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Kirby: Manage old age before it manages you

Published February 14, 2013 12:21 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Benedict XVI retired from his job as pope this week. In a move the 85-year-old pontiff said was "for the good of the church," he announced his last day will be Feb. 28.

The pope cited age and increasing infirmity as reasons for leaving the papacy. He can't keep up anymore and figures his followers deserve a leader who can.

You have to admire this decision. It's a bold move in an age when many elderly people refuse to admit it's time for them to stop driving for the good of the rest of us.

What's even more amazing is that the spiritual leader of more than a billion souls decided they need someone capable of physically and mentally meeting their needs.

You don't see this sort of humility in most religious leaders (yours, mine, theirs). Almost always God has to kill them to convince them that it's time to let go.

Note: Whether God intentionally kills them or simply lets them die, it amounts to the same thing.

Another note: If you don't think so, wait until it's your turn.

I'm not Catholic, but I think the lesson Pope Benedict teaches here is an inspired one: Age is the great humbler. It's a good idea to manage it before it manages you.

Old age is like the devil: It sneaks up on you. You start out in life relatively brilliant. As you learn more, it's easy to start thinking you're incredibly smart and relatively immortal.

But then it happens; the brain's acuity slows, falters and starts to regress. If you're lucky, you notice that you're slipping in time to do something about it, hopefully before other people have to.

Slipping isn't so bad if you're just in charge of yourself or otherwise anonymous. It's a bit trickier when you're leading millions of people who believe you're infallible.

The last thing you want is impressionable people lining up behind you when you're increasingly less impressed with yourself.

Youth does that to you. I used to think I was infallible. I wasn't, of course. But that didn't stop me from thinking and acting as if I were.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of what I "knew" about life was in reality just loud theory. Worse, I had the energy to try to grind everyone down to my way of thinking.

Then age caught up with me. Yesterday I had a debate with my wife that lasted 10 minutes. There I was crushing her with my reason when I realized that she had left the room 9.5 minutes ago.

We argued when we were younger as well, the difference being that I was alert enough then to know when to duck. Now I have to duck from myself.

I'll tell you the same thing Pope Benedict would right now: I wouldn't want to be 20-something again, an age when wisdom is pretty much limited to the teeth in the back of your head.

Old age has crept in. I move more slowly, get hurt more and think increasingly less. Gradually what other people have known all along has become apparent to me as well: I've never really been at the top of my game.

Today I'm not nearly as smart as I used to be, and it's going to get worse. The good news is that I'm not the pope. I'm a newspaper columnist. I don't have to be humble. I can keep doing this as long as I want.

Robert Kirby can be reached at rkirby@sltrib.com or facebook.com/stillnotpatbagley.