Our bodies age. As members of the kingdom of animals, we inherit a biology that grows less efficient with time. Glitches and injuries accumulate. Our youthful form is lost, and our aged one is gained.
By dint of fear of change, the innate sexual attractiveness of younger bodies, and massive exploitation of both by marketing forces, we feel embarrassed and deprived as our bodies slowly deteriorate.
Not all cultures view aging so negatively. So the bias could be overcome. But how?
For one thing, we could take aging less personally. Aging happens to everyone, from the beginning of life until its end. And like they say, Growing old beats the alternative! Granted, some people age more slowly than others, but every one of us looks and feels older as time passes. As we age, we are not alone.
Plus, aging is natural. We live in an era when ‘organic,’ ‘all-natural,’ ‘non-GMO,’ ‘cage-free,’ and other eco-marketing catchphrases are used to sell products. Moderns want the growth and harvesting of foodstuffs to proceed naturally. Well, aging is no less aligned with Nature than vegetables cultivated without pesticides; we could embrace growing older the way we embrace organic foods.
What’s more, as we grow older, we grow wiser. This isn’t folk mythology; it’s fact. We learn from experience. We find more acceptance in our hearts. We assess our strengths and weakness with more humility and self-compassion. We begin to view circumstances in shades of gray rather than black-and-white. Youthful hungers wane until we find ourselves valuing what matters over the long run above what feels pleasant in the short run. We care less about personal goals and more about collective ones. The gain of gentleness, nuance, and altruism compensate for the lessening of passion and militance.
One of the wise gifts of aging is an ability to see our lives in context. For instance, if you listed the names of all 108 billion people who have ever lived, at the rate of one per second, it would take 3,400 years. And the entire human saga has unfolded over just the last 0.005% of the time since life began on this planet. Armed with facts like these, we can begin to feel less affronted by the body’s aging. We can recognize common cause with all the other humans (and non-human lifeforms) who have endured the same fate. We feel appropriately humbled knowing that the span of even the longest human life barely measures as a single tick on the cosmic clock. Each of us is a unique product of history, and with aging we begin to celebrate this. We no longer believe our own small lives more important than those of all the others. We feel opened to a larger world, a larger sense of Self, and the great, beautiful mystery that is Living.
This is all weighty stuff, but it also helps to take aging less seriously. Early in 2014 I underwent major surgery. Postoperatively, I was horrified to see how the abdominal muscles I’d been strengthening for years ended up looking scarred and distorted. It helped lessen the sense of grief when I joked about losing my ‘last bastion of sexiness.’ The use of humor has a long history of helping the aged feel less burdened by wrinkles, sags, dribbles, creaks, and farts. We can join the fun!
Aging is inevitable, but it doesn’t need to be miserable. We can find common cause with everyone else going through the same natural process. We can celebrate the gifts of aging: the wisdom, the perspective, the generous spirt. Freed of youthful anxieties, we can begin to enjoy life without worry, without endless planning, and without so much gravitas. Especially for those of us who entered young adulthood freighted with the effects of early trauma, the later years may be our happiest.