My best friend’s 16-year old daughter is facing one of the toughest decisions of her young life.
Jennifer is a scholar and a talented soccer player, ranked sixth in her state, destined for a scholarship to a Division I school.
Like most talented players who want to hone their skills in the off-season, Jennifer joined a traveling team led by a Division I college coach. Soon thereafter, the team was on its way to a winning season, and Jennifer was the star player.
In an effort to motivate the players, the coach employed cruel tactics, and since Jennifer was his “best” player, she was his prime target. Interventions by her parents and others did not result in any change; Jennifer asked her parents if she could quit the team.
She was not taking the decision lightly. She loved soccer, but now the experience was no longer fun; rather, it was emotionally upsetting.
Jennifer asked herself some tough questions. How will my teammates feel if I quit? Will my leaving affect the team’s chances for winning the season?
Will not playing with a talented college coach in the offseason affect my ability to get into a Division I school? What will my leaving say about my character? Will it mean that I embody self-esteem and won’t tolerate abuse, or will it brand me as a quitter?
These are pretty tough questions for a 16-year-old.
All this played in my mind as I attended the Positive Aging Conference in Los Angeles last week. One of the keynote speakers was Wendy Lustbader, an academic, a social worker and the author of “Life Gets Better: The Unexpected Pleasures of Growing Older.”
Some might feel that’s a funny title: What gets better as we grow older? Indeed, Lustbader contends that, except for health, all domains of life get better.
She jokes about doing everything but a striptease to encourage incoming students to study gerontology—the social, psychological and biological aspects of aging—because it is such a rich field of study and one that has huge human potential.
While incoming students might see a career in gerontology as a downer, Lustbader sees it differently.
She says, “Aging can provide the wisdom and experience to live life more richly, boldly and with a renewed sense of purpose.”
Some of the tidbits I heard from Lustbader reflect my own experience with seniors.
“Elders are no strangers to loss and grief,” Lustbader says. “Grieving wakes us up to the beauty of the world. With age, we have the skills to bear it and the wisdom to exceed it. Elders can experience an incredible awareness that grows with each loss.”
She spoke about how our sense of humor keeps growing in later life.
I experience this with my dad, who last week turned 82. In middle age he was an engineer without much of a sense of humor. Now he uses a wheelchair due to Parkinson’s disease, and he often makes my mom and me laugh heartily at his witty observations about life.
Lustbader says, “In later life, we become bolder than ever before as many of us say, ‘If not now, when?’ Deep change is the provenance of later years.”
I think of young Jennifer, who must make such an important decision without years of wisdom or experience behind her. If she quits the team, how will she deal with the loss without the skills to bear it? I would not want to be in her shoes.
Today I see the potential of aging—the wisdom, experience, humor and ability to take risks that come with age.
I am eager for the potential of aging. I think Lustbader is right: As we get older, life does get better.
I wish for young Jennifer the skills to bear her challenge and the wisdom to exceed it.
Lord knows, life is tough enough as a teenager.