappy childhood, when I was the go-between for my estranged parents, a role that made me old at twelve. While I derived some good from the struggle — it was in that No Man’s Land between my parents that I forged my moral consciousness — I would wish that childhood on no-one. In that early struggle, I was my father’s defender, which in turn estranged Mom and me for four (4) decades. It was my determination that my mother and I would not end up as Tragedy — endpoint of all great Drama since the ancient Greeks — that enabled me, with Mom cooperating, to repair our primal bond, as I describe in my forthcoming memoir, “Across the Kitchen Table: A Mother and Daughter Turn Tragedy into Peace.”

This contrasting is natural: Larry, whose childhood was happy, marveled at the heights “this farm-boy from Oregon” scaled in the U.S. Navy and state legislature. When I look back now, it is from atop Mt. Parnassus, looking down on a dark valley. The contrast is heady, but, having parsed the pain with Mom, it gives me mercy, what the French call pitié. And if I may insert here: If you have unfinished business with a beloved, repair it now, before illness comes. Too many “offload” their “toxic” relationships, but how can you offload a primal relationship and live contentedly? Repairing my primal bond with Mom was the most difficult thing I ever did. But the pride I feel, and the wonder: I have no idea how I did it — not the writing about it which was easy; nor the rebuilding, which once underway was actually enjoyable (what mystery would we solve next?); but the sad childhood. And to think my heart kept beating for me through all that sorrow. Oh the wonder. And no wonder I did not have children, a hard decision I cannot regret.

Also elevating is my marriage to Larry, now in its 45th year. It took a disastrous first marriage to “Mr. Right,” lasting all of eight months (and long at that), to make a feminist of me and appreciate Mr. Much Better. As an organizer of the women’s caucus at the Brookings Institution, I got Larry’s attention: tailored lady rabblerousing for Justice. Ever since, Larry has been my champion. When I shifted from civil rights to my ultimate goal, writing, I faltered, but Larry insisted I keep going: “You are a writer through and through.” Over time, Larry’s worldview became my own: No more tragic sense of life, I now work my sword-arm like Larry’s Happy Warrior. Our ultimate security is our safe harbor of a marriage. We are each other’s compagno de vita, shoulder to shoulder on the Road of Life, our eyes on the same goal. We are agreed: As long as America is in the grave trouble it now is, we will not retire, but stay in the saddle, serving up stratagems to get us to higher ground.

Friendships are key to happiness, as the above-cited study attests. So is a Jewish godmother; mine was truly my guardian. The circumstantial friendships in my life have, with changed circumstances, gone by the board. The friendships with an internal contradiction at their heart are also gone, some painfully, but their sundering I ascribe to the pain in my former friend’s life. (Included in this loss is the friend who taught me the value of wit. The ironies of life.) The friendships that endure, old and newer, are the ones in which we share the same values: We care deeply for this troubled country — some actively engaged in salvaging it, while others, retired, wish us well. With all, laughter is easy, but so is turning serious. With these precious friends, I heed Samuel Johnson’s advice, to keep one’s friendships “in constant repair.”

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Yet: Even all this — my rich friendships, my excellent marriage, the rebuilt primal bond with Mom — does not entirely account for the zest with which I greet each day. To recall my college reading of David Riesman’s “The Lonely Crowd”: For the “outer-directed” person, relationships are all — and all blessings on that person. But for the “inner-directed,” our work, or more to the point our mission, is the driver. Plus, I really enjoy my own company.

One hopes, as one sets out in Life, that the path we take will, at the proverbial end of the day, culminate in meaning, contribute to the good. Like Pascal’s wager in the existence of God, we take that wager, knowingly or not, hoping for a life well-lived. But of course we know that, given sickness or other misfortune or a world altered beyond one’s ken, it does not work out for every pilgrim.

For myself: I feel I have miles to go and much to give as a commentator — especially at this low juncture when Tragedy looms ahead for America the Beautiful. I love America, the beautiful idea of it, but, through the post-World War II era, I have seen this beautiful idea — of freedom and liberty — abused, not valued properly. The right’s lawlessness and irrationality pose the greatest peril, but the left’s cynicism does not help, nor do dystopian storylines or a “wild and crazy” pop culture. To avert Tragedy, which I know something about doing, we need to mature, to grow up. It means more hard work, but I always understood life to be struggle (got that right!). I relish the struggle. Another thing I got right, but only belatedly: My International Relations major, which I never used, per se, but which informs my outlook now. I understand the rise and fall of great nations, the role of power. And like any small-d democrat, I understand Vladimir Putin’s assault on Ukraine as an assault on the rules-based international order.

In this endeavor, my value-added is this: I am not afraid to raise or make the moral point. This capacity, so hard-earned in that No Man’s Land between my estranged parents, has caused heartburn with my cohorts, the liberal left and the boomers, both for whom to be judgmental is a no-no. But: Without a capacity to make moral judgments, to reckon with the rightness and wrongness of things, we end up with…Donald Trump. Trump is as much a product of our “Breaking Bad” culture as our politics, an ongoing theme of mine. I write for “the conscientious public,” a term I coined long ago.

Thus, I am one happy commentator. I feel equal to this moment of high-stakes tension: Can America save itself from decline? Can the democratic world save itself from tyrants? I am guessing Yes, but it will take reckoning on many fronts — political, cultural, racial, sexual, spiritual, moral — all subjects in my kit-bag. Which means, purely in terms of material, enormous variety. Which also means, harking back to Shakespeare, I do not feel lost in a “world too wide.” I thank Heaven I can give scope to this drive. It all makes me feel necessary and thus hauls me out of bed every day — primed, full of purpose. At a recent high-school reunion, I told a dear friend that I always knew I’d be a writer, but I thought it would be novels. “Who knew,” I said, “that I’d be writing commentary to save the Republic and the world?” And he said, knowingly: “We knew.”

We are engaged in a great enterprise: saving America, saving the rules-based international order. The drama is such, I cannot look away. The stakes are such, I must stay at my workbench.

Happily. Gratefully. Blessedly.

Ridiculously.

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Carla Seaquist

Our times examined via politics, culture, morality. Author, "Can America Save Itself from Decline?" (Vol. II). Playwright. Fmr. HuffPost. www.carlaseaquist.com.