02/19/2013 10:50 am ET Updated Apr 21, 2013

How Old Are You, Really?

From an early age, our private world is shaped by thoughts about how old we are and what it means. In the years before we reach our 20s, we can't wait to get older. But quickly comes the time when we start thinking we're too old. For me it happened in an instant -- one moment too young, the next too old.

Recently, I asked my 26-year-old niece when it happened for her. "Hmmm. Good question. I think everything is downhill after 21, but hitting 25 was hard. So I would say 23, if I had to pick one."

That viewpoint lasts for about 60 years, then folks start bragging: "Yesiree, I'm going to be 88 in September! Would you believe it?"

From beginning to end, our self-perceptions are shaped by our age and what we think it means -- and most of it is far from useful. For example,

  • I couldn't possibly earn six figures a year at my age.
  • I should have accomplished much more by this time in my life.
  • Did I get married too young? Did I wait too long to get married? I'm too old to get married -- who'd want me?
  • Should I get my face done? Dye my hair? Join a core class?
  • If you knew how old I really am, you'd ignore what I have to say here.

Crazy, huh? Am I the only one who checks an obituary to see when the person was born and then is relieved when the year is before the one in which I was born?

At 20, we think people in their 40s are past it. In our 40s, we assume that people in their 60s are much different from us because we're still youthful and with it while they're over the hill. Yet when we reach 65, we find that hill has shifted along about 15 years -- and so on.

What's that all about? Does it mean we're in denial about our age and dying? No, it doesn't. The truth is that as we get older, we don't change.

So, how old are you anyway?

All of these issues and concerns are based on biology -- our birth date, the shape our body is in, how we look in the mirror, how our age compares to others. In other words, our body determines how old we are, right?

Wrong! You are not your body... that's just the skin bag that's been carrying you around all these years. Who you are is the one who looks through your eyes every day. How old is that person? How much has that person changed over the years? How old are you really?

The real you is ageless. That's why we're sometimes surprised when we look in the mirror and think, "That's not me." It's been years since I was first shocked to find my mother's hands at the end of my wrists.

Whatever you call it -- your soul, your heart, or your Buddha nature -- I believe it's the essence of our true selves, that place of clarity, kindness, and purity that never changes.

Recently, we visited Tim's 93-year-old mother. When we arrived at the nursing home, she was slumped in her wheelchair, sound asleep. Despite our attempts to engage her in a conversation or have her lift her head to acknowledge our presence, she didn't move. Finally Tim spoke to her anyway. "Mom, I'm sorry things are so tough for you. You must be frustrated, no longer able to read, watch television, go where you want to go. It must be so boring." At which point she raised her head, looked him in the eye and said, "You got that right!"

Although struggling through the toughest time of her life, in her heart she heard and responded to her son's compassion.

As author Harlan Coben says, "Years fly by, but the heart remains the same."

I know you know what I mean, although this phenomenon is truly inexplicable. So I invite you to do whatever you can to expand this sense of who you really are, regardless of your age. Take care of your body, yes, but love and nurture yourself and let it give you the courage to do what you believe is right. Ignore your fears, let go of your concepts about how old you are, and love courageously with your ageless heart.

The easiest way I've found to remember is to place my attention on the person in front of me and trust that all is well. As 96-year-old Olympian and World War II hero Louis Zamperini puts it, "Yet a part of you still believes you can fight and survive no matter what your mind knows. It's not so strange. Where there's still life, there's still hope. What happens is up to God."

Please leave a comment below or write to me: I'd love to hear your ideas about the real you.

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