Aging and Wistfulness

Before I begin, a caveat: this essay is not just for the over-65 set. People of all ages are aging, and wistfulness can be a feature of any age. But the older you are, the more wistfulness seeps slowly into your awareness, like a subtle fragrance.
That said, I hope that the over-65s, even the over-50s, will follow along with me; I think it will be worthwhile. I write regularly about aging, and have written a couple of books about the subject. I am 75, so the topic is not theoretical for me, or for many of my friends. In my book Aging as a Spiritual Practice, I talk about the moment “lightning strikes,” the moment when suddenly you realize you are getting old. That certainly does happen, particularly if you are hit with a sudden illness or death in your family or in your circle of acquaintance.
But there is a gradual aspect to aging, a slowly shifting coloration, not unlike a sunset that imperceptibly shifts from light pink to a deeper red, and finally a gray dusk. Today I am calling this gradual shift “wistfulness.” Wistfulness is a subtle thing; we may not know that we are feeling it, but I think wistfulness is a defining mark, a near-universal characteristic of aging. Wistfulness is not as strong as regret. Aging people all have regrets for actions not taken, things not said, expectations unfulfilled. Wistfulness is more atmospheric than regret; it is the sense of time passing and future possibilities narrowing. It is, you might say, the flavor of aging. It is not an entirely unpleasant flavor; some aspects of it are bitter, and some are, if not pleasing, at least piquant, like a rare spice.
Wistfulness is also delicate; we can sense it best when, on the whole, things are going well in our life. If we are actually dealing with a difficulty, or a crisis, those more immediate concerns overwhelm wistfulness. Wistfulness is, at least in part, a remembrance of paths not taken, moments in your past when you could have gone left, but instead went right. Ever after, there is always an intimation—sometimes only in our dreams—of what going to the right might have been like. Along with this can arise another feeling, one of acceptance. Yes, I made that choice and I don’t regret it, I don’t look back.
When I was young I was in training to be a professional musician. My mother, who was a music teacher herself, started me on piano when I was five, along with violin a bit later. Her dream for me was to go to France after college to train with a famous piano teacher—she had already picked out the one. I was a diligent piano student, and reasonably talented. I stayed with music as my main focus all through college, until, as I was about to graduate, I had two seminal realizations. First, I realized I wasn’t good enough as a pianist to reach the top tier—which only had room for a few exceptional players—and the amount of work, of hours and hours of practice month after month, weren’t worth it to me. The second realization is that I hated to travel, and the more successful you were as a performing artist, the more you had to travel and spend your nights and days in hotel rooms in far away places.
So I abandoned that dream and became an antiwar activist instead, and later a Buddhist priest and teacher. My mother never said anything, I don’t know if or how much she was disappointed. I suppose that was her own arena of wistfulness. But throughout my life I retained my love of music as an avocation. I have made a couple of CD albums of my own piano compositions, and I founded a five-piece ensemble that even today performs and plays my compositions. When I watch YouTube videos of great pianists performing classical repertoire, sometimes I am wistful. Sometimes I think, “Could that have been me?” “Could I have been happy doing that?” Most of the time the answer that comes back is, “No, not really.” But I am still wistful. So much of my young life was music; the taste of it has never left me.
I don’t know what evokes that kind of wistfulness for you. Each of us has our own life story. Occasionally there are second chances, particularly if you are younger. I read of many people who returned to a first love after another career unexpectedly ends. But at some point you become old enough that those second chances also drift away and become out of reach. Then you are presented with another fork in the road. Will your wistfulness harden into regret, or will it soften into acceptance, so that you can say, “Well, this is the life that I had. It didn’t all go the way I thought or expected, but on the whole I am satisfied, I am content.”

4 thoughts on “Aging and Wistfulness

  1. Thank you Lewis.
    I agree that wistfulness is a colour or hue or tint of aging. I’m 69 in a few months.

    I notice how precious small things have become – I notice more detail. I’m content with less and doing nothing – just being – is a joy. I’m done chasing my tail.

    I overcame a lot in my lifetime – no one can see this or could value the huge and ongoing effort – but I do.

    I did ok with the hand I was dealt.
    Thank you again for all your effort and for your ✍️ writing.


  2. Many thanks for writing about something we all experience but perhaps are unable to label..
    A day spent in regret is a day lost I feel

  3. Thank you Lewis for this thoughtful post. I am 73 and I find myself to be more wistful about the things I will not live long enough to experience. Yes, I think there is a big difference between wistful and regret. Regret is raging against life. Whereas wistful is the feeling of temporary sadness that comes with accepting the will not be’s of life.

  4. Hi Lewis, your article on wistfulness resonated deeply with me on several levels in a validating way. I will be 73 next month and as a 25+ years yoga teacher I feel fortunate with good health and mobility and life perspectives that “perhaps” might have been different with another career path. On that note I am also a lifelong musician and songwriter (with one CD) and have often pondered what my life would have become if in fact I had taken the jazz music program I wanted to, instead of a psychology degree (my father’s advice). In any event this is all water under the proverbial bridge, and I clearly understand the futility of would’ve, could’ve, should’ve mind sets. Thank you for your insightful writing. Namaste, Henri

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