Wisdom//

Actor Josh Radnor On Getting Older and Resisting the Urge to Play It Safe

"The unknown is the only place where we find out what we're truly made of.”

 Shubhashish5/ Getty Images

Something happened to me when I hit 40. I suddenly got what everyone meant when they say, “Life is short.”

Because honestly, before forty, it just felt endless. That’s part of the arrogance of youth, I suppose. The feeling that it will go on forever. And then forty happens — like, out of nowhere – and you’re forced to ask yourself some big, uncomfortable questions. Because I realized what should be plainly obvious but due to some devilish trick of the young mind isn’t: I don’t have all the time in the world.

Surely there were many factors that contributed to Shakespeare’s brilliance but the fact that a theater company needed three plays a season from him is not to be overlooked. Deadlines get writers writing. And death, of course, is the ultimate deadline (pun half-intended.) Its approach calls us to attention. It asks us to attend more deeply to the quality of our days, hours and moments. It forces us to ponder what we’ll leave behind, if we’re ever going to get around to actually doing those big, bold things we’ve always planned on doing. Can you imagine what lazy, callous slobs immortality would make us? 

Yet if this is so — if death has a potentially beneficial, motivating effect — why are we so gripped by the storylines that aging is a bummer, death is horrifying, and youth to be venerated and envied? 

I get the root of the fear: Our survival instinct has us fight to stick around as long as possible and physical aging is the starkest, least gentle reminder of impending extinction. Not knowing what — if anything — is on the other end of death is unsettling, to say the least. Aching joints and declining energy is no fun. And yet: I know very few people who would rewind the clock if they couldn’t also take their hard-earned wisdom with them. This puts us in a bind: We don’t want to die. But we also don’t want to go back in time and revisit youthful folly. And freezing time doesn’t seem to be an option. 

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I recently talked to a guy on his 20th birthday who was telling me his teens were dreadful and I congratulated him on leaving them and assured him the 20s are way better than the teens. “Really?” he said. “Oh yeah,” I said. “And your 30s are way better than your 20s.” Again, incredulous: “Really?” “Yep. And as far as I can tell two years into it, your 40s are way better than your thirties.” A 54-year-old friend at the table chimed in: “And your 50s are better than your 40s.” At this point my young friend was rendered mute. Even as he was bemoaning the trauma of his teenaged years, he was still in the grip of the cultural narrative that things get worse as we age. It was inconceivable to him that things might actually get better. 

Our culture, in so many ways, trains us to age gracelessly. No one is well-served by youth worship, which advances the lie that unlined skin and flat stomachs are the source of happiness. Bodies are changing constantly. Mine is decaying as I type these words and yours as you read them. It seems to me we either accept this and get on with the important business of living or we fight tooth and nail and chemical peel to hold onto something that’s never going to cooperate. I don’t recommend giving up entirely, no one’s suggesting skipping showers or not tailoring suits. But it’s a form of madness to worship the mutable and despair over the inevitable. 

Barring some truly astonishing medical breakthroughs we’re going to lose the battle with death. So what are we to do? If aging and death are inevitable — and they are! — how am I to be in right relationship with them? If our final destination — for the body, at least — is the grave, how best to march? 

Rehman Asad/ Getty Images

It’s impossible, I think, to reach old age absent some deep scars. But it’s that very pain that makes older people such valuable resources and guides. When an older person says, “It’s going to be okay,” it carries with it a different moral weight: the weight of experience and healed wounds. Emerson said, “As we grow old, the beauty steals inward.” I love meeting older people who prove this, like they’ve stumbled upon some secret, delight-dispensing thing. If you’ve ever loved a grandparent or an older mentor, and you’ve been gazed upon by eyes lit up with wisdom, tempered by grief and sturdy with resilience, you know what I’m talking about. 

Not everyone gets there, of course. Wisdom isn’t conferred; it’s earned. The saddest thing about Donald Trump to me (and there are many) is that a man could cross 70 and be so completely absent any kind of true wisdom. Is there a sadder sight than a bullying, endlessly needy man in his 70s who continues to worship the false idols of money, status and toughness? I find it supremely depressing. 

I don’t mean to sweep aside the tragic dimension of aging, the inevitable disorientation wrought by the passage of time. I find time jumps in movies where the characters are suddenly revealed to be older to be devastating. Something about that stark, merciless compression of time undoes me. It’s the only explanation for why I kept welling up at the oddest moments in Boyhood.

That we’re even here at all is totally strange. That we won’t be here forever is even odder. How do we make the best of this terrifically weird state of affairs? 

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As I age, I’m noting in myself a tendency to keep doing the same things. Habit seems to beckon with ever greater strength each passing year and it’s something I have to remind myself to fight against. I have so much less energy for the basic rigors of socializing. It’s become easier and easier to simply not leave the house. 

One of the great benefits to what I do for a living is that it keeps me socially and intellectually limber. I’m constantly stepping into new experiences, meeting and working with new people. My career demands that I regularly step outside my comfort zone, and there are always rewards on the other side of the fear. When I stare at the same things I think the same thoughts. When I stare at new things I think new thoughts. This is why I find travel to be so vital and life-affirming. When I dislocate myself and encounter new landscapes, buildings, and faces, when I’m confronted with new languages and different ways of being, something dislodges and opens in me. There’s suddenly more space. 

This, then, seems to be one of the secrets to aging: busting free of habit and routine. Now like all true things this is somewhat paradoxical. Habit and routine can be good — healthy anchors in our lives — and then of course they can ossify and turn on us and put us to sleep. It’s a balancing act. I just know when I fall too deeply into habit and routine the world becomes disenchanted. I reach a point where I need to shake off the cobwebs. I rarely want to, but when I do I feel more alert, alive, open and excited. Younger, actually. 

Without fail, doubting, panic-stricken voices get activated whenever I’m about to embark on something new. It almost doesn’t matter what the voices say, they’re going to use any tactic to make me turn around and go home and hide. But I’ve never not found gold on the other side of risk. I mean maybe I stumble but the gold then is in the lesson and course-correction. The rich, full life I long for demands that I step out the front door and into the unknown. Then of course, before long the unknown becomes the known and familiar, a new rut has been grooved and I have to remind myself to leap off newer cliffs. 

This is so completely counterintuitive to what we’re taught, which is to exert maximum amounts of control, to keep disruption and unpredictability out of the equation as much as we can. The impulse towards stasis and predictability is understandable but misplaced. We’ve been led to believe that stability comes with rigidity when in fact, stability comes with adaptability. Things are changing constantly — change is essentially the theme of the universe — so our longing for non-change is going to drive us mad. 

Whatever the source of this fear of change — reptilian brain programming? Immigrant baggage passed down through generations? — I know it generally doesn’t serve me. And rather than keeping me from danger, avoiding the unknown paradoxically seems to invite more danger in. 

I had a teacher once put it this way, and it’s always stayed with me: 

The only safe place to be is the unknown. 

The universe seems astonishingly designed to support our bravery and reward our risk-taking. The unknown is the only place where we find out what we’re truly made of. 

If you enjoyed this story from Josh, sign up for his Museletters here.

And read Josh’s other Thrive Global pieces on being upfront about our wounds, his favorite quotes, music and heartbreak, choosing more than one career (he is half of the band Radnor & Lee), fame and the mindset shift that changed his life, spirituality, coping with the pain of loss, and why we need new metrics of success in our work.

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