• Aarik Danielsen

The Old Souls

In a former time, our backs to velvet seats, my wife and I waited for the next band to emerge and light up the stage.


Most nights, he shuffled by. A different he each time, bearing resemblance to all the others. A Willie Nelson type—early-to-mid 60s, long hair pulled back, a stubborn remnant of brown or black or auburn hair peeking through a gray beard. Every time he slipped past, I would gesture to my wife and quip.


“That’s your future. 30 years. Better get used to the idea.”


Visions of myself as an old man have been passing before eyes since boyhood.


Before leaving the house to begin school, someone stitched the label “old soul” into all my shirts. Even as a grade-schooler, I heard the whispers and translated the glances. Too tender for his age. Too aware, too serious.


The judgment stuck, proving itself infallible into high school and college. My earnestness entered rooms before I did. At an age when you want girls to find you mysterious, restless in a romantic way, I was sincere. I wished to be someone a little more funky, but Adam Duritz stared back at me in the mirror.


People already said I was toeing the path to an older self; I wanted to exercise some say over which curves and forks took me there.

People already said I was toeing the path to an older self; I wanted to exercise some say over which curves and forks took me there.


I started peeking over a series of fences, each marking a decade or two. Distinguishing the man freed me to slowly close the distance, walking toward myself with measured steps. My lived years might finally catch up to my soul age, embracing in unity.


For a significant season, John Piper’s picture of aging bore the standard. In an iconic sermon, he bemoaned the tragedy of fading from existence. His words drew a red circle around Christians wasting their last years on leisure when the kingdom of God was near.


What good was it, he asked, to gain the world’s greatest seashell collection and lose touch with your soul?


I forced a tight smile, concealing gritted teeth. Those words laid down a gauntlet—spend your last years on mission or risk forfeiting your birthright. Struggling to picture myself selling my possessions and moving overseas at age 70, I walked away with the look of the rich young ruler. My life, just now whirring into motion, was already destined to fail.


With hindsight, the fault rests upon translations of Piper, not the words themselves. Just as so many Christians face a false choice—vocational ministry or something less than—the influences in my life presented only one way to live up to Piper’s calling.


When we close our eyes and concentrate on that call, the picture matters. Fighting for clarity seems especially imperative now, just four quick months after turning 40. I sit around like a Paul Simon song, asking “Why am I soft in the middle, now?” And I know that everything matters. If I want to be a particular person in 20 or 30 years’ time, the margins are thin; no days or decisions off.


Looking for myself, I no longer see feet crisscrossing the beach, debating whether Jesus carried them. Instead, I picture two men, dear to me to different degrees.


My friend Thom comes to mind—Anglican minister, teacher, painter, pipe smoker, good troublemaker. I picture one of life’s pure, refining moments; Thom stands up in an art gallery bearing his work and tells the assembly, “I’m an integrated man.” Statements like that die in the air unless your life backs them up. And Thom’s does. Inside him, a fire that will not go out. I crave the feeling of that flame in me.


My eyes also recall pages penned by the late poet Donald Hall in his meditations on aging. By his own testimony, he remained engaged till the end—writing, reading, holding forth with soul friends like Wendell Berry. Hall also showed up every night for his beloved Boston Red Sox, never missing a game.


I see myself leaning toward 80, writing a few pages by morning light, then calling balls and strikes from my chair each evening as the San Francisco Giants chase a pennant.

I transpose those words from New England to my own life and revel in the details. I see myself leaning toward 80, writing a few pages by morning light, then calling balls and strikes from my chair each evening as the San Francisco Giants chase a pennant.


Both Thom and Donald Hall fulfill the spirit of John Piper’s admonition. Both men pursued rhythms of creativity and pleasure, groping for unity—of belief, motivation, and delight—in every motion.


Perhaps aging faithfully looks like, to steal from Dylan Thomas, a fight against the fading light—one poem at a time, one Giants game at a time. Steering away from indolence doesn’t necessarily equate to extraordinary living, but a continual pushing into what is good and true. We forsake leisure for leisure’s sake by cultivating desire—to keep living rather than slink into a lesser state.


To wear the phrase “old soul” often feels like a burden. But its discreet gift is what it lays bare. We all inch toward the future, toward a form we now prefigure. Will we grow into it steadily or stumble at its feet?


I know old bodies and souls who collapse upon themselves, living their last days in anger and disappointment. That version of me exists too. But with faithful pictures beside and before me, I keep my eyes trained on a man growing into tenderness and wisdom. Perhaps one with a gray ponytail.



Don't miss a thing.

Sign up below to stay up-to-date on Fathom columns.

Where to find more from Aarik

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
Discontent POST Header_updated-01.png