When I was eighteen, I had a friend who was twenty years older than I was.
She didn’t start out as a friend; she was was the sixth grade and PE teacher at my K-12 school. But, she realized at some point that I loved long distance running nearly as much as she did and that my running skills were dying on the vine at my tiny school. So, she asked if I wanted to train for a marathon.
We ran together for months, though the grueling hours of 10, 12, 15, 17, 20 mile runs. She was a far better runner than I was, and my eighteen- year-old self was in awe of a thirty-eight-year-old who could run me into the ground. We became friends as we ran, distracting ourselves from sore muscles with long conversations and hilarious stories. She wasn’t a mentor, per se, but merely my running buddy. She didn’t have a list of things to teach me or a curriculum to communicate; she was honest: she listened to my teenage angst and asked questions. And in return, I asked the questions that were burning in me as I finished high school.
It wasn’t until maybe ten years later that I realized how influential this friendship had been. At eighteen I’d been given a glimpse of what life could be like in twenty years. I saw a woman who loved teaching, who wasn’t afraid of being old, and who refused to accept that aging meant giving up on strenuous goals, whether running a sub-4:00 marathon or pursuing higher education.
I could recognize myself in P. This made being ‘old’ less unfamiliar territory and opened, for me, the question of how I could do it well. I could read all the books about growing up responsibly and making wise choices, but there was no replacement for seeing a person and knowing, deep in my teenage self, that I was going to be old someday and that could be really great.
As I age, fighting a culture that tells me my best days are over and that I must rush to fit in all my dreams before I’m wrinkled and tired, I am encouraged by P, and by other older friends I’ve made in the last ten years. They remind me of something that other twenty-somethings can’t. If we refuse to stop learning, to stop exploring, to stop working hard, then aging doesn’t have to be terrifying or depressing. Aging can mean the opportunity to see ourselves better, to know God more deeply, and to love our neighbors more intimately.
I’m a much better runner at twenty-nine than I was at eighteen; I’m stronger, more disciplined, and faster. And, I think that P has something to do with this. Through our friendship, I saw that growth--spiritual, emotional, physical--didn’t have to plateau after I lost youthfulness.
At eighteen, she treated me as an adult, and I found myself a little less scared to be one.